The Moral Implications of the Concept of Human Capital: More on How to Create Living Capital Markets

The moral reprehensibility of the concept of human capital hinges on its use in rationalizing impersonal business decisions in the name of profits. Even when the viability of the organization is at stake, the discarding of people (referred to in some human resource departments as “taking out the trash”) entails degrees of psychological and economic injury no one should have to suffer, or inflict.

There certainly is a justified need for a general concept naming the productive capacity of labor. But labor is far more than a capacity for work. No one’s working life should be reduced to a job description. Labor involves a wide range of different combinations of skills, abilities, motivations, health, and trustworthiness. Human capital has then come to be broken down into a wide variety of forms, such as literacy capital, health capital, social capital, etc.

The metaphoric use of the word “capital” in the phrase “human capital” referring to stocks of available human resources rings hollow. The traditional concept of labor as a form of capital is an unjustified reduction of diverse capacities in itself. But the problem goes deeper. Intangible resources like labor are not represented and managed in the forms that make markets for tangible resources efficient. Transferable representations, like titles and deeds, give property a legal status as owned and an economic status as financially fungible. And in those legal and economic terms, tangible forms of capital give capitalism its hallmark signification as the lifeblood of the cycle of investment, profits, and reinvestment.

Intangible forms of capital, in contrast, are managed without the benefit of any standardized way of proving what is owned, what quantity or quality of it exists, and what it costs. Human, social, and natural forms of capital are therefore managed directly, by acting in an unmediated way on whomever or whatever embodies them. Such management requires, even in capitalist economies, the use of what are inherently socialistic methods, as these are the only methods available for dealing with the concrete individual people, communities, and ecologies involved (Fisher, 2002, 2011; drawing from Hayek, 1948, 1988; De Soto, 2000).

The assumption that transferable representations of intangible assets are inconceivable or inherently reductionist is, however, completely mistaken. All economic capital is ultimately brought to life (conceived, gestated, midwifed, and nurtured to maturity) as scientific capital. Scientific measurability is what makes it possible to add up the value of shares of stock across holdings, to divide something owned into shares, and to represent something in a court or a bank in a portable form (Latour, 1987; Fisher, 2002, 2011).

Only when you appreciate this distinction between dead and living capital, between capital represented on transferable instruments and capital that is not, then you can see that the real tragedy is not in the treatment of labor as capital. No, the real tragedy is in the way everyone is denied the full exercise of their rights over the skills, abilities, health, motivations, trustworthiness, and environmental resources that are rightly their own personal, private property.

Being homogenized at the population level into an interchangeable statistic is tragic enough. But when we leave the matter here, we fail to see and to grasp the meaning of the opportunities that are lost in that myopic world view. As I have been at pains in this blog to show, statistics are not measures. Statistical models of interactions between several variables at the group level are not the same thing as measurement models of interactions within a single variable at the individual level. When statistical models are used in place of measurement models, the result is inevitably numbers without a soul. When measurement models of individual response processes are used to produce meaningful estimates of how much of something someone possesses, a whole different world of possibilities opens up.

In the same way that the Pythagorean Theorem applies to any triangle, so, too, do the coordinates from the international geodetic survey make it possible to know everything that needs to be known about the location and disposition of a piece of real estate. Advanced measurement models in the psychosocial sciences are making it possible to arrive at similarly convenient and objective ways of representing the quality and quantity of intangible assets. Instead of being just one number among many others, real measures tell a story that situates each of us relative to everyone else in a meaningful way.

The practical meaning of the maxim “you manage what you measure” stems from those instances in which measures embody the fullness of the very thing that is the object of management interest. An engine’s fuel efficiency, or the volume of commodities produced, for instance, are things that can be managed less or more efficiently because there are measures of them that directly represent just what we want to control. Lean thinking enables the removal of resources that do not contribute to the production of the desired end result.

Many metrics, however, tend to obscure and distract from what need to be managed. The objects of measurement may seem to be obviously related to what needs to be managed, but dealing with each of them piecemeal results in inefficient and ineffective management. In these instances, instead of the characteristic cycle of investment, profit, and reinvestment, there seems only a bottomless pit absorbing ever more investment and never producing a profit. Why?

The economic dysfunctionality of intangible asset markets is intimately tied up with the moral dysfunctionality of those markets. Drawing an analogy from a recent analysis of political freedom (Shirky, 2010), economic freedom has to be accompanied by a market society economically literate enough, economically empowered enough, and interconnected enough to trade on the capital stocks issued. Western society, and increasingly the entire global society, is arguably economically literate and sufficiently interconnected to exercise economic freedom.

Economic empowerment is another matter entirely. There is no economic power without fungible capital, without ways of representing resources of all kinds, tangible and intangible, that transparently show what is available, how much of it there is, and what quality it is. A form of currency expressing the value of that capital is essential, but money is wildly insufficient to the task of determining the quality and quantity of the available capital stocks.

Today’s education, health care, human resource, and environmental quality markets are the diametric opposite of the markets in which investors, producers, and consumers are empowered. Only when dead human, social, and natural capital is brought to life in efficient markets (Fisher, 2011) will we empower ourselves with fuller degrees of creative control over our economic lives.

