Escape from Capital
The composition of this book has been for the author a long struggle of escape, and so must the reading of it be for most readers if the authors assault upon them is to be successful,a struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought and expression. The ideas which are here expressed so laboriously are extremely simple and should be obvious. The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds. -John Maynard Keynes
The first economic model of growth came from David Ricardo. He thought that capital accumulation was they key to growth, capitalists were heroes, and landlords were villains who would eat into the profits capitalists needed to finance economic growth.
Marx made people think of capitalists as villains, but he was even more obsessed than other economists with the importance of capital for long-run economic growth; he just thought it was too important to be owned by capitalists alone. Capital was the name of his magnum opus and his constant focus.
In the 20th century, economists have discussed many other factors that determine economic growth: institutions, culture, entrepreneurship, human capital, technology. But the old obsession with physical capital has remained.
Joseph Schumpeter introduced the idea of creative destruction, the importance of innovation and entrepreneurs. But at the end of the day, he thought that communism would win out over capitalism because it would accumulate more capital and communist countries would out-grow capitalists. He loved the freedom of capitalism, but thought that communist countries forcing investment in physical capital would prosper more.
Robert Solow created a new model of economic growth, and his empirical tests of the model showed that the vast majority of differences in economic growth across countries could not be explained by differences in physical capital. Instead, we should focus on the Solow residual- the other things like technology that influence the productivity of labor. But Paul Samuelson, friend and colleague of Solow and arguably the greatest economist of the 20th century, still couldn’t shake the old focus on physical capital- his bestselling textbook kept predicting that forced capital accumulation would lead communist countries to surpass capitalist right up until the breakup of the Soviet Union.
New work continues to show the importance for growth of factors other than physical capital- Paul Romer on innovation, Acemoglu and Robinson and Douglas North on institutions, McCloskey on culture. Yet somehow, economists cannot escape from a focus on physical capital. Perhaps it is this, not modeling, that is the true Ricardian vice.