Human Capital in the Twenty-First Century: Piketty, Progress and the Distribution of Wealth

Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus Capital in the Twenty-FIrst Century made huge splashes especially after the publication of its English translation last spring. The bombshell argument of the huge book, supported by a massive amount of data and analyses, is two-fold. First, income inequality is increasing. And second, this will propel the economy back to the patrimonial capitalism dominated by inherited wealth.

Piketty gave recently a wonderful talk at the London School of Economics about his book. One thing that struck me at the very beginning of the talk was that he emphasized his books reliance on history. While I cannot argue with Piketty’s economical argumentation, which I, along with many of his supporters, believe to be mostly correct, I do believe that its applicability is somewhat suspicious in the present day world. The reason to this is simple: progress.

I believe that using that fancy academic two word disclaimer, ceteris paribus, Piketty is correct. That is to say, all other things remaining the same, as income inequality grows, capital will be accumulated in clusters of already wealthy families and individuals. But I believe the situation is complex enough to warrant further scrutiny.

First, the global economy appears to be in a fluctuation, where structural changes happen faster and faster each year. The dispersion of information, and as its consequence the creation of new innovations (which in turn disperse information faster) creates a spiralling motion where the structure of supply and demand of goods keeps fluctuating faster and faster. Applying historical evidence in a world in such turmoil is perhaps not the best strategy. Modelling patrimonial capitalism of the 19th century may not be at all a viable way to describe the market, even if the capital itself was accumulated to the wealthy individuals. Having lots of money is not worth much, if most of it is tied in sinking assets.

Second, there is the question of whether income inequality is a bad thing. Of course, I would not argue against the massive amount of correlative evidence that goes to show that in countries with more dramatic income inequality also the general well-being of the people is worse. But there is more to well-being than just income.

Interestingly, while income inequality has grown in the last few decades, so has the general overall wealth of people. While capital has been accumulated to the most wealthy individuals, also absolute poverty has been halved from the situation twenty years ago. While the comparative wealth gap has grown, absolute wealth has also been distributed more widely.

I have been a big critic of Adam Smith’s idea of the invisible hand, but in a sense something like that is happening here. The reason, though, is not crumbs of capital falling from the super-rich to the poor, but once again in progress, and its consequent increase in efficiency in producing goods and services.

The luxury of yesterday is the norm of today. This applies as much to luxury goods like TV sets and computers as to basic everyday needs like food and clean water. Producing these goods and services is today far more efficient than it was twenty years ago, and the trend in becoming even more efficient looks good.

The third and what I believe to be the most important feature of progress is the increasing relevance of human capital. That is to say, understanding, knowledge, skills and creativity. Interestingly, with information moving faster and faster, with production efficiency growing, and with the availability of both knowledge and the means of production, the tables are turning.

The significance of monetary capital is becoming less important in a world, where you can build an app worth millions of dollars in a few months in your bedroom. Such leaps to success would not have been possible yet a hundred years ago, where owing to the market structure, just entering an existing market would have required tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now it’s enough that you have a cheap laptop.

The true challenge in capital of the 21st century is, I believe, the equal distribution of human capital. That is to say, guaranteeing equal rights to education and to the knowledge bases we have available to us. While capital will continue to play a significant part in a capitalist market economy, I believe that with the continuing acceleration of both innovation and the market structure, it will be increasingly human capital that will differentiate the future successes from the failures.

The take home messages, I believe, are the following. First, we must take seriously the fact that the world of today is not the world of the past. And more so, the world of tomorrow will be something that no one of us understands perfectly well. So we need humility, and careful optimism in facing the future.

Second, given the increase in production efficiency, we should move from measuring monetary exchange to measuring actual well-being. With more efficient production better products are created at a fraction of the previous price. This will be reflected in slowing economic growth – but also in the increased well-being of the people consuming the better goods.

And finally, we should take seriously the fact that the capital of 21st century is not measured in dollars, but in ideas.

We are, indeed, moving towards a post-capitalist market economy, where true added value for commerce will arise from innovation, not from applied funds.


Am I the Monkey Pressing a Button?

Rolf Dobelli gave an outstanding talk a bit less than a year ago at the London School of Economics. The topic was “The Art of Thinking Clearly”.

Among many of his enticing anecdotes was a classic poised to demonstrate the futility of leadership literature.

Dobelli argued that if you have five hundred monkeys who press a button to predict whether the Dow Jones goes up or down this week, about half of them get it right. Then, once you remove the ones who got it wrong, rinse and repeat.

