When the University of Chicago economist Theodore Schultz began developing the concept of “human capital,” he felt obliged to directly address something that no longer seems to trouble the concept or those who use it. On the first page of his 1961 article “Investment in Human Capital,” Schultz began by gingerly addressing the concept’s potentially offensive sound. “Our values and beliefs inhibit us from looking upon human beings as capital goods, except in slavery, and this we abhor,” he wrote. The clarification was necessary because for Shultz and human capital theorists after him, human capital actually offers us a path to freedom. As Schultz argued, “by investing in themselves, people can enlarge the range of choice available to them.”[1]

As Mike Konczal has observed, the ring of slavery lingered around the phrase as it came into broader circulation in the mid-1970s. He quotes the economic historian of slavery Robert Fogel, who observed somewhat archly then that

economists have extended the use of the concept of capital beyond its usual application to machines, buildings, and other inanimate objects. They have applied the concept of capital to the wealth inherent in the capacity of human beings to perform labor, calling such wealth ‘human capital.’ This extension of the concept seemed odd at first because it was applied not to explain behavior in nineteenth-century slave societies but in twentieth-century free societies.[2]

No one apologizes anymore for human capital. In fact, “human capital” is now a nearly  touchy-feely counterpoint to mainstream economics’ emphasis on impersonal metrics of growth. It celebrates, as Schultz argued, a broadening of human choices in the market; in human capital, there is agency, opportunity, respect. Human capital puts the “humanity” in “capital,” as it were.

For example, the World Bank advertised an event on education and third-world development entitled “Building Human Capital: A Project for the World” under the hastag #investinpeople. The program’s title evokes philanthropy, rather than profit. As part of the same impetus to develop a high-tech labor force, the World Bank also advises African nations to invest more in their own human capital, a historical irony probably unappreciated by many at the World Bank.

But this historical indifference makes sense: human capital is all about the future, and it has no truck with the past. In his book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris defines the phrase as “the present value of a person’s future earnings, or a person’s imagined price at scale, if you could by and sell free laborers—minus upkeep.”[3] Gary Becker, the other University of Chicago economist most famously linked to the human-capital concept, defined it as the non-material assets—education, skills, satisfaction and what he called “psychic income”—that a worker gets from and brings to their work. It’s a way of valuing the cognitive, emotional, and technical skills that you learn at work, in school, and in what you might call “life,” if you believe in the existence of something like a “work-life balance.” The attraction of human capital was that it could give workers a way of valuing aspects of themselves that otherwise go overlooked and unappreciated. This is its insidious appeal: human capital gives workers credit for “investing in themselves,” and gives us the assurance that doing so will pay off later.

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“It may seem strained, artificial, and perhaps even immoral…” Another apology for human capital from Gary Becker, “An Economic Analysis of Fertility,” 1960

Another example of the “strained,” artificial,” forward-looking language of “investing in people”–children, in particular–comes from a recent ad campaign by United Negro College Fund, entitled Invest in Better Futures. The UNCF has one of the most famous slogans in advertising history, of course: “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” The new campaign answering an unasked question about the old phrase: what, exactly, is the economic reason that minds should not be wasted?

To answer this question, the campaign’s title, “Invest in Better Futures,” puns on the two meanings of “futures.” The first is the financial plural: “futures” are a contract based on the future value of a particular commodity. And the second, of course, is the colloquial notion of individual lives unfolding over time. A 2013 ad begins by asking viewers, in the voice of an aspiring college student, “What if you could invest in the future of kids, like a stock?” (The scriptwriter then hastily adds, as if realizing the rhetorical corner she has stumbled into: “not the kind of stock that’s about making money.”) The idea of the campaign was to rebrand the charitable donation the UNCF routinely solicits as a philanthropic “investment” in “the future.” To compete the metaphor, the campaign website features a faux-stock-market ticker-symbol. It also offers a legal disclaimer that no financial return could be expected by speculating on the futures of Black students.

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As a UNCF press release explained, “Economists were consulted for the campaign and developed an algorithm to show the social return of donating just $10 to UNCF, including the impact on earnings, crime savings and health savings.” The UNCF balances its presumed audience’s faith in algorithms and the experts who develop them with a set of fears: a collapsing job market, the social burden of the unhealthy, and crime. Here, the answer to the question, Why exactly is a mind actually a terrible thing to waste? is made clearer: to increase earnings and save public expenditures. At one level, this is all just branding, to promote the same scholarship work that the UNCF has always done.  And perhaps a social-service organization cannot be blamed too much for tactically appropriating our era’s lust for the economization of everything. But nothing is “just branding,” and this argument for education funding is sad, to say the least, and its central metaphor’s historical resonances troubling, to say the least. “My name is Syndi,” one young woman, a UNCF beneficiary, announces, “and I’m your dividend.”

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[1] Frederick W. Schultz, “Investment in Human Capital,” The American Economic Review 51: 1 (1961) 2

[2] Robert Fogel, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995) cited in Mike Konczal, “Human Capital and Slavery,” Rortybomb.wordpress.com, April 6, 2008.

[3] Harris, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials (New York: Little, Brown, 2017) 22.

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