Government Resistance to Human Capital

James Heckman has a great paper called “Policies to foster human capital“. Apart from excellent integration of economics into government policies, this paper relentlessly reminds the reader about the lifetime aspects of investments in human capital:

Heckman and Carneiro - 2003 - Human Capital Policy
Heckman and Carneiro – 2003 – Human Capital Policy

Heckman refers to the evidences that late investments do not pay off. Late learning costs money, including foregone earnings, but it only modestly increases wage rates and generates less human capital, since investments are made closer to retirement.

Heckman also criticizes the excessive attention to formal education, which is all about a few narrow cognitive abilities and in any case just one of many ways to acquire skills.

This paper was published in 2000. To count how many of its insights made it into government policies, I looked into the 2013 Economic Report of the President. This report includes a chapter on human capital.

The chapter discusses three things. First, labor inputs of women and immigrants. Second, rising debt and enrollment bias in college education. Third, educational opportunities for adults. So, formal education and adult learning?

Why does this influential publication promote the exact policies that Heckman criticized fifteen years ago? Alan Krueger — who edited the 2013 report — is a brilliant labor economist himself. The entire Council of Economic Advisors is well staffed. So it’s not about competence.

The problem seems to be in the complexity of the policies that Heckman proposes. When economists remind the Congress about student debt, they have better chances of being heard than economists who suggest targeted programs in preschool education. Student debt is something that even US presidents had. Preschool education? TL;DR.

But rephrasing Neil deGrasse Tyson, science is true whether you read it or not. The complex stuff still explains well why policies fail when consensus is reached.

For the United States, this complex stuff is about fine-tuning the system that works well. For the middle-income countries, on the other hand, ignorance is costlier, not least because these countries tend to aggravate mistakes with more government intervention. Policy makers in these countries often frame human capital accumulation as another industrialization. Like, if we could raise savings-investments to 50% of GDP, we can accumulate human capital in the same way. Obviously, it doesn’t work this way; and for BRICS, it’s an important challenge.

As for the least developed countries, the major innovators out there are international organizations, which recently got an open letter from Chris Blattman asking to “stop hurting” poor people with skill training programs. For the same reason: the programs don’t work as intended; even if being accumulated, this human capital solves no important problem.

“Stop hurting” is a good suggestion because it encourages policy makers to do less, which is the idea they like. The second part is more difficult: stop hurting and accept better policies. Some of the better policies look unconventional but remain as simple as training programs. Their main disadvantage is that they are not invented here, that is, in government. And before anything happens, someone has to market these policies as if they were government’s genuine invention.

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