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When the Rich Make Too Much: Is it Time for a Maximum Wage?

One of the world's most honored public intellectuals, writing in a premiere policy journal, is calling for limits on income and fortunes.
 
 
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Can our contemporary world be saved from the problems that ail us, from climate change and oil dependency, from AIDS and religious extremism, from poverty and inequality? Foreign Policy, the world's most prestigious global affairs journal, is tackling this weighty question head on, in a new issue that asks 21 of our earth's most thoughtful observers to suggest the "one solution that would make the world a better place."

That "one solution," suggests Howard Gardner, the Harvard-based psychologist whose widely acclaimed books on human intelligence have been translated into 26 languages, ought to be a cap on the income and wealth that any one individual can accumulate.

The United States needs an income cap, Gardner posits in the new Foreign Policy, that limits the amount of money a single individual can annually take home to no 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," Gardner proposes, "the top compensated individual may keep $4 million a year."

Gardner's Foreign Policy contribution also advocates a cap on wealth, proposing that "no individual should be allowed to accumulate an estate more than 50 times the allowed annual income."

If that allowed annual income were $4 million, then Gardner's proposal would allow no one, at death, to bequest a fortune greater than $200 million. Any individual wealth above that would have to "be contributed to charity or donated to the government."

What's driving Gardner, a psychologist, to an economic prescription?

"Most people in the United States cannot even envision a society that doesn't revolve around an untrammeled market," Gardner writes, noting the "widespread assumption," particularly among today's young people, "that the most accurate measure of success is how much money you have accumulated, indeed that general merit can best be gauged by one's net worth." These assumptions, says the Harvard psychologist, have nurtured a society where accumulation "has gone way too far," where a "hedge fund manager can take home a sum reminiscent of the gross national product of a small country."

A cap on income and riches, Gardner adds, would raise billions, even trillions, "to begin to solve the problems about which others are writing in this collection of solutions to save the world."

Attacks on Gardner's proposal are already emerging. One nationally syndicated critique -- from foundation president Clifford May -- labeled Gardner's antidote to inequality " preposterous." Gardner's Foreign Policy piece anticipates that sort of outraged reaction.

"To those who would scream 'foul' to such limits on personal wealth," Gardner notes, "I would remind them that just 50 years ago, this proposal would have seemed reasonable, even generous."

Sums up the Harvard scholar: "Our standards of 'enough' have become irrationally greedy. Were these proposals enacted, I predict that they would be accepted with amazing speed, and individuals would wonder why they had not always been in effect."

Sam Pizzigati is the editor of the online weekly Too Much, and an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

 
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