This I Believe

Lawrence - Accord, New York
Entered on February 20, 2007

I believe that wealth is social, the collective product of millions of human beings across scores of generations. This belief was sparked in me not by Karl Marx or Adam Smith, but by an aeronautics engineer who helped create the engine that propelled Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic. In a magazine interview, 94-year-old Joseph Worth declined to use the word “invention” to describe his engine. “There are no real inventions,” he said. “I don’t even like the word. There are only developments.”

The humility of his statement startled me. In a society that wildly rewards individual achievement and treats wealth as a measure of a person’s value, Mr. Worth’s recognition of innovation as a process of “development” really got my attention.

Soon after, Albert Einstein weighed in. This quintessential “genius” of the 20th century insisted that “in science . . . the work of the individual is so bound up with that of his scientific predecessors and contemporaries that it appears almost as an impersonal product of his generation.”

Then came Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, who expanded the discussion to business in a 1992 essay: “The community allows you to exist. People in the community buy your product. They provide the infrastructure; they provide all the resources that you use; they provide everything except the idea.”

I was reading that very essay one afternoon when my twins, then only six, returned from first grade. “What are you learning about in school?” I asked, fetching their cookies and juice.

“The food chain,” my daughter said.

Bingo! I was soon expanding the concept of the food chain to include all the people who had put their snack on the table: farmers, chemists, bakers, truckers, supermarket workers, me, their mom . . .

But my son seemed worried. He wanted to know if he was going to have to share his cookies with all those people.

It was the classic socialist-capitalist dilemma, right on our plates. On the one hand, wealth is clearly a collective product. As the the writer of Psalm 24 puts it: “The earth is God’s, and all of its fruits.” Resources like air, water and minerals are our collective endowment; economic forces like labor, capital, infrastructure, and innovation, are our collective achievement.

Yet we also do seem hardwired to worry about sharing. The Talmud, the 1700-year-old compendium of Jewish law and legend, tells a wonderful story in which the rabbis imprison the yetzer hara — the evil urge, the urge of selfishness. Soon they find that there are no eggs in the bird’s nest, no productivity going on. Without the yetzer hara, they conclude, there would be no economy.

The lessons of this tension aren’t fully clear to me. Still, the extremes that we suffer — with individuals controlling as much wealth as entire nations — seem truly out of whack with a reality principle that the Bible, the Talmud, Albert Einstein, and my children, have all recognized.