Human Capital Theory and Democracy (POLS 5998)
What does it mean to think of ourselves, our actions, and our decisions in the terms of “investments” and “returns”? This is precisely what the theory of “human capital”””developed in the mid-20th century by behavioral economists as a way to understand how people make short term sacrifices to improve their conditions in the longer-term””asks us to do. But is it possible to reconcile the idea of “investing” in our democracy with meaningful democratic practices? Does freedom become merely what we choose, and (in)equality merely an effect of our good or bad investments? If we think of our actions and ourselves in this way, is it possible to fight the economic, racial, and gender-based inequality that characterizes the United States today?
This discussion-based senior seminar looks for answers to these questions by tracing a critical genealogy of human capital theory, studying the genesis of this idea, documenting its formalization in the 1950s and 60s, tracing its 18th and 19th century roots in racist, sexist, and ablest assumptions about human difference, and asking how the theory expanded its reach into nearly every domain of social science research, public policy, and common sense by the beginning of the 21st century. As an in-depth study in social, political, and economic theory, participants in this seminar will study how human capital theory helps (or hinders) our ability to understand how we have come to think, act, and govern ourselves. Particular attention will be paid to (1) the historical context in how human capital was developed as a response to massive social and political upheavals that were occurring along lines of race and gender during the 1950s and “˜60s; (2) if human capital de-politicizes our ideas of freedom and equality or enriches them; and (3) if the troubling 19th century roots of human capital theory continue to haunt its application today.
Students will be expected to read, analyze, and interpret original research articles in political science, economics, and philosophy, producing an original research paper by the end of the term. Foundations of Political (POLS 2000) is a pre-requisite (or some equivalent), and it is highly recommended that students have taken upper division courses in political theory or philosophy and have some coursework in economics.