“Of Human Capital, or (apologies to W. Somerset Maugham) Of Human Bondage”

I have frequently seen reference to the term “human capital” in regard to public school children, and instinctively recoiled from it. However, I didn’t fully understand the concept of human capital until I read the explanation in Lester K. Spence’s 2015 book Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. Here are some quotes, followed by my observations.

“The divide between good jobs and bad jobs [previously discussed as meaning jobs that provide decent wages, benefits, security, and respect vs. jobs that don’t] comes from deindustrialization, which itself comes from public policy designed to first entice manufacturers to move out of industrial centers (with high labor costs) and then secondly to reduce international trade barriers in ways that reduce labor costs even more. But this divide is also increasingly supported by our own growing acceptance of the idea of human capital. If human capital is something we work on and make choices to develop, just like businesses, then the benefits we receive or do not receive are the result of our choices. In other words people who work at Walmart ‘deserve’ to work at Walmart, and ‘deserve’ the low wages they are given. People who work at Google on the other hand, not to mention the people who created Google in the first place, ‘deserve’ the high wages (and stock dividends) they receive. Why, using this logic, would we pay someone the equivalent of a middle-class salary and benefits to engage in nothing more than routine physical labor? (emphasis added) …

“I distinguished good jobs from bad jobs by wages, job security, benefits, dignity, and due process. These came from union activism. …

“Human capital is an individual trait not necessarily a collective one. Neoliberal logic suggests unions distort the ability of markets to function perfectly by taking away the ability of individuals to negotiate their wages based on their own human capital. Further, unions distort their ability to function on the job because the benefits unions provide can make people less likely to work hard (or at all). [grrrr] …

“The divide between the employed and the unemployed is also connected to the concept of human capital, as human capital can both be used to explain why some people are employed and some people are not, and to argue for certain types of solutions as opposed to others. If the reason people are unemployed is not because of structural deficits or discrimination but because they haven’t done what it takes to be employed, then the solution is for them to somehow attain the needed skills to become competitive on the job market. Here the ascension of neoliberal economics is particularly acute. …

“… the American political figure most associated with the [neoliberal] turn is Ronald Reagan. … Before Reagan’s election government spending on public housing had increased significantly. After his election, he stopped construction of new public housing units. He cut full-time Housing and Urban Development (HUD) staff 21% and restructured it by making it a voucher program, …”

Does this sound familiar? The privatization, anti-union agenda, coupled with deregulation, market free-for-all, lack of transparency and true accountability, and dismantling of the social safety net—in other words, the neoliberal agenda, pushed by ALEC and conservative Republicans on the right and Neoliberal Democratic policy-makers on the left–is wreaking havoc not only in the broad society, but particularly, and callously, in public education. Think charter schools for example. To the corporate elites, there is no such thing as the public good.

Those familiar with the next big thing in education—Competency/Proficiency Based Education espousing digital learning anywhere, anytime, constant monitoring/assessing/data mining of every keystroke and every hesitancy, and earning badges to verify mastery of pre-fab content modules aligned to fatally flawed Common Core Standards—will no doubt see the connection to the insidious and pervasive idea of human capital. This economic phrase is antithetical to the human needs of a diverse society, but is perfectly suited to delivering a dystopian world where only those who fit the criteria of worthiness envisioned by reality-and-empathy-lacking corporate/technocratic elites will thrive. Back to social Darwinism, with a twist of uber-technology/artificial intelligence. The mania for data and the irrational belief in the power of algorithms and technology to solve human problems are hurtling us to catastrophe.

See here on Pearson and AI

and here

and here

See here on digital badges

and here on digital badging

 

 

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