12 April 2015

The British as Social Inventors (or, the policies that could make the UK wildly prosperous again)

The UK will elect its next prime minister in just a few weeks, on 7 May.

As an American, I envy the fact that British politics is so much more humane. But judging from the political debate earlier this month between the UK's seven major party leaders, the British seem to have lost their sense of history. Why were they the world’s leading force for centuries? Why are former British colonies so much more affluent than former colonies of Spain or France? Why is English still the world’s dominant language when it comes to business, science, and innovation? Knowing the answer to that question provides the answer to how the UK could again make its economy vibrant, perhaps even a global leader.

The simple answer is that, from before 1534 when Henry VIII severed ties with Rome to help to create the nation-state to the time that the British invented the single-payer healthcare system in 1948, the British led in social invention. And not just any sort of invention. They led in the social inventions that helped overcome that period's limit to economic progress.

Instead of discussing social inventions that redefine a century, though, political leaders are now arguing about changing tax rates or spending small percentages, each trying to find the right balance between fiscal responsibility and addressing needs. There is no sense of history now. Just a sense of responsibility. Rather than ask how to create jobs they’re asking how much unemployment and welfare they can afford. Rather than asking how to create wealth, they’re asking how much debt is reasonable. And rather than ask how to make the British once again world leaders in economic growth, they’re asking questions about how fairly government services are being shared among the poor and new immigrants. As an American I can only envy this delightful sense of fairness. In the end, though, it’s less about whether you share the mastodon kill fairly than whether you learn how to domesticate crops. If you want a great community, you don't choose between fairness and progress.
For centuries, the British were the world’s leaders at changing people’s minds about what was possible. Their social inventions were not just about what was fair or right. Their social inventions actually created wealth in ways that were unprecedented in world history.
The British National Health Service (NHS) is the oldest single-payer healthcare system in the world and is a wonderful example of social invention. The British set up a system that made healthcare a right rather than something only people above a certain income could access. Like so many of their social inventions, most of the West has since adopted some form of what the British created. (Even we Americans have taken steps towards following this example.)
But long before that, they also invented new institutions that made people more prosperous. 
In 1623, Edward Coke championed legislation - patent law - that rewarded inventors. By 1699, Thomas Savory had invented a steam engine. At that point, for the first time in thousands of years, per capita income began to rise. Because of social inventions like patent law that let people profit from the investment of time and money into new products, the British led in the industrial revolution.

The British were not just social inventors. They rapidly adopted what worked in other countries. The Dutch were the first to set up a corporation that could trade in a remote part of the globe on behalf of the state (the Dutch East India Trading Company), the first to set up a stock market (to trade shares in that one corporation) and the first to set up a central bank that could help to regulate currency and make loans on behalf of the state. The British were smart enough to adopt those inventions when they brought William and Mary over from the Netherlands in 1689 to become their monarchs, and that soon helped them to pass even the Dutch in per capita income. This was not just the kingdom that gave us the invention of the steam engine: it gave us Charles Darwin and the concept of evolution.  The British continued to innovate and tinker with these big inventions. It was the Bank of England that became the model for the world's central banks. And the eventual change they made to the corporation was even more momentous.
In 1862, the British Parliament passed the Company Act and invented the limited-liability, joint-stock company. That is, they invented the modern corporation, the best institution yet made for the creation of jobs, products, and wealth. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge called it “yet another quirky Victorian invention that changed the world.” Putting aside the fact that the Americans more fully subordinated themselves to this new institution, this transformative social invention was British.
Whether it is through patent law or the modern corporation, central banking or NHS, no people have done more than the British to make history by changing history. No people have been more ready to re-invent themselves or their institutions. 
So what could the British do now? What social inventions would shift their conversations from unemployment to job creation, from debating about how much debt they could afford to best strategies for creating wealth? It would be any social invention that would help them to overcome today’s limit to progress, which is different from the limit of a century ago – or two centuries earlier.
From about 1300 to 1700, the limit to progress was land and because the British people led in social invention and adoption that helped them to overcome the limit of land – from a nation-state and private property to standardized measurements and colonization – they became the world’s leading economy. 
From about 1700 to 1900, the limit to progress was capital and because the British people led in social invention and adoption that helped them to overcome the limit of capital – from patent laws that inspired invention to central banking policies that stabilized financial markets – they were the world’s leading economy.
From about 1900 to 2000, the limit to progress was knowledge workers. Even though the British people invented the modern corporation – the place where knowledge workers created products, wealth, and jobs through product manufacturing and invention – they lost their lead to the US, Germany, and Scandinavian countries because they were slower to realize the importance of public education. (In 1875, England’s illiteracy rates were about 10X higher than those in Germany and the Scandinavian countries.) In a world where English is the dominant language, it’s worth noting that kindergarten is a German word. The social and technological inventions that did the most to create knowledge workers and make them more productive were the ones that made communities richer and more powerful. One might argue that as the world's original capitalists, the British saw their invention of the modern corporation more as an investment tool than as a tool for making knowledge workers more productive, and lagged because - for a time - they made capital more important than labor.
The conversation the British people need to have now isn’t about how to get more land and make it more productive. Land is no longer the limit. The days of colonization and the British Empire are past. It’s not about how to get more capital and make it more productive. Trillions of pounds of capital wander the globe in search of returns. A massive infusion of capital now is as likely to sit idle in banks (or, in the form of industrial capital like robots, make labor sit idle at home) as to create jobs and wealth. It’s not even a question of how to create more knowledge workers or make them more productive. The good news is that - largely because of British social inventions - the West has overcome the limits of land, capital, and knowledge workers. The bad news is that more of those factors that no longer limit won't just fuel economic progress.

Period (roughly)
Market Economy
Develop & Acquire
1300  1700
First, Agricultural
1700  1900
Second, Industrial
1900  2000
Third, Information
Knowledge Workers
2000 ~
Fourth, Entrepreneurial

So what is the limit to today's economy that social inventions must help communities to overcome? Entrepreneurship. Last century, the West popularized knowledge work. Between 1900 and 2000, the economies of the West transformed from industrial economies dependent on child labor to information economies dependent on adult education. Now, it is time to popularize entrepreneurship. The first wave of this popularization will likely be like the British adoption of Dutch institutions. That is, communities able to adopt the policies of Silicon Valley, creating an entrepreneurial region, will make great progress. The next wave will likely come in the form of changing the corporation again. This will involve making more employees more entrepreneurial, allowing them to create equity and not just products. No one has yet taken the lead in this but the British (or for that matter, the Scandinavians, Germans, Canadians, Americans or the people of Singapore) could become leading innovators in this. And just as the British became prosperous in ways that past generations could not have imagined when they boldly overcame the limits of capital, so could this next generation.

The question for today’s economy is how to create more entrepreneurs and how to make more employees more entrepreneurial. As people find creative answers to these questions, they'll create jobs for knowledge workers and will fully employ the trillions in capital that people like Marin Wolf and Ben Bernanke warn is symptom of a savings glut (or investment dearth). Knowledge workers and capital are no longer limits. Entrepreneurship is.
The British people have proven themselves incredibly creative. For centuries. There is no question about that. The only question is whether British policy makers will decide to find creative answers to the question of how to create more entrepreneurs or how to make more employees more entrepreneurial. Last time they got serious about finding ways to overcome the limit to progress through thousands of small and large social and technological inventions, they gave us the industrial revolution. Who knows what extraordinary world lies on the other side of the myriad inventions that will help the West to overcome the limit of entrepreneurship?

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