When I am critical of the current economic system in the United States a stock counter argument involves focusing on the claim that most Americans own stock. I suspect that the point of this argument is to contend that the system is a good one because most Americans own stock. It might also be aimed at showing that people can work their way towards wealth by investing.
It is true that most Americans own stock. At 51.9% it is just barely a majority; but just barely does suffice to make that claim minimally true. But the positive view is a matter of perspective; after all this means that 48.1% of Americans do not own stock and presented from that perspective it does not sound as good. To use an analogy, if someone said that most passengers survived the sinking of a ship, then that would probably sound good to you: while the sinking was bad, at least most people survived. But if you inquired more and found that 52% of the passengers survived, that would sound rather less good—after all, 48% did not. As such, some stock rhetorical techniques are in play here.
One is to use the vagueness of “most.” Psychologically people tend to think in terms of “most” referring to a significant majority rather than being just barely over half. As such, it is generally wise to consider the percentages and numbers rather than uncritically accepting “most.”
Another technique is the emphasis. When numbers are used, presenting them with the positive or negative statement can influence people. So, saying 52% of Americans own stocks makes it sound good. But saying 48% of Americans do not own stocks makes it sound bad. Looked at neutrally, 48% is a significant lack. After all, if 48% of Americans lacked shelter or adequate food, we would hardly rejoice that 52% had those things. So, gushing about 52% of Americans owning stock is a bit absurd.
Another rhetorical tool in use here is leaving out critical information. By simply asserting that most Americans own stock, this suggests that most Americans are doing well. While no one thinks that the average American is crushing the stock market the way Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos is; this language just lumps all stock ownership together without considering the distinctions. To use an analogy, to say that most Americans have played a sport is true, but it does not tell us of the important distinctions between athletes.
While there are some disputes about the exact percentages, the value of stock owned is rather like athletic talent: it is unevenly divided, and a small percentage have most of it. In the case of stocks, 10% of households are estimated to own 84-90% of the value of stocks. 1% of the population is estimated to own about 50% of the value of stocks. As such, while about 52% of Americans own stocks, the 1% own the lion’s share of the value of these stocks. For those even vaguely familiar with the American economy, this makes complete sense: why would the stock market be different from any other aspect of the economy?
As such, while I do agree that most Americans own stocks, this does little to refute concerns about the imbalance and unfairness of the current system. In fact, looking at the numbers just reveals that stock ownership is just another example of the imbalance and unfairness of the existing system.
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