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Where have all the numbers gone? (Or 1 + 99 = 53 + 47)

At least one commentator has noted that 2011’s numerical “word of the year”, 99%, seems to have disappeared in 2012.* In its place 2012 saw a similarly politically-charge percentage, 47%. Those numbers, it turns out, are rather more closely related than might be immediately apparent.

December and early January are traditionally a time for looking back on the past year. Media and interest groups frequently compile “top ten” or “best of” lists, noting events during the past year that were particularly interesting to them. For language lovers, this includes various Word of the Year nominations, such as the American Dialect Society’s WOTY selection during its annual meeting each January.

American Dialect Society Executive Secretary and Chronicle of Higher Education blogger Allan Metcalf recently noted how the trendy words of yesteryear tend to fade quickly. At the Lingua Franca blog Metcalf noted, “In 2011 we were preoccupied with ‘occupy,’ with a new specific meaning derived from the Occupy Wall Street movement and its progeny across the nation and around the world.” ADS’s 2011 Word of the Year was occupy, and related words such as people’s mic and the 99 percent were noted in a special Occupy Words category. What is the fate the 99 percent a year later, Metcalf wonders. “That’s so 2011. This year it’s the 47 percent.”

As people who followed the 2012 presidential campaign will recall, 47% became a politically charged number thanks to a video of a Mitt Romney fundraiser released by Mother Jones magazine. In the surreptitiously recorded segment Romney declares,

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement.

(Worth recalling in this context are Geoff Nunberg’s comments on the Janus-headed meaning of entitlement.)

Critics seized on Romney’s impolitic remarks, making 47% a politically loaded number, emblematic of Romney’s inability to relate to working class and lower-middle class people.

From 99% to 47%

Where does the number 47% come from? According to Romney’s remarks, “Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.”

(As various commentators pointed out at the time, American adults who pay no income tax include retirees and people who do not work because they are disabled or are in college, or are out of work for other reasons. In addition, some working Americans owe no federal income tax because they earn too little money, though such workers pay other taxes, including federal payroll taxes.)

The idea that 47% of Americans pay no income tax finds its complement, in arithmetic as well as discourse terms, in the declaration that 53% of Americans are hard working tax payers. And that declaration arose as a response from the political right to Occupy Wall Street.

One of Occupy Wall Street’s popular slogans is “We are the 99%”. This slogan, sometimes attributed to anthropologist David Graeber [Sorry – that link appears to be broken.], is meant to evoke broad inequality in the US economy. One percent of the US population earns about 24% of the nation’s income, leading not only to poverty at the lowest income levels but also to wide disparities between the middle- and upper-classes.

A popular means for Occupy Wall Street supporters to spread their message was** by posting photographs of themselves at and other social media outlets. In the photographs activists typically hold up sheets of paper describing financial or social hardships they face, such as lack of access to health care or inability to find jobs or satisfactory housing. These notes usually end with the phrase “I am the 99%.”

In response to the 99 percent, conservative bloggers and other activists launched Like wearethe99percent, the53 featured photographs of activists holding up sheets of paper describing their hard work, sometimes at multiple jobs, to earn a living. These testimonies frequently criticized the 99 percent as lacking initiative or whining about their lot. The notes usually end with the phrase “I am the 53%.”

It is cannot be known whether Mitt Romney’s 47% statistic was taken directly from, but both are part of the same circulating discourse. Economists differ somewhat on the precise number of Americans who pay income taxes, but Romney and the53 each offer the same figure.¤ Whether or not the Mitt Romney campaign and the curators of communicated with one another directly, they participated in the same discursive formation.

As I argued at the recent American Anthropological Association meeting,

Political speech is always polyphonic. Politics, by definition, involves multiple individuals interacting and communicating with one another. The communicative practices that comprise political action – discussion, persuasion, authorization, dissent, among others – are intimately tied to the thoughts and to the words of other people. Even the most personalist of speech acts […] does not happen in isolation.


*Perhaps the term seems to have disappeared in relative terms, though it still occurs, as do related terms, particularly in publications that are sympathetic to the political left.

**One could say that this is a popular way of demonstrating. The most recent addition to came one month ago, 6 November 2012.

¤In his recorded remarks, Mitt Romney did express some numerical indecision, but was firm on the percentage of non-tax-payers. He suggested, “And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax.”