The world economy is made up of many tiny parts that are useful only when we combine them into more complex wholes. The higher the value of these aggregations, the more economic growth. Humanity’s achievements – from the 120 ingredients of my clock to the countless financial deals and developments that produced the internet and flight navigation systems – all result from joining people and things to each other.
That’s why western capitalism has triumphed for the past 150 years: it gave us the best knowledge to explore economic combinations. Capitalism does not need to be re-thought or re-invented; it simply has to be re-discovered.
The reason credit and capital have contracted for the past five years in the US and Europe is that the knowledge required to identify and join parts profitably has been unwittingly destroyed. The connections between mortgage loans and liquid securities, between non-performing financial derivatives and the organisations that hold them; the non-standardised, scattered records that obscure who holds risks; and the off-balance-sheet accounting that obscures many companies’ health: these all make it harder to trust and hence combine. Until this knowledge system is repaired, neither US nor European capitalism will recover.
Reformers and policymakers must recognise that they are not dealing with a financial crisis but with a knowledge crisis. Capitalism lives in two worlds: there is a visible one of palm trees and Panamanian ships, but it is the other – made up of the property information cocooned in laws and records – that allows us to organise and understand fragments of reality and join them creatively.
The world of organised knowledge and joining began in earnest in the mid-19th century, when reformers in Europe and the US concluded that the segmented, undirected knowledge left by the old regimes could not cure the recessions that beset early capitalism. They faced what was known as “the knowledge problem”, the inability to select and store dispersed information about economic things. Those reformers created “property memory systems” to map – in rule-bound, certified and publicly accessible registries, titles and accounts – all the relevant knowledge available on assets, whether intangible (stocks, patents, promissory notes) or tangible (land, buildings, machines).
Knowing who owned – and owed – what and where, and fixing that information in public records, made it possible for investors to locate suppliers, infer value, take risks and combine such simple things – to borrow a famous example – as graphite from Sri Lanka and wood from Oregon into pencils.