Is Human Capital Truly Fair?

Sara Sebastian ’18

So let’s start this off by asking the question, what is human capital? According to Charles Wheelan in his book Naked Economics, human capital is “the sum total of skills embodied within an individual: education, intelligence, charisma, creativity, work experience, entrepreneurial vigor, even the ability to throw a baseball fast. It is what you would be left with if someone stripped away all of your assets – your job, your money, your home, your possessions – and left you on a street corner with only the clothes on your back.” (Wheelan 127). So is this really fair? Coming from the perspective of a man who has worked hard his entire life to get a good education so he can become a prestigious lawyer, of course it is fair to be judged in the job field based solely on their human capital. But what about the marginalized people like people with disabilities, the poor, immigrants, or the persecuted? What about that young woman who grew up dirt poor on the streets whose parents believed that education was not that important so she should just get a low-paying job instead to help support the family? Or the boy who was born with a physical disability and is in a wheelchair? They weren’t given the same opportunities as the man who became a lawyer but for all we know the woman who wasn’t fortunate enough to get an education could have possibly become a better lawyer than that man or even cured cancer, but instead she is stuck flipping burgers for the rest of her life. Is that really fair?

Charles Wheelan in Naked Economics gives this example, where he compares a situation where one day someone drops off 100,000 high school drop outs on a street corner in Chicago, versus dropping off 100,000 graduates from America’s top universities. In this, he shows that after the high school dropouts were dropped off that crime would go up and it would just be a disaster, but with the graduates he talks about how new businesses would be started, productivity would go up, and Chicago would flourish. But what he didn’t consider is the opportunities that were given to these people or the circumstances they grew up in. Of course we have to account for the high school dropouts who were just too lazy to finish high school or were more interested in drugs than getting an education, but we don’t consider is the people who literally couldn’t help dropping out of high school, like the woman whose parents didn’t see the point in an education or was just too poor to stay in school. A more appropriate experiment would be if a poor person off the street was given the exact same educational opportunities as someone who grew up in a millionaire family to see who would come out on top. Equally putting someone who had nothing their entire life against someone who was given everything they wanted on a silver platter would only truly determine a person’s intelligence, charisma, work ethic, and the rest of the things that define human capital. I do realize that this is unfortunately not how the world works, but I truly believe with the right amount of education and opportunity for everyone, we will be able to determine real human capital for everyone. But until then, human capital will never be fair without more opportunity for the marginalized.


  1. Wheelan, Charles. Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.

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