Gary Becker on Human Capital

From the Chicago Graduate School of Business magazine a brief talk with Gary Becker, “one of the first economists to study topics traditionally considered the purview of sociologists including racial discrimination, crime, family organization, and drug addiction. His work on those subjects earned him the Nobel Prize in economic sciences in 1992.”

Becker is big on human capital. He talks about the importance of human capital in organizations. Economists consider human capital to be critical to development of economies. Education is therefore directly implicated in development. Here are a few quotes from Becker. (The Becker-Posner blog is worth reading.)

[On Chicago economics.]

Fields evolve. And I think Chicago still emphasizes that economics is a powerful tool for understanding the world, whether it’s finance, accounting, consumer behavior, or antitrust. That remains the same, and that’s been a hallmark of Chicago—to take economics seriously. Economic analysis is important; it’s not just a game being played by clever academics.

The precise things that economists are studying evolve over time as economics itself has evolved: developments in finance, human capital, in theory of a firm, and understanding how firms behave. You can go on and on. Those have changed, and that means a lot of problems that are attracting people are different.

But at a fundamental level, Chicago economics is the same as it was—people taking economics seriously as a tool, an engine for understanding the world, and, hopefully, making the world—the business world and the world of public policy—a better place.

[On human capital.]

I’d like to think that businesses now appreciate the fact that, by far, their most important assets are their employees, and how they invest in their employees, how they treat their employees, how they raise the skill level of their employees—that is the dominant factor that determines whether they’re going to succeed. Bill Gates once said, “You take away the top 20 employees of Microsoft, we’ll just be an ordinary company. Top employees are what makes us.” And that’s true in a lot of companies.

Businessmen and women now think much more about the role of human capital in their success—how to attract it, nurture it, and invest in it. Certainly the concept of human capital has had a significant influence on business.

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