Posts Tagged ‘human capital’

humptydumptymaster

Noah Smith is right about one thing: mainstream economists tend to use the word “capital” pretty loosely.

It just means “anything you can spend resources to build, which lasts a long time, and which also can be used to produce value.” That’s really broad. For example, it could include society itself. It also typically includes “human capital,” which refers to people’s skills, talents, and knowledge.

But then Smith proceeds, like the neoclassical equivalent of Humpty Dumpty, to make his definition of human capital the master—because, in his view, “it helps to convey some important truths about the world.”

Human capital, as I’ve explained in some detail before, is a profoundly misleading concept.

I don’t want to repeat those arguments here. But I do want to make two additional points.

First, if Smith wants to invoke human capital to say “education and skills are a form of wealth,” then why not include other ways people are able to earn more or less than their counterparts? Why not, for example, go beyond his reference to credentials (he has a Stanford degree) and intellectual abilities (apparently, he can do math well and write well) and refer to some of the other important ways people are sorted out within existing economic relations. I’m thinking of such things as gender, race and ethnicity, immigration status, and so on. They’re all ways workers are able to receive more or less income that have nothing to do with the effort they put into their jobs. Does Smith want to argue that masculinity, whiteness, and native birth are forms of human capital?

No, I didn’t think so.

Second, there’s the issue of capital itself. When capital is treated as a thing (which is what one finds in Smith’s account, as in most versions of mainstream economics), then it’s possible to forget about or overlook the historical and social conditions necessary for those things to operate as capital. Buildings, machinery, and raw materials, robots and computer software, even skills, talents, and knowledge—they only operate as capital within particular economic relations. Only when workers are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers, only then does capital become a means to extract surplus labor from those workers. Once appropriated, that surplus labor then assumes a variety of different, seemingly independent forms—from capitalist profits to land rents, including payments to merchants and finance, the super-profits of oligopolies, taxes to the state, and, yes, the salaries of CEOs and supervisors.

But those payments are not “returns” to independent forms of capital, human or otherwise. They’re all distributions of the surplus-value that both presume and produce the conditions under which laborers work not for themselves, but for their capitalist employers.

They, and not the various meanings neoclassical economists attribute to capital, are the real masters.

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I’ve discussed the history and implications of the concept of human capital in economic theory. But there’s a new area of economic history that has discovered the origins in slavery of what we have often taken to be purely capitalist forms of management, including the accounting of human capital.

Caitlin C. Rosenthal is one such historian.

Rosenthal, a Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in business history at Harvard Business School, found that southern plantation owners kept complex and meticulous records, measuring the productivity of their slaves and carefully monitoring their profits—often using even more sophisticated methods than manufacturers in the North. Several of the slave owners’ practices, such as incentivizing workers (in this case, to get them to pick more cotton) and depreciating their worth through the years, are widely used in business management today.

As fascinating as her findings were, Rosenthal had some misgivings about their implications. She didn’t want to be perceived as saying something positive about slavery.

Rosenthal needn’t worry. The fact that modern management techniques resemble the methods used by slaveowners doesn’t indicate anything about the positive aspects of slavery but, rather, the similarities between contemporary capitalism and the treatment of human beings as chattel. The ability “to make sophisticated calculations and measure productivity in a standardized way” and “to experiment with ways of increasing the pace of labor” allow both groups of employers “to determine how far they could push their workers to get the most profit.”

In other words, what both systems have in common is the extraction of a surplus from their workers. And treating workers as human capital is one of the conditions for accomplishing this goal, then as now.

Human capital theory

Posted: 20 February 2015 in Uncategorized
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Sorry. Couldn’t resist (after this). . .

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Like the capital controversy of the 1960s, the current controversy over human capital pits neoclassical economics against its critics.

