The Human Capital Hoax

Ordinary capital refers to tangible items and investments: cash, property, equipment. It can be sold, split up, moved around. Human capital is the accumulation of knowledge, skills, abilities, etc. inside a person. As such, it can’t be separated from the human in which it resides.

Human capital comes in two types: specific human capital is the set of skills that someone needs to do a specific job. (For example, knowing how to use a particular home-grown piece of software, or an idiosyncratic manufacturing process.) This is non-transferable: if the person goes to work for a different company, they can’t really take it with them. General human capital is the set of skills and abilities that an employee can take with them, and hence makes them (theoretically) more valuable to employers in a supposedly free marketplace.

So the question is: who should pay for a person to develop that general human capital, which by definition cannot be separated from the person in which they reside? Back in the 1960s, neoclassical economics said: well, duh, the person is responsible for that themselves of course. Say hello to human capital theory, the fall of free education, and the rise of the gig economy, zero-hours contracts, and out-of-control inequality.

On my course this term I’m doing the Learning & Development module! And in the first week, our lecturer Dr Rebecca Whiting dropped this paper on us: “The Human Capital Hoax: Work, Debt and Insecurity in the Era of Uberization” by Peter Fleming, which takes an axe to the whole edifice.

He stands clearly in the corner of human dignity and social equality, but he uses the tools of economics to draw a straight line from the foundations of human capital theory to the obviously flawed practical outcomes we see in the world right now: “This has allowed the genuine yearning for worker independence to be hijacked and transformed into an instrument of proletarianization”

Fuck yeah. One more quote I’m especially fond of:

“[…] a more balanced employment relationship is indispensable if self-determination is to be successfully renegotiated to create fairer life chances. […] One cannot truly express individualism, self-reliance and choice when desperately dependent on an unequal power relationship.

Fleming (2017)

It’s an academic essay, so it’s not quite a casual read, but it’s a powerful tonic when the world outside looks a bit grim.

Genuine Apple Advice for SD card problems

What. The. Hell.

Insert faster! Faster, damn it!

And for the SD card I’m using right now…this tip actually works.

More truth

Heather Cox Richardson, in her newsletter yesterday:

If you can force people to accept as reality something that is demonstrably false, you prove to both of you that they are the ones in charge and you will submit. That’s why it’s so darned important to Trump to be right about everything, so important that he’ll alter a weather chart with a Sharpie.

So how do we figure out what’s real?


Back in September I had what I’ve jokingly described as “a brush with the law.”

It’s not what you think. I was called to give a deposition in a lawsuit in the course of my day job. It involved me spending a whole day in a conference room of a fancy New York law firm, answering questions from an attorney sitting across the table from me. There was a microphone clipped to my shirt, a video camera trained on me the whole time, and a court reporter doing a live transcription. It was not fun.

I can’t say anything about the content of the deposition, but the emotional experience was profoundly unsettling. It gave me a visceral understanding that the legal system is not there to determine “the truth.” It’s there to ensure that two sides get an equal opportunity to discover and present their own version of events.

“It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove is a cliché of crime fiction. When you believe there’s such a thing as objective reality, this doesn’t seem right and fair. It certainly didn’t make me happy. Normally I enjoy spending time in New York. This time, I couldn’t wait to leave.

A few weeks later, I started the first term of a part-time distance learning Master’s course in Organizational Psychology at University of London. I can do the course over five years, so I’m being sensible, taking it easy, and only doing one module per term. This was a good move because the module for this first term is Research Methods, and it’s hard.

And the subject of truth came up again. In the first two weeks we studied epistemology, ontology and the philosophy of science: how do we know what we know? How can we be sure that we know is true? Is there even such a thing as objective knowledge, or is the whole edifice of science a convenient construct that could just as easily be formulated and interpreted in a thousand completely different ways?

I’m a hard science boy. I did maths & physics as an undergrad, and I’m pretty solid on the idea that there is an objective reality, and we just live in it. Physics has a habit of being measurable and immovable. When there’s a discrepancy, it’s theory that’s wrong, not the universe.

Buuuut…in the context of social sciences and psychology, we’re not dealing with particles and forces and fields. We’re dealing with dynamical systems on top of dynamical systems. If someone says that they see the dress as white and gold, when actually it’s black and blue, their perceptions are objectively false. But the statement that the person perceives the dress as white and gold is objectively true. Now think about phenomena that can’t be measured by spectrometers, such as self-image or emotional resilience.

Epistemologically speaking, I’ve been coming to terms with the idea that qualitative research can be rigorous, “hard”, and meaningful just like quantitative research. Is it true? That might be asking the wrong question. Does it matter? The way I’ve got it in my head right now is that qualitative research tends to be broadening: improving our understanding of and empathy for others by gaining insight into their lived and shared experiences.

(Even in the last few weeks of studying quantitative methods, we still have to deal with questions of ontology. Sure, we have scales for measuring “intelligence.” But is this even a valid construct in the first place?)

Yesterday, feeling better than I had been all week, Abi and drove to Castricum beach to watch the sunset, get some sea air, and enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of apple pie at one of the beach cafés. In the light of the Trump impeachment hearings in the US this week, and the general election campaign in the UK, I got on a ramble about how modern media, by attempting to be impartial and “fair to both sides” allows lies to run rampant. How the idea that there are always two sides, and it’s up to the reader or viewer to decide, is in itself a libertarian free-market stance. And we’re back to the nature of truth again.

When we got home, I read Sacha Baron Cohen’s speech to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), printed in The Guardian. He talks about exactly this, with specific reference to the gatekeepers of modern popular knowledge – social media and search engines:

On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.


To quote Edward R Murrow, one “cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument”. We have millions of pieces of evidence for the Holocaust – it is an historical fact. And denying it is not some random opinion. Those who deny the Holocaust aim to encourage another one.

Still, Zuckerberg says that “people should decide what is credible, not tech companies.” But at a time when two-thirds of millennials say they haven’t even heard of Auschwitz, how are they supposed to know what’s “credible”? How are they supposed to know that the lie is a lie?

There is such a thing as objective truth. Facts do exist. And if these internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.

I’ve long turned away from web-scale social media myself, because I’ve found it incompatible with maintaining my own mental health. The only person I’m helping with this stance is myself. Truth is very important to me, but I’m not 100% sure what it is any more. And I don’t know what I, as an individual, can do to promote it.


Emma Brockes in The Guardian – “Forget Bali, I found bliss in the blandness of a chain hotel”

On the second day, after my meetings, I went down to the hotel lobby. The sliding doors opened and the chill air contracted in the dank Florida day. I did some laps of the car park, talking on the phone to friends, then went inside and ate wings. Back in the room, I lay on the bed, looking through the sliding glass doors towards the highway. I thought about sending an email and didn’t. I took a three-hour nap, went downstairs and ordered more wings. No one spoke to me, looked at me or confirmed I existed.

I recognize that feeling from the time last year when my Friday evening flight home was cancelled, and EasyJet put me up in various hotels until they could fly me home again on the Monday evening. I wasn’t in a good headspace at the time, but I look back now on those three days as a break of almost unprecedented rest and tranquillity.



They sleep a lot.