Gary Becker, as you must surely know by now, has passed away. This is an incredible string of bad luck for the University of Chicago. With Coase and Fogel having passed recently, and Director, Stigler and Friedman dying a number of years ago, perhaps Lucas and Heckman are the only remaining giants from Chicago’s Golden Age.
Becker is of course known for using economic methods – by which I mean constrained rational choice – to expand economics beyond questions of pure wealth and prices to question of interest to social science at large. But this contribution is too broad, and he was certainly not the only one pushing such an expansion; the Chicago Law School clearly was doing the same. For an economist, Becker’s principal contribution can be summarized very simply: individuals and households are producers as well as consumers, and rational decisions in production are as interesting to analyze as rational decisions in consumption. As firms must purchase capital to realize their productive potential, humans much purchase human capital to improve their own possible utilities. As firms take actions today which alter constraints tomorrow, so do humans. These may seem to be trite statements, but that are absolutely not: human capital, and dynamic optimization of fixed preferences, offer a radical framework for understanding everything from topics close to Becker’s heart, like educational differences across cultures or the nature of addiction, to the great questions of economics like how the world was able to break free from the dreadful Malthusian constraint.
Today, the fact that labor can augment itself with education is taken for granted, which is a huge shift in how economists think about production. Becker, in his Nobel Prize speech: “Human capital is so uncontroversial nowadays that it may be difficult to appreciate the hostility in the 1950s and 1960s toward the approach that went with the term. The very concept of human capital was alleged to be demeaning because it treated people as machines. To approach schooling as an investment rather than a cultural experience was considered unfeeling and extremely narrow. As a result, I hesitated a long time before deciding to call my book Human Capital, and hedged the risk by using a long subtitle. Only gradually did economists, let alone others, accept the concept of human capital as a valuable tool in the analysis of various economic and social issues.”
What do we gain by considering the problem of human capital investment within the household? A huge amount! By using human capital along with economic concepts like “equilibrium” and “private information about types”, we can answer questions like the following. Does racial discrimination wholly reflect differences in tastes? (No – because of statistical discrimination, underinvestment in human capital by groups that suffer discrimination can be self-fulfilling, and, as in Becker’s original discrimination work, different types of industrial organization magnify or ameliorate tastes for discrimination in different ways.) Is the difference between men and women in traditional labor roles a biological matter? (Not necessarily – with gains to specialization, even very small biological differences can generate very large behavioral differences.) What explains many of the strange features of labor markets, such as jobs with long tenure, firm boundaries, etc.? (Firm-specific human capital requires investment, and following that investment there can be scope for hold-up in a world without complete contracts.) The parenthetical explanations in this paragraph require completely different policy responses from previous, more naive explanations of the phenomena at play.
Personally, I find human capital most interesting in understanding the Malthusian world. Malthus conjectured the following: as productivity improved for some reason, excess food will appear. With excess food, people will have more children and population will grow, necessitating even more food. To generate more food, people will begin farming marginal land, until we wind up with precisely the living standards per capita that prevailed before the productivity improvement. We know, by looking out our windows, that the world in 2014 has broken free from Malthus’ dire calculus. But how? The critical factors must be that as productivity improves, population does not grow, or else grows slower than the continued endogenous increases in productivity. Why might that be? The quantity-quality tradeoff. A productivity improvement generates surplus, leading to demand for non-agricultural goods. Increased human capital generates more productivity on those goods. Parents have fewer kids but invest more heavily in their human capital so that they can work in the new sector. Such substitution is only partial, so in order to get wealthy, we need a big initial productivity improvement to generate demand for the goods in the new sector. And thus Malthus is defeated by knowledge.
Finally, a brief word on the origin of human capital. The idea that people take deliberate and costly actions to improve their productivity, and that formal study of this object may be useful, is modern: Mincer and Schultz in the 1950s, and then Becker with his 1962 article and famous 1964 book. That said, economists (to the chagrin of some other social scientists!) have treated humans as a type of capital for much longer. A fascinating 1966 JPE [gated] traces this early history. Petty, Smith, Senior, Mill, von Thunen: they all thought an accounting of national wealth required accounting for the productive value of the people within the nation, and 19th century economists frequently mention that parents invest in their children. These early economists made such claims knowing they were controversial; Walras clarifies that in pure theory “it is proper to abstract completely from considerations of justice and practical expediency” and to regard human beings “exclusively from the point of view of value in exchange.” That is, don’t think we are imagining humans as being nothing other than machines for production; rather, human capital is just a useful concept when discussing topics like national wealth. Becker, unlike the caricature where he is the arch-neoliberal, was absolutely not the first to “dehumanize” people by rationalizing decisions like marriage or education in a cost-benefit framework; rather, he is great because he was the first to show how powerful an analytical concept such dehumanization could be!