A Market of Intangibles

"In Capitalism without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy, Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake explore the crazy world around us in two very different ways. Half the book is a swashbuckling adventure, full of engaging examples. The other half is an accountant’s dream, complete with tables, charts, and acronyms. Frequently thought provoking but not always enjoyable—perhaps that’s how I should put it. They recognize the challenge of marrying the two approaches, at one point writing, “Modern economists, displaying an admirable flair for taking something exciting and giving it a boring name, called this trend ‘skills-biased technical change.’”

So what’s the book’s thesis? Intangible investments shape the economic world we inhabit, and understanding intangibles can help us better explain that world, specifically innovation and growth, inequality, management, and reform. “It is unlikely that the shift to intangibles is the only cause of any of these widespread and complex phenomena,” they say at the book’s end, “but we hope that we have shown that it may play a role—a role that for the most part has not been widely recognized.” Having spent time with Capitalism without Capital, let me say I think Haskel and Westlake have succeeded in these hopes. I find myself reflecting on, and talking about, intangibles in unexpected ways."