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'America the Possible': How We Can Reclaim the American Dream and a Just Society

In his new book, James Gustave Speth explains how America is not broke, the money is just in the wrong places.

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Alperovitz and Daly stress the importance of this analysis for distributive justice: “If most of what we have comes to us from those who came before, we quite literally owe it to ourselves to consider how we as a society wish to use and divide this great and generous gift of the past. When and as we do, we believe Americans are increasingly likely to demand answers to the question of why, specifically, any one person should receive more than any other from the gift of the past--from the large share of current wealth that no one living creates.”

Whether inequality promotes or inhibits economic growth, we should pursue a more just and equal society regardless. The grounds for action to dramatically reduce America’s vast economic insecurity and inequality are ample: in the pragmatic conclusion of Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level that “most of the important health and social problems of the rich world are more common in more unequal societies”; in the ethics of distributive justice; in the need to be true to our national values as reflected in James Truslow Adams’s American Dream; in our innate sense of fairness described by Peter Corning in The Fair Society; and in the realization developed by Alperovitz and Daly that today’s wealth is largely the product of the knowledge commons inherited from the past by all of us and thus rightly to be shared.

In recent years, America’s fraying social fabric has galvanized the attention of progressive communities, and an abundance of well-designed proposals to promote economic security and equity have emerged. Some have laid comprehensive plans for a new war on poverty in America; others have focused on the need for universal health insurance or on the imperative of high-quality and affordable education at all levels; still others have concentrated on a just and fair tax system; and many have focused on creating and even guaranteeing meaningful, living-wage employment opportunities for all those seeking jobs, including revitalizing America’s manufacturing base.

These are vital areas for action, but they should be complemented by measures that go to the heart of the matter. First, we have heard for decades that America must keep growing, or, otherwise, we will face the need for income redistribution. Well, for the most part America has kept growing, and the need for redistributive policies has only grown more acute. The growth-instead-of-redistribution argument has failed in practice, and in a world where growth will be increasingly constrained, it also fails in theory. It’s time for America to face the need explicitly and directly to redistribute incomes.

One good idea is to place brackets around income levels, with minimum and maximum incomes. Here, as elsewhere, Herman Daly has made the case well: “The civil service, the military, and the university manage with a range of inequality that stays within a factor of 15 or 20. Corporate America has a range of 500 or more. Many industrial nations are below 25. Could we not limit the range to, say, 100, and see how it works?”

Harvard’s Howard Gardner has argued that “no single person should be allowed annually to take home more than 100 times as much money as the average worker in a society earns in a year. If the average worker makes $40,000, the top compensated individual may keep $4 million a year. Any income in excess of that amount must be contributed to a charity or returned to the government, either as a general gift, or targeted to a specific line item (ranging from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the National Endowment for the Arts).” He further proposed that no individual would be permitted to pass more than $200 million to his or her heirs, and that any excess must be contributed to charity. “To those who would scream ‘foul’ to such limits on personal wealth,” he concludes, “I would remind them that just 50 years ago, this proposal would have seemed reasonable, even generous.”

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