Monday, 15 October 2007

Wealth, and why we don't have it

Wealth. What is it? Where does it come from? Why are some people in some places wealthier than others? And why does New Zealand have to borrow so damn much in pursuit of it?

These are the sorts of questions people have been asking for centuries, and since Adam Smith it's been something for which we have some pretty good answers.

We've all heard the commitments to get New Zealand back into the top half of the OECD, and many of us have seen those graphs that Rod Deane pulled out recently showing NZ's rise and decline in those rankings over the last century-and-a-half -- and we've realised that getting back into the top half of the OECD isn't as easy as politicians' promises would have you believe.

According to my dictionary, wealth is defined as "affluence, plenty and prosperity, a profusion, great plenty (of); prosperity." Clearly, wealth has something to do with productivity, with resources, with capital, and with what Julian Simon called the ultimate resource: the creative human mind applied to productivity. But how to explain and quantify the relationship?

Two years ago, the World Bank began examining questions such as these, and unusually for such an organisation, they came up with something worth studying. They found something that hadn't been accounted for in all their previous studies on the subject. Ronald Bailey explains:
Two years ago the World Bank's environmental economics department set out to assess the relative contributions of various kinds of capital to economic development. Its study, "Where is the Wealth of Nations?: Measuring Capital for the 21st Century," began by defining natural capital as the sum of nonrenewable resources (including oil, natural gas, coal and mineral resources), cropland, pasture land, forested areas and protected areas. Produced, or built, capital is what many of us think of when we think of capital: the sum of machinery, equipment, and structures (including infrastructure) and urban land.

But once the value of all these are added up, the economists found something big was still missing: the vast majority of world's wealth! If one simply adds up the current value of a country's natural resources and produced, or built, capital, there's no way that can account for that country's level of income.
What's missing in those traditional measures is what links the human mind with productivity: the rule of law. In a sentence, the creative human mind is more productive the more that the rule of law is recognised.

The explanation for that is simple. You see, when the protection of law is weak, then the mind is only able to plan short range. When property rights are weak, for example, people tend to build their furniture before they build their roofs -- and you can see the evidence of this in shanty towns all over the globe. When time horizons are short, this is rational behaviour. But shanty towns aren't the natural human environment, are they. Take a shanty town dweller out of the shanty and set him down in a place where the rule of law is better recognised, and immediately his time horizons become longer, his prospects much brighter, and his house and his wallet much richer.

Extent time horizons by setting in place the rule of law, and immediately you bring the distinctive attribute of the creative human mind -- the ability to think and to plan long range -- to bear on the question of productivity. That's the real link between wealth and law, and it's something politicians actually can do something about.

You see, this is what the World Bank's researchers realised in their study. What's more important in determining wealth than natural resources or real capital is what they eventually termed this "intangible capital" -- that is, "the wealth product that comes from securing people's rights through the rule of law," so called "intangible factors" such as "the trust among people in a society, an efficient judicial system, clear property rights and effective government."
All this intangible capital ... boosts the productivity of labor and results in higher total wealth. In fact, the World Bank finds, "Human capital and the value of institutions (as measured by rule of law) constitute the largest share of wealth in virtually all countries."

Once one takes into account all of the world's natural resources and produced capital, 80% of the wealth of rich countries and 60% of the wealth of poor countries is of this intangible type. The bottom line: "Rich countries are largely rich because of the skills of their populations and the quality of the institutions supporting economic activity."
This "intangible capital" can be quantified, and what we find when that exercise is done is that "the natural wealth in rich countries like the U.S. is a tiny proportion of their overall wealth—typically 1 percent to 3 percent—yet they derive more value from what they have."
Cropland, pastures and forests are more valuable in rich countries because they can be combined with other capital like machinery and strong property rights to produce more value. Machinery, buildings, roads and so forth account for 17% of the rich countries' total wealth.

Overall, the average per capita wealth in the rich Organization for Economic Cooperation Development (OECD) countries is $440,000, consisting of $10,000 in natural capital, $76,000 in produced capital, and a whopping $354,000 in intangible capital. (Switzerland has the highest per capita wealth, at $648,000. The U.S. is fourth at $513,000.)

By comparison, the World Bank study finds that total wealth for the low income countries averages $7,216 per person. That consists of $2,075 in natural capital, $1,150 in produced capital and $3,991 in intangible capital. The countries with the lowest per capita wealth are Ethiopia ($1,965), Nigeria ($2,748), and Burundi ($2,859).
So what does this mean for New Zealand, and any hope we have of getting rich, and getting back into the top half of the OECD?

Well, here's the bad news. In the rankings of "intangible capital," New Zealand comes a pitiful twenty-first with just $243,000 of "intangible capital" per head, behind Spain and Singapore at nineteenth and twentieth, and just ahead of Greece, Portugal, South Korea and Argentina.

That's a measure of how poor we are in the rule of law.

And just look at our performance as compared to Australia, often known as "the lucky country" because of its resource riches. But Australia's resource wealth only amounts to $25,000 per Australian, compared to our own resource wealth of $43,000 per head; the difference between the lucky country and us is that they're "luckier" in terms of the rule of law: in the "intangible capital" represented by that measure, Australians are half again as wealthy as we are, with $371,000 per head compared to our own $243,000 per head.