The original capital controversy (also known as the Cambridge controversy, because it was staged between neoclassical economists at MIT, and thus of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and non-neoclassical economists at Cambridge University, and thus of Cambridge, England), which actually took place between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, was narrowly about the internal consistency of neoclassical economics and more generally about the role of capital in economic theory. The basic idea is that, in a world of heterogeneous capital goods (e.g., a shovel and an automobile assembly-line), you need to know the price of capital (the interest rate or rate of return on capital) in order to determine the quantity of capital (i.e., in order to add up all those different kinds of physical capital). But, in neoclassical economics, you need to use the quantity of capital in order to determine the price of capital (via supply and demand in the “capital market”), which creates a fundamental problem for the neoclassical theory of capital.

Hence, Joan Robinson’s famous question, “What is capital?” To which neoclassical economists responded with gobbledy-gook. And so Robinson repeated her question, the neoclassicals with gobbledy-gook, and the controversy continued without resolution. Neoclassical economists, like Robert Solow, resorted to an aggregate production function (where the problem of heterogenous goods is simply defined away), while Robinson and the other anti-neoclassical economists on the other side of the pond entered into increasingly arcane areas of dispute, such as reswitching and capital-reversing.*

As I have long explained to students, the theory of capital is the most controversial topic in the history of economic thought because the theory of capital is the theory of profits—and therefore an answer to the question, do the capitalists deserve the profits they get?

The original capital controversy was never resolved. But now there’s a new capital controversy, a debate about human capital. It was launched by Branko Milanovic, based on Thomas Piketty’s refusal to include human capital in the other forms of capital he measures in his inquiry about the history and future prospects of wealth inequality.** Basically, Milanovic argues that labor is not a form of capital because labor involves a “doing” (work has to be performed in order for skills to be used and wages to be paid) while other forms of capital are characterized not by work but by nonwork, that is, ownership (financial capital generates a return based on owning some of financial claim, and no work is involved in making such a claim).

why is “human capital” such a disastrous turn of phrase? There are two reasons. First, it obfuscates the crucial difference between labor and capital by terminologically conflating the two. Labor now seems to be just a subspecies of capital. Second and more important, it leads to a perception — and sometimes to the argument used by insufficiently careful economists — that all individuals, whether owners of real capital or not, are basically capitalists. Even if you have human capital and I have financial capital, we are fundamentally the same. Entirely lost is the key distinction that for you to get an income from your human capital, you have to work. For me to get an income from my financial capital, I do not.

I’m with Milanovic on this. There is a fundamental difference between doing and owning, between doing labor and owning capital. But I also think the human capital controversy has even larger implications.

First, a bit of history: the idea of human capital was invented in the early 1960s by neoclassical economist Theodore Schultz [pdf] as part of a more general attack on Marxian-inspired notions of capital (capital that is connected to profits and therefore exploitation), an extension of Adam Smith’s theory of the causes of the wealth of nations (which now, Schultz argued, should include the accumulation of all prior investments in education, on-the-job training, health, migration, and other factors that increase individual productivity), and an attempt to depict all economic agents, including laborers, as capitalists (who “invest” in and “manage a portfolio” of skills and abilities). Human capital can thus be seen as, simultaneously, a blunting of the critical dimension of capital (broadening it to matters other than profits and thus a particular set of claims on the surplus) and a step in the creation of the neoliberal subject (who seeks a “return” on its “investments” in itself).

Second, the problems associated with the notion of human capital, which Piketty’s correctly does not include in his definition of wealth (since, for Piketty, “capital is defined as the sum total of nonhuman assets that can be owned and exchanged on some market”), also serve to undermine at least part of Piketty’s project. One of the elements missing from Piketty’s approach to capital as wealth is any kind of “doing.” It’s all about owning (of “real property” as well as of “financial and professional capital”), without any discussion of the labor that has to be performed in order to generate some kind of extra value and thus a return on capital.

