Human capital is where it’s at!

Continuing from my last posting, I stated the World Bank has seen the light. It has put out a report: Where is the Wealth of Nations?
Reason Online has an interview with the prime author Kirk Hamilton.

Oil, soil, copper, and forests are forms of wealth. So are factories, houses, and roads. But according to a 2005 study by the World Bank, such solid goods amount to only about 20 percent of the wealth of rich nations and 40 percent of the wealth of poor countries.

So what accounts for the majority? World Bank environmental economist Kirk Hamilton and his team in the bank’s environment department have found that most of humanity’s wealth isn’t made of physical stuff. It is intangible…Hamilton’s team found that “human capital and the value of institutions (as measured by rule of law) constitute the largest share of wealth in virtually all countries.”

The World Bank study defines natural capital as the sum of cropland, pastureland, forested areas, protected areas, and nonrenewable resources (including oil, natural gas, coal, and minerals). Produced capital is what most of us think of when we think of capital: machinery, equipment, structures (including infrastructure), and urban land. But that still left a lot of wealth to explain. “As soon as you say the issue is the wealth of nations and how wealth is managed, then you realize that if you were only talking about a portfolio of natural assets, if you were only talking about produced capital and natural assets, you’re missing a big chunk of the story,” Hamilton explains.

The rest of the story is intangible capital. That encompasses raw labor; human capital, which includes the sum of a population’s knowledge and skills; and the level of trust in a society and the quality of its formal and informal institutions. Worldwide, the study finds, “natural capital accounts for 5 percent of total wealth, produced capital for 18 percent, and intangible capital 77 percent.”

For under developed or undeveloped countries you can see what direction they have to go in. But what about our country? We have had discussions about infrastructure. We have talked about the need for education. When I skimmed the report (200+ pages), savings was a must in order to be able to invest in the intangible capital. We have debated the share of benefit a person receives from the country’s infrastructure and institutions based on the wealth and/or income they control. We always argue about where growth comes from such that it raise all boats. (Sing that jingle!) And there is the “free market” debate revolving around regulation. Oh that nasty governance issue! If only we hadn’t signed on to form a more perfect union.

My quick assessment of this report is that it is a testament to the misdirection of our policies. We do not make money from money even though we have been trying to. You did catch the reference to “labor”. These breakouts of wealth suggest that there is a bottom limit to taxation as taxation reflects our investment in us. In the study, European countries dominate the top wealth and England is not in the top 10. This report implies that the wealthy do benefit more from the country’s structure and investment because the majority of their wealth is from this “intangible capital”. The few of the wealthy have accumulated their wealth from the investment of the many in the intangible. It also means capital gains should be tax equal to labor if not higher.

Rich countries are largely rich because of the skills of their populations and the quality of the institutions supporting economic activity,” the study concludes. According to Hamilton’s figures, the rule of law explains 57 percent of countries’ intangible capital. Education accounts for 36 percent.

With only 18% of wealth from produced capital and less from natural resources as a country becomes wealthier, freeing up money to produce money as we have been promoting is very poor investment strategy it would seem when 77% of our wealth is from the human element. In a broad sense, we are talking about what ideology concerning the conduct of human life works best to produce wealth.

An economy with a very efficient judicial system, clear and enforceable property rights, and an effective and uncorrupt government will produce higher total wealth. For example, Switzerland scores 99.5 out of 100 on the rule of law index and the U.S. hits 91.8. By contrast, Nigeria gets a score of just 5.8, while the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo obtains a miserable 1 out of 100.

It is not just that we need to invest in education,or just have a legal system or just fix the bridges. These can be measured as noted in the World Bank Doing Business chart.

“Trust” seems to be the real intangible the report is talking about. We as a whole can be educated to the hilt, but if we can’t trust that our efforts will be put to constructive use, we have problems. Think habeas corpus, FISA, election fraud, threatening of the press, intimidation of speech, extension of free speech to none human entities, the equating of one voice-one vote to spending of one’s money, K Street project, etc. Think of the use of fear. If only a few are educated to the hilt or have access to the governance, we can not build capital.

If the country is 100 people large, but only 10 trust each other to do for each other, then how much wealth can they actually build if 93% of the 77% of intangible capital is related to law access (trust) and education (the removal of fear; trust) of the populace? But then, our founders seemed to have already reasoned this. Jefferson started the free education to including college!

So why should this report seem so “new”. This makes me think of the years of government bashing we have been hearing from the republican side. Reagan’s infamous “nine most dangerous words in the English language: I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” It makes me realize we have to dump the Bush/neocon ideology here and in our foreign policy if only to remove the fear so that trust can return.

Mr. Hamilton’s example of the difference in thinking is in when he discusses pollution as a resource management issue:

It’s not a pollution problem; it’s a natural resources management problem. How do you maintain soil quality? How do you generate profits with the assets that you have, which in this case is land that can be invested in other things? The problem in China is they’ve figured out how to grow 9 percent a year pretty successfully but they’re now facing the environmental consequences of uncontrolled growth.

This is policy that he is talking about. Policy of what to spend on and policy governing relationships both boiling down to regulation. (What was that Milton quote the other day?)We’re talking government. I interpret this report as making a case that shrinking government to where it can be drowned in a bath tub is not the way to build wealth. The market will not solve our problems of growth for us. It is not the answer to Save the Rust Belt’s question of how to save the rust belt? We have to do it and we have to do it in a manor that is inclusive for that is the only way to maximize the “intangible capital”. It also means we have to do as Cactus is attempting to do; qualify our policy results related to specific ideology. Just charting to see what GDP is doing or just looking at supply and demand theory won’t do it. That’s just bench racing.

The World bank has done some qualifying and changed their ideology:

Hamilton: In the old days, we thought if you built the infrastructure then development would come-the Field of Dreams model of development. It turns out to be a lot harder than that.

Dare I suggest that the World Bank has discovered that an economy exists for our benefit and not for it’s own sake? Maybe they read our Declaration and our Constitution.