The real 'wealth creators'

By Bernadette Meaden
May 12, 2015

Politicians like to talk about wealth creators. They are usually referring to very rich individuals we mustn’t tax too heavily for fear they will leave the country.

This misrepresents how wealth is created. For just one real example of a wealth creator, I would nominate Dr Keith White, a senior lecturer in ecology and the environment at Manchester University. And I’d also like to nominate the teacher who first sparked his interest in science.

Here is why Dr White is a wealth creator.

The Manchester Ship Canal was one of the busiest waterways in Europe. By the mid twentieth century it was heavily polluted, and any development of the land and property around the docks was prevented by ‘unpleasant odours, bubbling gas, and sediment rafts.’

Research led by Dr White established the cause and extent of water pollution, followed by evidence based restoration programmes, which rejuvenated the waterway and surrounding areas. The improvement in water quality was the essential first step in the development of Salford Quays, which has seen approximately 2000 homes being built and the arrival of 900 businesses employing over 35,000 people. It includes Media City, home to the BBC, and the Lowry Centre, an important arts venue.

No doubt many entrepreneurs and property developers have made a fortune from Salford Quays, but none of them could have done so without the publicly funded work of Dr Keith White, on the salary of a University lecturer.

A company called APEM was founded on Dr. White’s work, and is now "one of the largest independent aquatic science consultancies in Europe. APEM’s continuing commercial activities relating to water quality management are underpinned by Dr White’s research."

The people we usually hear described as wealth creators could often more accurately be described as wealth accumulators. They are riding the crest of a wave. To do so takes skill and courage – but they did not create the wave. Many people we have never heard of, and many people’s taxes, helped create the wave, but the heavily promoted idea of the individual wealth creator ignores their essential role.

This way of looking at things, seeing the people who make most money from something as being the creators of that wealth is wrong. Wealth creation in the real economy is a much more collaborative activity than we are led to believe, and depends to a great extent on publicly funded services.

As US Senator Elizabeth Warren has said, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on 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... Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a 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.”

This could be something to bear in mind the next time a politician talks about ‘wealth creators’.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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