Human Capital?!

Okay, let me begin by saying that I am not normally a “politically correct” type of guy. Too often I find myself having to explain what I did and did not mean by something I said because I am not “sensitive enough” to recognize how it could have possibly been deemed offensive by that one person in a million that just happened to catch wind of my soliloquy—and subsequently found it offensive.

However, occasionally a buzz phrase catches my PC sensors, (small though they may be) and I simply have to respond, even if it is in the form of an unspoken reflection.

This time, it’s the phrase “Human Capital.”

Now, I make no claims whatsoever of being economically astute, so don’t be surprised when I say that this is new to me. I first heard the phrase when a software provider I work with changed their name to include the offending word combo. My first reaction was, “Huh?! Sounds like some sort of futuristic, sci-fi movie in which an evil corporation is trafficking humans.”

Then I started seeing the phrase pop up in more and more places. I discovered that there is actually a “Human Capital Institute” which proclaims that it is at the “forefront of [a] new movement.” What sort, you ask? Me too. Apparently this new movement promotes “Strategic Human Capital Management [as] the most powerful lever for innovation and growth in today's knowledge economy.”

I am now scratching my head, just slightly beyond confused and towards annoyed. Am I the only person on the planet that sees this as odd and probably unacceptable? Human capital? Powerful lever?

So I did a bit of research. Seems Professor Gary Becker (who I’m sure is a very nice and smart guy from the University of Chicago) explains it like so:

To most people capital means a bank account, a hundred shares of IBM stock, assembly lines, or steel plants in the Chicago area. These are all forms of capital in the sense that they are assets that yield income and other useful outputs over long periods of time. But…economists regard expenditures on education, training, medical care, and so on as investments in human capital. They are called human capital because people cannot be separated from their knowledge, skills, health, or values in the way they can be separated from their financial and physical assets.

Oh, I see. Seems it’s acceptable to refer to human beings as a commodity because after all, they are valuable. Heck, why not just go back to a simpler classification of slaves and masters?

Now, I’m not naïve. I realize that any system of commerce is going to have some functional similarities to slaves and masters. But that doesn’t mean that it is the philosophical equivalent. Saying to another “I value you as a person and I value your skills, abilities, knowledge and experience, therefore I am willing to pay you to assist me in an endeavor,” is different. The mere ability to recognize that (contrary to Wikipedia) humans are not simply one of four types of fixed capital, that they are not factors of production, and that they are not a fungible resource…well, that recognition is an essential part of what makes us human.

When I read the story of creation in Genesis chapters 1 & 2, I read that there are really two levels of creation: Man and everything else. What makes humans so different, so “special”? Genesis 2:7 says that it’s because we are more than dust. We have the breath of life inside, making us “living souls” (God’s words, not mine).Nothing else in all of creation has that distinction.

To value a human being as completely different from land, machines and buildings seems obvious, even if you aren’t a fan of Genesis. But when I hear of companies and economists referring to living souls as “human capital,” I start to think the obvious is not quite so.

So there, I said it (long-winded, I know). Human capital is a ridiculous phrase that should be banned from corporate jargon guides everywhere. If not for the reasons I stated above, then at least because most people under the age of 40 are not going to take too kindly to being thought of as a commodity.

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About Eric Wilbanks

Brand strategist. Wordsmith. Change architect. Training specialist. DiSC Certified. Family guy (hot wife and 4 cool kids). Love my Bible, guitars, baseball, and MMA.


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