Junk the phrase ‘human capital’


Branko Milanovic in Al Jazeera America (image Meriel Jane Waissman, Getty Images):

Among many services both great and small that Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” has rendered to economics is his skeptical view of the terminology of human capital. That coinage was one of the biggest mistakes in economic nomenclature in the last 50 years. It was ideologically motivated and has contributed to conceptual confusion.

Since Adam Smith, economists have known that there is a difference between more and less skilled labor. Under skill, we include education (measured by years of formal schooling), experience (measured by the years one has worked) and, less precisely definable, knowledge. Whether using Marxian or neoclassical economic theory, people with greater skills are supposed to be paid more because they produce greater value.

It is this combination of education, experience and knowledge that economists Jacob Mincer and Gary Becker decided in the early 1960s to term “human capital.” There is nothing new in the phrase nor anything harmful as such. We can call a more skilled person a person with greater human capital or use any other term, as long as we know and agree on what we mean. Calling it “human capital” appears a mere terminological quirk: We could just as well say that a more skilled person has greater “skilz” or whatever we decide to call it.

So if the name that we give to more skilled labor, whether “human capital” or “skilz,” does not matter, 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.

More here. A follow-up can be found here.