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Human In Human Capital

(June 02, 2004) - A jungle is a good thing unless you need to get through it in a hurry. The past decade has produced an amazing array of work in the area of Human Capital Economics. It's a virtual jungle of conflicting methods and perspectives.

And, the trouble is that they don't fit together...lots of individual facts, tools that work in certain circumstances, ideas that deliver half of the picture, albeit very clearly. In spite of the fact that the whole thing is a metaphor, lots of really interesting pieces of work have been done.

The core problem is that there is no enduring framework or theory that describes the entirety of human capital. Since most paying customers are employers, the "asset" side of the equation is interestingly clear. There is virtually no work done on the ownership angle. While the idea that human endeavors are analogous to "capital" is a rich and fertile playing field, the human part of the deal is lacking.

In the right hands, the idea of Human as Capital could be an incredibly liberating individual philosophy. However, we are just emerging from a century that featured our recovery from the literal interpretations of that idea (humans owning other humans or various human quality ranking schemes). The school systems have worked hard to train children to avoid operations that suggest class superiority or human quality measurement systems.

Any well articulated approach to Human Capital would have a large role for Religion, Spirituality, and a range of self-improvement approaches. In Human Capital, the owner is the individual. While investors may decide to help improve an individual (a subject closer to Religion than banking), ownership of the improvement is never vague. Under most conditions, there could be a variety of investors but only one entity can actually produce an improvement.

Education (another investment strategy) works well sometimes and fails miserably in others. Often these mixed results are a part of normal expectations (the curved grading system). Certainly, any school of Human Capital would have a clear view of Education, what works and what fails in what circumstances and why.

Any big picture approach to Human Capital would almost have to be founded on a code of ethics. It would, in these times, have to offer both an explanation and condemnation for "prison guard behavior". The explanation is required because an adequate theory needs to explain almost all behaviors. The condemnation is required because any useful Human Capital toolset is a recipe for more of the same.

The real magic of real Human Capital is that it can grow far faster than compound interest. In a world that can recognize human potential, amazing returns can be generated for individual and investor alike.

There's a laundry list of things that should be covered by a theory of Human Capital, under that name or another. No one entity can articulate them all at one time. That doesn't mean that it shouldn't intend to.

The reason the discipline is in such a sad state today is that all of the quick questions and answers have been done, the low hanging fruit has been picked. We have a pile of fruit and no plan for the rest of the orchard 

John Sumser

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Materials written by John Sumser © TwoColorHat. All Rights Reserved.
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