A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Proposing a Maximum Income

It is really really simple: there is just not enough to go around if a few are going to have a great and increasing amount more than everyone else; this should be an easy thing to understand, even given the overwhelming flood of sophistic propaganda from those who have so much.  If the great mass of people, billions of them, are to have enough to live with some dignity and safety, then the “economic elites,” those with a 100 times the wealth of the world’s poorest people – and especially those with hundreds and thousands and millions of times more – must give up a significant amount of what they have…and they don’t want to…and will do just about anything, to anybody, not to.

It is like this: one person who is taking $2000 a day worth of the earth’s resources would rather that another person’s children die than that they should have to live on a $1000 a day or $500 a day.  Oh, there are a thousand reasons thrown up as to why this argument is foolish – and some of them are, in fact, difficult technicalities – but the final force that drives the human world is that the wealthy would rather remain incredible wealthy than reduce their riches for the benefit of their fellow humans and the earth’s biophysical stability.  This has been being going on for so long and so obviously as to be without question.

And what is the justification for taking $2000 a day worth of the earth’s resources when billions of people are taking only $2 a day (a 365 day year, not a 250 day work year)?  Why… that someone else is taking $4,000 a day or $20,000 a day or $200,000 a day! The richest of the obscenely rich are even taking as much as $12,000,000 a day, which is $1,500,000 an hour; this is assuming a normal work year of 250 days at 8 hours a day.  (Calculated for 365.2 days, 24 hours a day, etc. the figures are: $8,215,000 a day, $342,000 per hour, $5,700 a minute and $95 a second; that last is the daily compensation of the average US wage earner every second for 86,400 seconds a day, day in and day out.)

Back to simple: people with the power that a million dollars a day affords don’t have to think of others.  And more obvious still when the propaganda drugs have worn off: no one should be allowed to be in the structural position where it is unnecessary to consider the consequences of their actions on the lives and the world around them.

Take a look at this table; where on it do people begin to stop caring about others in a sort of structural way, at what point do they begin to think of other people as “beneath” them, as unworthy, as inconsequential, as disposable to economic interests?  I’ll tell you what I think toward the end of this piece; don’t want to bias you.

number of

people this

times greater
income could
income for 250
income per
than $2/day
support at
day work year
hour/8hr day
living stndard
$40 a day

equals $2/day


A few things to notice that might not come to mind without the table: a person with a million dollars a year income (I know I’m not considering taxes, but at present rates in the US taxes don’t change the general picture very much), if they took a $250,000 a year income, and redistributed the $750,000 in some thoughtful scheme, it could allow a hundred people to make a societal contribution with about the $30 a day level of income.  Imagine the dignity and security that could come with the change from $2 a day to $30 a day.

If we look at the income of the whole top 1% in the US (taking 23% of national income per year), their income above $250,000 per year would fund 70 million people at $31,250 a year as either total salary or addition to salary; the top 1% would no longer have astronomically more income, but they would have a significantly high income none the less. (I know this feels wrong given the propaganda that the wealth of the rich is just too little to matter in the overall.  Here are the numbers: total US personal income $12.8 trillion; 23% of that is $2.944 trillion less $775 billion, for a maximum income of $250 thousand each, equals $2.169 trillion; this divided by an income of $31,250 equals 69,408,000.)

Admittedly, such a drastic change in income for the wealthy would deny them the impunity with which they presently live.  With no changes in present costs and the obscenely acquisitive persons reduced to incomes only a few hundred times the average poor, no one would be able to act in isolation from their fellow humans. Medical services for serious conditions would be too expensive, the loss of property to natural and manmade disasters too overwhelming.  No one could buy their way out of the effects of the human abuse of the earth’s biophysical systems and living things.  Everyone would, to some extent, have to overtly depend on the community of all others.

The argument that unless wealth can be unlimited the wealthy would just stop doing the productive activities that define their role in society is foolish.  If there were, as there has been through out most of our history, limiting social mores and even legal limits on wealth, then acquisitive sociopaths will structure other ways to attempt to dominate the social, political and economic spaces.  The difference is that their efforts could, with the proper designs, have an overall social benefit rather than the destructive effect currently.  This is how communities have been structured for tens of thousands of years [1].

