Thursday, 10 September 2009

Human capital

I’m a latecomer to the superbly written White House drama series, The West Wing.

In the first series, the deputy chief of staff meets with a black senator who wants the government to start making reparation for slavery. As their exchange grows increasingly heated, the senator describes how his own grandparents were kidnapped in West Africa, transported in appalling conditions and sold onto a plantation.

Clearly discomforted, the deputy chief of staff suggests that the conversation would be better kept in the abstract. But the senator demurs, knowing his emotional case is a powerful one.

Most businesses, like public servants, are fearful of emotion. They like the abstract because abstractions take the heat out of uncomfortable realities. Shrinking markets, for example, seem somehow more palatable than fewer customers.

In certain circles ‘human capital’ is the latest term for employees; the people without whose talents and energy there would be no business. But if it comes to it, you can reduce your capital with an easier conscience than you can lay off your people.

Slaves, of course, were human capital in the most literal sense. It would be salutary for the people who coined the current term to reflect on that for a moment because, as Orwell so brilliantly demonstrated, you can enslave people with language, and particularly the dehumanising language of abstraction, just as easily as you can with chains.

1 comment:

John Simmons said...

Welcome to the West Wing, Jamie. We can talk about this at Stansted airport. I love the programme because it's written with optimism about human motivations. Good god, it even regards politicians as human and not human capital. And I think they're right.