So the message is clear, and when you boil it all down it's not complicated. If wealth is your goal, and if ambitions to be in the top half of the OECD are genuine, then concentrate on the rule of law, and on the "intangible capital" of an efficient judicial system, of clear property rights and of effective government.



  1. Even with a good "rule of law" we lack the technical epertise to take advantage of it.

    I wonder if there is a relationship between property security, long term planning, and the type of education people are prepared to undertake?
    i.e. does poor property security encourage a proliferation of lawyers, teachers, and civil servants and discourage scientists, engineers, and business people?

  2. If someone like Bill Gates is worth $45,000,000,000, then there will be a lot of people in the world who haven't got that money. There is only so much money to go around, and if someone's pockets are overflowing, someone else's pockets will be empty.

  3. Anon. Great joke, made me laugh.

    ..because in the beginning there was only a certain amount of money created, about 369 golden chubbies (could be wrong on the unit), and all wealth since then is a division of the original unchanging value.

    ...the economic pie never gets any bigger, which is why the much larger populations in the modern world are all hungrier, colder, and more disease ridden than they were 400 years ago when fewer people lived comfortably off the same size pie. I'm told it's blueberry.

    Anyhoo, in the real world I wish Bill Gates was worth more because then I'd be worth more! Buy halo3! Buy MSFT!

  4. Anon, I want to believe that your comment is facetious, but I suspect it isn't.

    In one short paragraph you have demonstrated two things: a lack of understanding of the way money & business work, and the stupidity of socialist 'remedy'.

    My favourite current example:

    A woman decides to write a children's book. It turns out to be incredibly popular and lots of people *choose* to buy it. All of a sudden something commercially tangible has been created - from nothing. More books follow & the same applies.

    Another company decides to make films based upon the books. More people are employed for many associated jobs - from nothing. Lots of people queue up for movie tickets.

    A once struggling woman is now very wealthy. She has money - and lots of it - to donate to her favourite cause, research into multiple sclerosis from which her mother died at a young age and for which I'm sure the people at MS were very pleased to receive.

    So how is it that I am worse off for her success?

    Yes, I spent money for seven books. I have read them 60 odd times collectively, which means I have received eight times the value of my original purchase (to date) - not including the pleasure I have gained which is 'priceless' as Mastercard would say.

    All things considered, I'd say we were *all* better off!

    Of course, you might prefer to see that woman continue to struggle so you could sanctimoniously refer her to a social worker, requiring lots more public money in order to keep you in control, the social worker in a job and the woman permanently on the back foot ...

  5. anony

    You ninny you. So Bill is wirth all that money on paper. Good for him. But where is the money actually? Does it exist under his bed? Is it in a money bin like the old Scrooge McDuck comic boks used to show? Do you even have the slightest clue?

    You should go find out.

    Clue: you'll find it's invested in capital plant and equipment and business enterprises and institutions- you know the ones that produce things that people need and use...

    You really are a ninny!


  6. And the money just moves around, from the people who want to buy the book to the woman who wrote the book. No wealth or money was 'created' in that process, it just moved from one pocket to the other.

  7. "And the money just moves around, from the people who want to buy the book to the woman who wrote the book. No wealth or money was 'created' in that process, it just moved from one pocket to the other."


    Smells like the product of socialist education, alright. Gutless, too. No name.

    If that absurdity was true, you are saying that there is, was and always will be *exactly* the same amount of money in existence - which Greg has rightly debunked in his second post.

    I repeat:

    "So how is it that I am (and everybody else is) worse off for her success?"

  8. And the money just moves around, from the people who want to buy the book to the woman who wrote the book. No wealth or money was 'created' in that process, it just moved from one pocket to the other.

    Of course wealth was created. What do you think "wealth" is? It's not money. Certainly no money was created. On the other hand, the banks create money all the time, and we're all less wealthy because of it! Creating money doesn't create wealth, it just redistributes it (from those who had it before - you and me - to those who created the money). Wealth is the "stuff" you might use money to buy. When you buy your Harry Potter book, you give up a certain amount of money in exchange for the book. You do that because you are (or believe, at the time, that you will be) wealthier having the book than having the money. And the seller sells the book because he believes he'll be wealthier having the money than having the book. Thus both parties are wealthier than before, and considerable wealth has been created. That is true in every free exchange (and decidedly untrue of every forced exchange, or forced failure-to-exchange).

  9. anon1.
    How large is this 'economic pie' that is always being re-distributed from pocket to pocket but never grown?
    $500 trillion?

    When did this 'economic pie' come into existence?
    1990? 1450?

    Given the human population was only about 500 million in 1450 then, given there are now 7 billion of us, that means those in 1450 were 14x wealthier than us if the 'economic pie' remains the same.

    I don't understand.

  10. Oh God, Anon, are you still bellyaching!

    'No money was created', eh. Money's created all the time, eg in the form of interest.

    You have still not answered my question to your initial comment that "if someone's pockets are overflowing, someone else's will be empty".

    You ignore the fundamental of the transaction, in that for the money I spent, I *received* something in return. Therefore, I have not *lost* anything in the other party's gain (of my money). We have both received. Thus, we are both better off.

    Capitalism is a beautiful thing! :)


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