Event Report: “From Input to Asset: Human Capital Revisited”

On October 14th, 2021, EAA sponsored an online talk entitled “From Input to Asset: Human Capital Revisited”, with guest speaker Michel Feher (Zone Books), joining us from France. The presentation was followed by discussion and open Q & A with the audience.


One point of departure for Dr. Feher’s inquiry is to deepen our understand of the difference between the neoliberal project (i.e., as Hayek, the Chicago school economists, and the German Ordoliberals outlined it, divergences among them notwithstanding), and the present-day regime of financialized capitalism that neoliberal reforms has generated. Recent scholarship has explored this difference by emphasizing the flexibility, diversity and mutability of neoliberalism, but Feher argues that our contemporary condition appears more clearly when we think of it outside the neoliberal box, so to speak.


More specifically, Feher traces this difference through a genealogy of the notion of human capital. This concept is generally associated with the worldview and program of the Chicago School of Economics, and more specifically with Gary Becker. For the critics of neoliberalism, it also evokes Michel Foucault, for in his famous 1979 lectures entitled The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault draws on Becker’s definition of human capital to devise the notion of the entrepreneur of oneself, which he sees as the neoliberal version of homo oeconomicus.


While Foucault’s insights remain essential to understand the pivotal role that human capital has played both in the neoliberals’ theoretical outlook and in their political agenda, two updates are in order. The first one aims to disentangle the initial appearance and usage of human capital from its appropriation and deployment by neoliberal economists. The second one endeavors to show how, once implemented, neoliberal public policies have reconfigured the notion of human capital in ways that their promoters did not foresee. Altogether, the concept of human capital is thus irreducible to a mere template of neoliberal doctrine: while undeniably at the heart of Gary Becker’s “economic approach to human behavior”, it started off by informing the political agenda that Chicago School economists opposed and is now central to an economic as well as psychic condition that neoliberal reforms have unwittingly engineered.


During the discussion following Dr. Feher’s presentation, Dr. Sato Maki noted that a parallel idea of “social common capital” was developed in Japan by Uzawa Hirofumi. Moreover, Becker and Uzawa were colleagues at Chicago in the 1960s, and needless to say the Chicago school embodies the line of thought developed by Milton Friedman, i.e., that market-based mechanisms should be granted far more importance than government intervention. To this, Feher added that Uzawa moved to Chicago in 1964 (the year that Schultz handed the human capital program over to Becker), and it is worth noting further that the young economists who studied under Uzawa at Chicago were Stiglitz and Akerloff, two future New Keynesians who became very influential during the Clinton administration (Stiglitz became Clinton’s Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors).


Reported by M. Downing Roberts (EAA Project Research Fellow)