Next week once again about half of the monkeys are correct. And in about twenty weeks there will be one monkey that will have predicted the stock market better than any known human stock broker in history.

As a consequence, business researchers will no doubt be tremendously interested in this particular monkey. They will analyze its habits, break down its routines. They will write scientific papers about it, write inspirational books about it. The monkey will serve as a guide to a gigantic amount of future wannabe stock brokers.

And all the while its success was down to pure chance.

This is a thought that deeply troubles me.

I have found tremendous inspiration in both leadership lit and in reading the biographies of the likes of Richard Branson, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. And all the while it may be that these people, generally thougth of as exceptional, are simply the ones that rose to the top owing eventually just to pure chance.

I don’t want to say that Branson, Edison or Jobs would be purely talentless. But obviously there are a gigantic amount of people of equal or greater talent who never get lauded in anecdotes or biographies.

And yet I find this idea somehow suspicious.

I suppose to be an entrepreneur, one must believe that there is a way to study and to get better in the game. To look up to the giants and to learn. That not everything is down to pure chance. Even if it cannot be codified in a routine or condensed in an all-encompassing anecdote.

But the curse of entrepreneurship is that you simply cannot know in advance. Nor can you, as a matter of fact, know it afterwards either. Because even if massive success were to befall you, it could still be down to pure chance.

You could still be the monkey pressing the button.

But the only thing that I am pretty sure is this (and I suppose this sums up at least something essential about entrepreneurship):

No books will be written of the monkey that never pressed the button to begin with.


Scarcity, Excess and Abundance

Professor Andrew Abbott gave last year an awesome lecture at the London School of Economics. Abbott argued that while many of today’s problems seem to arise from scarcity – the lack of resources, such as food or money –, in fact many of our problems are quite the opposite: problems of excess.

Scarcity means that we do not have enough to get by. Excess means that we have too much, and that somehow distracts us. There is a third quantity, abundance, which means we have enough of a resource not to be troubled by it.

I suppose nobody can argue against abundance. In fact, this should probably be the goal of the human race: how to distribute resources so that they are abundant for every person on the planet. But in aiming for abundance, we have at several places erred on the side of excess.

Western countries already have a huge excess of food. This creates the weird global paradox: half of the world is starving to death, the other half eating themselves to death.

We also have an excess of unwanted byproducts of our culture, such as pollution. Chinese factories, or Fukushima, have produced an excess of such material that we are troubled by.

But what is the most pressing problem with the advance and constantly accelerating development of technology is the excess of information. We are bombarded to death with information, while our conscious minds can only process about three or four things at a time.

Yet a few decades ago, areas of life such as research and product development suffered from a scarcity of information. Sometimes you had to go to the other side of the world to get the information you wanted. I remember contacting the British Library to photocopy and fax me a research paper I could not find anywhere else in the world.

Now it’s all online, and the problem is the opposite. We have now an excess of information, and discovering the information that you need right now is sometimes even harder than before.

The solution to the problem of excess is focus. Focus on the essential; on what really counts at each given moment.

We need to focus on what we eat – that we get the nutrients that we really need, and not let our lizard brain guide us to chomping up on calories that serve no purpose in our daily lives.

We need to focus on what to produce – that we get hardware that we really need and not let our need to placate our stressed selves send us into a spending spree, cramming our houses full of useless clutter.

And we need to focus on what we really need to know. To zone in on those pieces of information that really count – and ignore the rest.

The problem is, all this is easier said than done. Everybody knows we should eat less than we consume. Yet almost nobody does this.

This is why we need tools.

For balancing diets, the wearable tech revolution that we are witnessing right now may for the first time give us a universal toolkit for managing dietary inputs and outputs. Check out, for example, the amazing lineup from Fitbit to see where we’re at right now.

For consuming, algorithms employed by e.g. Amazon help us zoom in better on what really makes us feel great and consume more of that stuff, as compared to picking up whatever’s stocked on the store shelves.

As for cognition, services such as Simplenote or Any.do help us really focus better on what’s going on in our everyday lives, not to speak of Google, whose search algorithms are getting more amazing by the day.

There is a really cool passage in the Sherlock Holmes short story “Five Orange Pips”, where Sherlock tells Watson: “a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.”

So should we. In suffering with the daily excess of information, we should eliminate those sources of information and interruptions that do not serve a real function, and focus on the ones that do.

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And get your hands on the best tools out there.

While excess may be as bad a source of illbeing as scarcity, it has one upside going for it.

If we cut down from excess, we will eventually end up with abundance.