1 min read

Capital as equipment vs. capital as "money"

"Capital" is a strange word. I feel like I often see it used in a way interchangeable with "money." However, there is another meaning I learned of from How an Economy Grows and Why It Crashes. In that context, it means not money, but equipment that you don't want in and of itself but because it helps you make or get something else. Their example of capital is a net for catching fish to eat.

Don't get me wrong: That book has problems. Maybe I'll write about them later. I found this concept useful, though. I like to interpret it loosely in a way where "you don't want [the thing] for itself" isn't central. Also where the "equipment" part is not too literal – where "equipment" doesn't have to be physical like a net, a shovel, a hammer, a bulldozer, etc., nor even to be something as tangible as Emacs. In other words, loosely speaking it could be an idea, or a relationship, so long as it enables you to do or make other things "of value" in some sense.

This definition puts the phrase "social capital" in a new light for me. I have seen this phrase a few times in the context of Putnam's work on declining social capital, for example his book Bowling Alone. At the time the term didn't seem terribly useful at the time, interpreting "capital" as "currency." It sounded like a complicated Latin way of saying something we already have words for (relevant). But interpreting capital as "preconditions for producing things that people want," it seems much more valuable as a phrase.

In this interpretation we view social relationships and networking as creating capital in the economic sense. That is, as enabling people to be more productive than they would be without those relationships. I remember reading or hearing about a study Putnam did about social capital in northern vs. southern Italy, and in the context of that study this definition makes much more sense than the "social money" interpretation.