Thursday, April 21, 2011

Salary Cap

One of my favorite essayists, Mark Greif, has a piece up at n+1 where he calls for the implementation of two (equally implausible) legislative acts.

First, he proposes a strict cap on personal income per year of $100,000. Second, he calls for a sum of $10,000 per year to be paid to every adult living in the United States. The result, according to Greif, would be an "active redistribution [of wealth] to help dissolve the two portions of society whose existence is antithetical to democracy and civilization, and which harm members of each of these classes: the obscenely poor and the absurdly rich."

One of the points that Greif makes repeatedly in this essay (a point that runs counter to many implicit capitalistic assumptions) is that large concentrations of money harm not only the society at large but the concentrators of wealth themselves. There are several reasons for this. One is that the very rich, naturally, feel guilty (or defensive or contemptuous or falsely superior, all secondary or tertiary expressions of moral guilt) when brought into contact with people with more appropriate relationships to money -- the vast majority of them. Second is that people who feel pressure to pursue career paths simply in order to earn a large paycheck fundamentally betray themselves -- that is, they earn at the expense of their humanity. Third is that radical income inequality actually inhibits individualism, undermines meritocracy. As Greif points out, "The essence of individualism is morally relevant inequality. The misuse of inequality occurs when it comes to be based on wealth rather than ability; on birth rather than talent; on alienable money (which could belong to anyone) rather than action and works (which can only be done by you)."

The very rich, no less than the very poor, are held hostage by their class. The radical redistribution of wealth would be "the greatest single triumph of human emancipation in a century. A small portion of the rich and unhappy would be freed at last from the slavery of jobs that aren't their life's work--and all of us would be freed from an insane system."

As for those people who would quit their high-salaried jobs rather than take a pay cut to $100,000?

"If there is anyone working a job who would stop doing that job should his income—and all his richest compatriots’ incomes—drop to $100,000 a year, he should not be doing that job. He should never have been doing that job—for his own life’s sake. It’s just not a life, to do work you don’t want to do when you have other choices, and can think of something better (and have a $10,000 cushion to supplement a different choice of life). If no one would choose to do this job for a mere $100,000 a year, if all would pursue something else more humanly valuable; if, say, there would no longer be anyone willing to be a trader, a captain of industry, an actor, or an athlete for that kind of money—then the job should not exist."

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