Who Creates Wealth?
When we see the rich, with large numeric sums attached to their names, it is not uncommon to hear people express: “Wow, that person has earned 300 million dollars! Look how much money she has made!” The verbiage—created, earned, made—is almost an afterthought. But do the people at the top of the economic ladder actually make—actually produce—the fabulous wealth that comprises their “net worth”? Are the wealthiest owners of things the creators of the wealth they claim as theirs?
It would certainly be ludicrous to think the most wealthy had “earned” their wealth in conventional ways. If, for example, Jim Walton, one heir of the Wal-Mart fortune, were to have earned his $67 billion net worth while working as a Wal-Mart cashier, earning the average $13/hour that those employees make, Jim would have needed to work 24-hour shifts every day for 588,338 years. So, unless Jim is an immortal being with limitless amounts of energy and productivity, it’s safe to assume he’s not “making” that wealth himself. So, if Jim is not, in fact, “making” his billions, then who is?
The earth is the Lord's and everything in it
One type of “wealth” is the abundance of natural resources we find in our oceans, forests, mines, and fields. God has created a beautiful place for us to dwell, and one that meets many of our basic needs. It’s clear from Scripture that God considers this world to be God’s own. Psalm 24 states: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” (Ps. 24:1, NIV). God is depicted as the owner of “the cattle on a thousand hills” (Ps. 50:10), and King David prays in 1 Chronicles 29:14: “Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”
So, when we talk about the creation of wealth in terms of natural resources, we as Christians must contend that the wealth made available to us by virtue of extracting the natural resources of the earth is not, in essence, ours to keep. God bids us steward the world and its resources, and admonishes us when we pretend those resources are our own creation, to keep and disburse according to our private desires. Jesus depicts a severe warning for the man in Luke 12 who viewed the plentiful production of his fields as something he should hoard in private barns: “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:20)
Our common life depends upon each other's toil
Another method of creating wealth is to take raw materials and fashion them into products, and then sell and distribute them at a profit. Profit is, at its simplest, a calculation of revenue minus expenses. Revenue is how much money people are paying for the books, shoes, lava lamps, and yoga mats they are purchasing on Amazon, for example. Expenses are how much money is laid out to procure the items, warehouse them, and ship them to the consumer. The margin between is profit, which for Amazon in 2019 was 11.6 billion dollars. So, who “created” that wealth? Who made it possible?
It’s true that the owner of the company had to pay for the stuff, and pay the people to move the stuff, in order to sell the stuff. But it’s much more accurate to say that the matrix of humanity employed by Amazon - the workers that crafted the shoes, loaded the boxes, drove the truck, and delivered it at your doorstep - made the whole exchange a reality. Jeff Bezos’ only responsibility in the transaction was providing the funding. He didn’t stitch a shoe. He didn’t drive a truck. He wrote a check. By taking the profits themselves, owners are saying that they are entitled to the surplus wealth “created,” not by their efforts, but by the ones doing the labor, simply because the owner had possession of the capital at the outset of the process.
It is easy to see the danger inherent when, in order to maximize the profit margin, owners are incentivized to suppress the costs (employee wages), or in the worst cases, steal from their employees. Wage theft accounts for more value stolen than almost all other property crimes combined, according to a 2017 Economic Policy Institute (EPI) study. Instead of being fairly and adequately compensated for the value that they collectively create, workers lose out on the benefits and blessing of that value, and the wealth instead funnels into the hands of those who already had a lot of it in the first place.
This is a simplification of the question, to be sure. There are other avenues to wealth creation, including those in the financial sector that have only a minimal reference to the “real world” of labor and resources. But I believe even those technological abstractions of wealth eventually lead back to the material source: a home, a business, an oilfield. The basis for wealth is still found in natural, God-given resources, combined with the skill and sweat of the large class of those who do the actual labor. It has very little to do with the work ethic, creative genius, or business savvy of the capitalists who reap its reward. Their role is to deploy capital, direct capital, and receive a return on that investment. It is an important job to decide how and where to use the money that wealth creates. Yet I question the method of capitalism, that concentrates that decision in the hands of a few, and does not instead open up the process to the larger community of people who are most directly responsible for its accumulation in the first place.
God’s design for human flourishing is that all people will be able to dwell in a land of abundance, enjoying the fruit of their labors. The prophet Micah depicts this beautifully: “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid…” This is the prophetic vision of God’s future for us—a life free of fear, reaping the reward of the good things of the earth, which our hands helped to tend and fashion. We are all called to create, to labor together, to serve each other, and finally to rest and enjoy the fruit of what we have made.