The Perversity of Human Capital and Anglo-Saxons

A while back I traded in my romantic pen, beard, and large red glasses for G-mail, sweaters, and contacts. I decided I spent too much time lamenting about the world and not enough time fixing it. And for the most part, I was happy with this change until I realized that I had started to use terms like “human capital.” “Human capital” is a term people use in all sorts of official business type things – corporations, marketing, nonprofit work, public policy, and government.  The unfortunate part about terms like “human capital” is that no matter how much you disapprove of such terms, they invariably show up in your vocabulary if you spend enough time in official business type things.

And so I was at a meeting on Thursday, and the words kind of tumbled out of my mouth without even thinking about it. “What we have here is a human capital problem.” And then I cringed. Human capital seems like it should be an oxymoron like jumbo shrimp or cheap college or something like that. Humans are not capital. They are people. Individual people.

In my Medieval English Literature class right now we are learning about the Anglo-Saxons as we read Beowulf. In Anglo-Saxon law, everything had a price. Your nose was cut off in an argument? Six shillings to you from the perpetrator! Even your life was given a price. The Old English word for this price is “weregild,” literally “man price.” My friend very insight-fully asked in discussion whether we still have a concept of weregild. Initially, I thought no. We are popularly taught that human life is invaluable. When someone is murdered now, the murderer doesn’t pay the victim’s family; they are locked up to protect the rest of society. It seemed obvious that we have evolved beyond weregild.

But then, what exactly is “human capital?” Isn’t weregild really what we are talking about when we talk about “human capital?” Sure, we would never say that one man is financially more valuable than another, but we do say that one man is more valuable than another. That is the whole problem of human capital. It assumes that there is a group of people out there that your organization needs that your organization can’t have and that the way to get ahead is to find and woo that group. This is horrible thinking. Everyone brings value to a project. If you have a group of people who are intensely passionate about your organization, you should find a way to use their talents to help you. Figure out how to plug them in and watch as creativity begins to overflow.

My friend from class said that we might as well walk around with dollar values tattooed on our foreheads. At least that way we would know where we stood. I’m afraid she might be right.