Monday, January 07, 2019

Maximizing human capital

Economists like Tyler Cowen argue that government policies should solely be designed to maximize GDP. If you object that GDP does not take environmental damage into account, he will say that he really wants to use a modified GDP that factors in his favorite causes.

This sort of thinking sometimes goes under the slogan, "a rising tide lifts all boats." Among philosophers, it is called utilitarianism or consequentialism. Cowen's view is a little extreme in that he considers someone in Ethiopia in a millennium to be as important as someone today.

He wrote a book on this subject, and to prove his sincerity, he promised to donate all his profits to some clown in Ethiopia.

Tucker Carlson recently enraged conservatives with an economic rant that included, “Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.”

I am wondering if any of these smart economists ever tried to quantify human capital.

There are 7 billion people in the world. Some are making the world a better place, and some a worse place. If you take into account consumption of resources in future generations, then the big majority of people have negative value.

Advances in genetic research may soon make it possible to quantify human capital on the genome level. Most human traits are heritable, so once he have good genomic models, we could estimate human capital directly from the genomes.

You might protest that a man is more than his DNA. I would agree, but if you are projecting a millennium into the future, as Cowen does, then a man is just the DNA of his descendants.

A man may have genes for criminal behavior, and never commit any crimes. After a millennium, he could have thousands of criminal descendants.

An ugly woman could have thousands of ugly descendants. If resources become scarce, then no one wants them used up by ugly people.

It may seem harsh to judge people based on their genomes, but if you buy into future utilitarianism like Cowen, then surely it is better to exterminate undesirables now than to somehow correct all the damage in a millennium.

Countries like Taiwan and South Korea have gotten rich by implementing capitalist theories of money. Eventually, I think some countries will try to seriously maximize their genomic capital. If so, they might create paradises of low crime, low strife, high trust, high productivity, and high happiness.

How good or bad this is remains to be seen. Many would argue that any such project would be doomed to fail. If some country does the experiment, we may find out.

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