Furthermore, the rich owner class assumes that workers will have to work no matter what they are paid; there is no reason to assume otherwise for the owner classes.

Heterogeneous communities have always contained a wide variety of human personalities and types; it was, in part, this great variety that gave the communities adaptive power in the environment.  Extreme types, if they were to become dominant, would be toxic to their communities, but in socially limited roles they added possibilities to the total community behavioral repertoire [2]

The social, economic and political upheavals begun by agriculture and increased by the synergies of population increase and technical discoveries have let community influence on the more extreme human types weaken; little community influence on them remains today, especially as they become concentrated in like-minded groups and independent, through wealth and other forms of power.

Using today’s sense of what, in the US, money amounts can buy I think that some people begin to feel the first inklings of social impunity at about $50,000 per year.  This increases, with $100,000 or so being a major benchmark.  These levels of income in the US in no way confer economic safety, but can purchase many of the contrived symbols of wealth.  What drives, however, these lower income pretensions to impunity is the real impunity of the much higher incomes.

Capping legal income at $250,000 a year and wealth at a million or so would have a vast array of unintended consequences, just as not capping income and wealth does [3].  We would need our best and brightest rational, non-psychopathic economists to suggest the form of the limits and processes of implementation.  But first the people must begin to understand that this is desirable and ultimately essential.  These arguments must become part of the discussion from the academic conference table to the kitchen table.  The politicians beholding to the extreme elites (that is almost all of them) need to begin to hear the rumble of a new force growing from the understanding that no one should be allowed to take so much material wealth that they can use it to act with impunity.

The understanding and language must change from presenting these issues as a poverty problem and begin to make clear that it is a wealth problem: excess is the issue, not insufficiency; a culture of greed is the issue, not dissoluteness; concentration of wealth as the consequence of our economic and social institutions is the issue, not the piddling attempts to redress inequity by redistributing wealth morally belonging to the Great Many.

No one should have more material wealth than can be completely understood and honestly empathized with by the poorest in a community.  No one should have less material wealth than can be completely understood and honestly empathized with by the richest in the community.  This is the standard for a healthy society; ultimately this is a maximum ratio of about 10 to 1.  Our present situation divides humanity into the immune rich and the enslaved multitudes; human history is the story of the failure of that design. 

Our imminent confrontation with a humorless environment has made continuing on with that old model impossible without the near-term large-scale extermination of the poor by the rich (small scale extermination has been going on for a long time).  Our only other option is the distribution of the excess accumulation of real wealth held by the rich into actions that will reconfigure humanity’s relationship with each other and biophysical reality.  The first step in that direction is to make clear that the problem is wealth and not poverty.

[1] Another argument is that the rate of development will slow, as if that were a bad thing.  Flying cars, implanted computers, nanotech surgery and a thousand other things have been held out as the raisons d'ĂȘtre for our existence; this is simple madness.  My greatest pleasures in life, and I suspect for the vast majority of people, have been with us for thousands, even millions, of years: being with my children, walking in wild country,  watching the clear night sky.  Of the technologies, I love riding a bicycle and using a fountain pen; I use some of the most ‘up to date’ stuff, but it is not as useful as a bicycle.  We have been a pretty barren landscape for really valuable “new” things for all the hyperbole devoted to them.

[2] We have in our cells structures called lysosomes that contain the most powerful digestive enzymes.  Lysosomes are essential for cell function, but if they are not strictly controlled they immediately kill the cell in which they were formed.  Other examples are stomach acids, the behavior of special-forces soldiers, race car drivers… and come to think of it, thousands of activities that we expect to be limited and regulated to their appropriate places. Greed for material wealth is definitely one that has escaped and needs to be put back into the box.

[3] I pick these two values because they are understandable as truly wealthy, offering the opportunity to possess vastly more than less wealthy neighbors; I think these amounts are still much too high for social good and our relationships with human biology and the environment. 

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