Our privileged lives help us to overlook the most important source of wealth for our nation: intangible wealth.
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.[Whole 208-page report here]
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."
Social institutions are most crucial. The World Bank has devised a rule of law index that measures the extent to which people have confidence in and abide by the rules of their society. 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. The members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development-30 wealthy developed countries- have an average score of 90, while sub-Saharan Africa's is 28. "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. [More of a great interview]
This staggering advantage we take for granted becomes most apparent when it is missing. Listen to Americans talk about foreign countries - especially under-developed ones - and the idea of social institutions that don't work hits home first.
As farmers we are very late embracing the idea of wealth that cannot be hauled in a truck. Buy as Hernando de Soto pointed out in "The Mystery of Capital" without the basic ability to prove something is yours, hidden capital sits unused. Such everyday fixtures of order have real value, and the World Bank helps to point out why the US has much to be grateful to our forebears for and much to protect.