The crux of the economic empowerment issue is this: in the current context of inefficient intangibles markets, everyone is personally commodified. Everything that makes me valuable to an employer or investor or customer, my skills, motivations, health, and trustworthiness, is unjustifiably reduced to a homogenized unit of labor. And in the social and environmental quality markets, voting our shares is cumbersome, expensive, and often ineffective because of the immense amount of work that has to be done to defend each particular living manifestation of the value we want to protect.

Concentrated economic power is exercised in the mass markets of dead, socialized intangible assets in ways that we are taught to think of as impersonal and indifferent to each of us as individuals, but which is actually experienced by us as intensely personal.

So what is the difference between being treated personally as a commodity and being treated impersonally as a commodity? This is the same as asking what it would mean to be empowered economically with creative control over the stocks of human, social, and natural capital that are rightfully our private property. This difference is the difference between dead and living capital (Fisher, 2002, 2011).

Freedom of economic communication, realized in the trade of privately owned stocks of any form of capital, ought to be the highest priority in the way we think about the infrastructure of a sustainable and socially responsible economy. For maximum efficiency, that freedom requires a common meaningful and rigorous quantitative language enabling determinations of what exactly is for sale, and its quality, quantity, and unit price. As I have ad nauseum repeated in this blog, measurement based in scientifically calibrated instrumentation traceable to consensus standards is absolutely essential to meeting this need.

Coming in at a very close second to the highest priority is securing the ability to trade. A strong market society, where people can exercise the right to control their own private property—their personal stocks of human, social, and natural capital—in highly efficient markets, is more important than policies, regulations, and five-year plans dictating how masses of supposedly homogenous labor, social, and environmental commodities are priced and managed.

So instead of reacting to the downside of the business cycle with a socialistic safety net, how might a capitalistic one prove more humane, moral, and economically profitable? Instead of guaranteeing a limited amount of unemployment insurance funded through taxes, what we should have are requirements for minimum investments in social capital. Instead of employment in the usual sense of the term, with its implications of hiring and firing, we should have an open market for fungible human capital, in which everyone can track the price of their stock, attract and make new investments, take profits and income, upgrade the quality and/or quantity of their stock, etc.

In this context, instead of receiving unemployment compensation, workers not currently engaged in remunerated use of their skills would cash in some of their accumulated stock of social capital. The cost of social capital would go up in periods of high demand, as during the recent economic downturns caused by betrayals of trust and commitment (which are, in effect, involuntary expenditures of social capital). Conversely, the cost of human capital would also fluctuate with supply and demand, with the profits (currently referred to as wages) turned by individual workers rising and falling with the price of their stocks. These ups and downs, being absorbed by everyone in proportion to their investments, would reduce the distorted proportions we see today in the shares of the rewards and punishments allotted.

Though no one would have a guaranteed wage, everyone would have the opportunity to manage their capital to the fullest, by upgrading it, keeping it current, and selling it to the highest bidder. Ebbing and flowing tides would more truly lift and drop all boats together, with the drops backed up with the social capital markets’ tangible reassurance that we are all in this together. This kind of a social capitalism transforms the supposedly impersonal but actually highly personal indifference of flows in human capital into a more fully impersonal indifference in which individuals have the potential to maximize the realization of their personal goals.

What we need is to create a visible alternative to the bankrupt economic system in a kind of reverse shock doctrine. Eleanor Roosevelt often said that the thing we are most afraid of is the thing we most need to confront if we are to grow. The more we struggle against what we fear, the further we are carried away from what we want. Only when we relax into the binding constraints do we find them loosened. Only when we channel overwhelming force against itself or in a productive direction can we withstand attack. When we find the courage to go where the wild things are and look the monsters in the eye will we have the opportunity to see if their fearful aspect is transformed to playfulness. What is left is often a more mundane set of challenges, the residuals of a developmental transition to a new level of hierarchical complexity.

And this is the case with the moral implications of the concept of human capital. Treating individuals as fungible commodities is a way that some use to protect themselves from feeling like monsters and from being discarded as well. Those who find themselves removed from the satisfactions of working life can blame the shortsightedness of their former colleagues, or the ugliness of the unfeeling system. But neither defensive nor offensive rationalizations do anything to address the actual problem, and the problem has nothing to do with the morality or the immorality of the concept of human capital.

The problem is the problem. That is, the way we approach and define the problem delimits the sphere of the creative options we have for solving it. As Henry Ford is supposed to have said, whether you think you can or you think you cannot, you’re probably right. It is up to us to decide whether we can create an economic system that justifies its reductions and actually lives up to its billing as impersonal and unbiased, or if we cannot. Either way, we’ll have to accept and live with the consequences.

References

DeSoto, H. (2000). The mystery of capital: Why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else. New York: Basic Books.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2011, Spring). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 12(1), in press.

Hayek, F. A. (1948). Individualism and economic order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hayek, F. A. (1988). The fatal conceit: The errors of socialism (W. W. Bartley, III, Ed.) The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shirky, C. (2010, December 20). The political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere, and political change. Foreign Affairs, 90(1), http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67038/clay-shirky/the-political-power-of-social-media.

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