Someone told me awhile back, the idea of a maximum wage is a little older than Jello Biafra or the Green Party. Turns out that was understatement at its finest.

There's a maximum wage law in a book called the Codex Regius of Gragas. What's that? Only the oldest written record of the legal system in Iceland, dating back to about the year 1117 or so. Okay, it's true the experts on this stuff say the goal with that one wasn't exactly the same as what the Green Party is aiming for. This maximum wage was supposed to protect land owners from losing too much money when there wasn't enough labor to go around. Maybe that's why you don't see Mr. Biafra talking about this law.

There's a different kind of maximum wage "law" that dates back to 1817. This one isn't from a government, though. It's from David Ricardo, one of the most famous of the many economists most people have never heard of. He came up with an idea called the Iron Law of Wages. Sounds kind of ugly, doesn't it? Well, that's no accident.

The Iron Law says wages naturally settle somewhere near the absolute minimum for workers and their families to just barely survive. When it drops below that minimum, life gets tougher on the working poor, and pretty soon there aren't so many workers anymore. After awhile, workers get scarce enough and wages have to go up a little bit. But it doesn't take long before wages get too high and workers get too happy and have bigger families. Then you have too many workers running around again, which happens real quick-like with the wonders of child labor. That drives wages down again so the cycle can start all over.

According to the Iron Law of Wages, this precarious balance on the knife edge of misery is the best situation the working poor can hope for. If governments or private charities try to interfere, by making the incomes of the poor rise above their "natural" maximum wage, this supposedly can only make things worse for the poor.

These days it's not fashionable to talk about the Iron Law of Wages, of course. But the idea lives on. You can easily see it just under the surface when economists tell you how all minimum wage laws are bad because they create unemployment. If we repealed the minimum wage laws, the story goes, there would be more jobs to go around because employers would have more money to spread around.

Which turns out to be the argument that led to the modern idea of a maximum wage law. The right wing theory says it's bad for the poor to get paid "too much" because that makes unemployment go up. Left wingers take the same logic and apply it to all income levels. Saying, basically, when the rich get paid too much money, we should blame them for unemployment, and if we really want to reduce unemployment we should pay less money to the rich. Then there will really be more money to go around, and more jobs for everyone.

Usually the ideas for a maximum wage don't involve setting a specific number. Instead, they want it linked to the minimum wage, thinking this will somehow force the rich to take better care of the poor if they want to take better care of themselves. I've seen a variety of different suggestions: four times the minimum wage, ten times the minimum wage, 100 times the minimum wage. With that last one, the maximum wage in the U.S. could easily be more than a million dollars a year, which sounds pretty good to most people.

In the end, though, all this talk is very interesting, but has little meaning for the vast majority of us who don't survive and prosper by coming up with clever sounding arguments.

For most of us, the maximum wage is not something any government visibly enforces. Just look up your chosen profession in any career guidance pamphlet or one of those statistical reports your tax dollars pay for. Somewhere you're going to see a range of possible income levels. Very few people get paid less than the minimum or more than the maximum numbers you see there.

In reality, the very rich do not get most of their incomes from wages. They get income from things like rental property, businesses, and other investments. The highest concentrations of truly vast wealth would barely be touched by any maximum wage law.

It's going to take more than a maximum wage law to straighten out the problems of poverty and wealth in today's world. Most places anymore just aren't as simple as Iceland was in the 1100s. This is something most people seem to realize, even if they can't explain it very well.