Monday, November 5, 2012

Distribution of Wealth and Chocolate Chips

 Or, a Wonky Look at Toll House Cookies

lineup 2

What could be more American than a chocolate  chip cookie? Buttery cookies studded generously with chocolate chips. Who doesn’t love them?

Recently I read ‘Why Let the Rich Hoard All the Toys’, a Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times. The column was about the distribution of wealth in our country. About the fact that the top 1% of Americans have a collective worth greater than the entire bottom 90%. Put together. Kristof makes his point by asking us to imagine a kindergarten with 100 students (something needs to be done about class sizes!), where one kid had more toys than 90 of the other kids, put together.

Kristof reminded me of two things I’ve been thinking about for some time.

The first has to do with methods of learning. You hear about people who are aural learners, visual learners, and tactile learners. But what about olfactorial learners? And especially important, what about those of us who are gustatorial learners?

Which leads to the other thing I’ve been thinking about. How would our favorite cookie fare with this sort of distribution of wealth, AKA chocolate chips? Could perhaps a gustatorial example help clarify how extreme the inequality is in this country?

Using the Economic Policy Institute’s briefing paper, ‘The State of Working America’s Wealth, 2011’, I followed their numbers for the distribution of net worth, listed on page 4. 

That is, the top 1% of households (ranked by income) have 34.6% of the total U.S. net worth.

The next 9% have 38.5% of the total U.S. net worth, all together.

And the next 90% (which means me and, I suspect, all of you) share between us 27% of the total U.S. net worth.

I made a batch of chocolate chip cookies, carefully counting out the chips in a 11.5 ounce bag.  There were about 660. I say about because I may have eaten one or two along the way.

Normally my recipe makes 60 cookies. Because I didn’t want to tax my brain too much, I decided to make 100 small cookies. Look—the cookies all started out just the same, 9 grams each of cookie dough.

cookies pre chips

Yes, I recognize the irony of using a ‘made in France’ silpat. But I like their healthcare system, and this liner, too!

To 90 of the cookies I stuck two chocolate chips in the top.

baked 90 percent

The next nine cookies got 28 chips each, which was definitely excessive.

nine percent 2

I used a separate pan for that lone final cookie, and lined it with foil. I didn’t want to ruin my  pan with all that oozing wealth. All those chocoate chips had to somehow fit into that one little scoop of cookie dough.

1 percent pre chips

I know, oozing chocolate doesn’t sound so bad. But oozing burning chocolate is less attractive.

In the end, I noticed that the cookies with more chips spread more than the ones with two chips. As if wealth begets wealth.

But no way 9 grams of dough would spread enough to accommodate 228 chocolate chips. That’s no cookie. 

1 percent baked on rack

Meanwhile, 90% of people get the cookie below:

90 percent baked

And 9% get this one:

9 percent baked on plate

Or, by the numbers, left to right:

lineup 2

Approximately 283 million of us get the one on the left.

About 28 million get the one in the middle.

And 3 million get the one on the right.

It just doesn’t seem right.


I understand that cookies aren’t the same as people. And I don’t expect every single cookie to have the exact same number of chips as the next cookie. But it seems a batch of cookies that tries to approach a more fair distribution is a better cookie. A more civilized cookie.

The kind of cookie you might like to enjoy with a friend and a cup of tea.

Don’t forget to vote tomorrow!

kim boyce choc chip

And maybe reward yourself with a proper batch of cookies. I like these ones.

A bit more info:

In his column, Kristof recommend Joseph E. Stiglitz’s book The Price of Inequality (he’s a Nobel prize winner in economics). I don’t generally read much about economics, but I’ve put it on my to-read list.

For more on the inequality of wealth distribution in the U.S., take a look at the Gini coefficients (which measure income equality) for countries around the world—it’s fascinating. You’ll see our ranking places us in a different group of countries than we generally like to believe we belong.

Rather than being aligned with other ‘First World countries’, we’re with the kinds of countries that still have capital punishment. Countries where fairness in elections is questioned. Where health care isn’t easily available to all citizens. Er…

(Thanks to Obamacare, the U.S. finally has improved in the access to healthcare department).

Lots to think about as we eat our cookies.
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