Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: No one gets rich by individual talent alone
Public federal spending and private enterprise relate symbiotically. They stimulate each other.
During the Eisenhower presidency in the 1950s, a huge public-works project linked our nation through the interstate highway system. Entrepreneurs formed start-up companies to supply the government, creating jobs for many citizens.
During John F. Kennedy’s presidency, our nation raced to the moon. NASA formed networks of federal think tanks working in tandem with capitalistic risk-takers. Again, business and government worked hand in hand.
Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, former presidential adviser on consumer finance who Time magazine in 2010 touted as one of the 100 key people to watch, believes the federal government acts like an incubator in which wealthy people thrive.
Nobody gets rich because of an individual’s sole efforts. Government boosts workers along the way.
The Apostle Paul used the analogy of our bodies to make Warren’s point. The torso gives stability, helping legs and arms move. “In one body we have many parts,” the Bible teaches (Romans 12:4). Like public works and private enterprise joining in common efforts, so do our body parts.
Warren is running for the U.S. Senate, vying for a seat long held by Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy.
Campaigning in August, she stirred a hornets’ nest of criticism for her belief that government often functions as the womb in which individual wealth is formed.
Warren contends that wealth isn’t generated in isolation. Millionaires benefit from the government’s largess, even when they spin tales about making much money on their own.
“You built a factory out there? Good for you,” Warren declared. “But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.”
She aimed at political conservatives who contend the government robs them of wealth they – and they alone – have produced.
“Now, look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along,” maintained Warren.
An unlikely cheerleader endorsed her contention that “public expenditure facilitates private enterprise.”
Christianity Today, the leading evangelical journal of religious opinion, threw some support to Warren. “In what it (Warren’s statement) affirms, it exposes a blind spot of the tea party conservatism that many evangelicals espouse. Warren reminds us of our indebtedness to others. Too often tea party rhetoric fuels a cult of the heroic individual. It sanctifies individual achievement and shortchanges the conditions on which such achievements depend. Human flourishing falters without the protections that a justly government society provides.” (Christianity Today, December 2011, p. 53).
Some conservatives fail to understand how the government functions as a wealth creator. Government funding and individual risk-taking run in tandem.
The early 19th century American sculptor Horatio Greenough offers an analogy for such a partnership. “A man without a true love,” exclaimed Greenough, “is a ship without ballast, a one-tined fork, half a pair of scissors.”
Conservatives who cut government out of wealth production contract what history teaches about the fiscal relationship between the feds and wealth creation in business.
Making this same point, essayist Malcolm Gladwell wrote about how the Greatest Generation pulled together with government in the 1950s and ’60s. These patriotic Americans believed neither they nor the nation could have survived the Great Depression or World War II if left to citizens’ individual efforts.
President Herbert Hoover said natural market forces, coupled with hard-working citizens, would rescue the U.S. from financial peril.
The Greatest Generation believed Hoover’s answer was false. As an alternative, the rich who made more than $250,000 in the 1950s paid Uncle Sam 90 cents for every dollar earned.
“They paid their taxes and went about their business,” observes Gladwell. “Perhaps they saw logic in the government’s policy: There was a huge debt from World War II to be paid off and interstates, public universities and other public infrastructure projects to be built for the children of the baby boom.
“Or perhaps they were bashful. Wealth, after all, is as often the gift of good fortune as it is of design. For whatever reason, the wealthy of that era could have pushed for a world that more closely conformed to their self-interest, and they chose not to.
“Today, the wealthy have no such qualms. We have moved from a country of relative economic equality to a place where the gap between rich and poor is exceeded by only Singapore and Hong Kong. The rich have gone from being grateful for what they have to pushing for everything they can get. They have mastered the art of whining and predation, without regard to logic or shape.”
No one is financially successful on their own. Partnerships between government’s public works and individual enterprise provide opportunities to achieve wealth.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.theliving
history.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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