And so, as is always the case in economics, it comes down to a theory of value. In neoclassical theory, all factors of production get, in the form of income, an amount equal to their marginal contributions to production. Everyone contributes and everyone, within free markets, gets their “just deserts.” In Piketty’s world, the owners of capital manage to capture a larger and larger portion of the national income if the rate of economic growth is less than the rate of return on capital (which exacerbates the already-unequal distribution of income, based largely on CEO salaries). In a Marxian world, capital is a social relationship that both generates a surplus (because “industrial capital” exploits “productive labor”) and represents a distributed claim on one or another portion of the surplus (in the form of “financial capital,” the ownership of land, and so on), based on the idea that the “doing” of labor occurs simultaneously—as both cause and effect—with the “owning” of capital. Three different theories of value and thus three very different theories of capital.

But it doesn’t stop there. In recent years, we have seen a dreary expansion of the idea of capital beyond even physical/financial capital and human capital. It now includes—in the hands of business professors, economists, and other social scientists—intellectual, organizational, social, and other forms of capital. Somehow, if they call it capital, they think it deserves to be taken more seriously.

As I see it, all these new forms of capital, like human capital, are ways of expanding Smith’s wealth of nations; they are all seen as contributing to the production of more “stuff”—more use-values, the “immense accumulation of commodities.” But the expanding universe of capital also serves to hide the extent to which all that stuff, which is in reality socially produced, is then privately appropriated—leading to a growing gap between a tiny minority at the top and everyone else. In other words, it’s a pattern of private capitalist appropriation that creates a more and more unequal social distribution of income and wealth.

The capital controversy will remain with us, then, as long as we refuse to solve the problem of capital.

 

*Avi J. Cohen and G. C. Harcourt [pdf] provide a useful overview of the capital controversy.

**Nick Rowe and Tim Worstall have since criticized Milanovic and his call to junk the notion of human capital, and he in turn has responded to their criticisms.

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Economic reality is always stranger than economic theory. Human capital is no exception.

While we can trace ideas akin to human capital back to the classical political economists (such as Smith) and the critics of political economy (including Marx), the notion of human capital really takes hold within neoclassical economics (in the work of Arthur Lewis, Ted Schultz, and especially Gary Becker). It came to refer to the stock of skills, knowledges, and social and personality attributes individual workers had acquired, which in neoclassical models determined their productivity and their appropriate compensation (which, these days, means that CEOs are “worth” 323 times average workers).

But, however offensive and misguided the use of human capital within neoclassical economics has been, it still doesn’t capture the latest development in the economy: human capital contracts [ht: sm].

We’ve heard a lot about corporate personhood – the idea that, as one former Massachusetts governor put it, “Corporations are people.” But there’s a new hot concept in the land of personal finance: personal corporatehood, the notion that people can act like corporations. Increasingly, amid record-high stock markets that have rewarded anything with a ticker symbol, normal people are finding new ways to sell stock, lash themselves to investors, and throw themselves at the market’s mercy.

The latest such deal was the IPO of Arian Foster, the NFL running back who partnered with a sports-marketing agency called Fantex to offer himself up on the public markets. Under the terms of the deal, Foster would earn $10 million by selling 20 percent of his future earnings to investors in the form of a personalized “tracking stock.” (The IPO fell through after Foster sustained a season-ending injury.)

But you don’t have to be a millionaire NFL star to play the stock-selling game. There are now a handful of companies offering what are called “human capital contracts” or “income-share arrangements” to normal people. These contracts don’t involve actual stocks, but they have stocklike characteristics. People who sign up for these programs agree to give a percentage of their income to their financial backers for a period of several years, in exchange for a one-time cash infusion. It’s a sort of Kickstarter for people, a crowd-funding platform that provides backers with monthly royalty checks instead of signed T-shirts.

It used to be the case that workers were encouraged to invest in their human capital portfolio in order to improve their own lot. But economic events have moved us beyond that idea of human capital, making it possible for wealthy investors to acquire portfolios that include a claim on workers’ future earnings.