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On Undervalued, Overspecialized Human Capital

May 30, 2014, 1:00 PM

I like to utilize labor. Not commodity labor like a housekeeper or a dog-walker. The economics of commodity labor are well-established though a competitive marketplace. The price of labor is determined by demand, so to exploit labor you must discover areas of disequilbrium.

You want to hire someone to make you an iPhone app? You, me,  and everyone else! High demand means you'll pay a premium for that labor, so only apps that promise a return get made. S forget apps. You have to find people who cheaply sell their labor, either because there is a high supply of their skills or just not much demand.

I like writers. There are a lot of writers and so you can pay, at least compared to an iOS engineer, less for their skills. I hired someone to critique Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken and the following lovely sentence was produced:

"She doesn't seem to want to acknowledge that what we most want to volunteer for is more akin to an erotic experience, something that is only truly great if it gets me off."

The report is short and useful, as instructed, but also beautifully flavored with a hint of vitriol. I've also paid for reports on Aerotropolis and After The Music Stopped and more. By utilizing the great supply of writers I'm able to boost productivity. As long as I earn more per hour than I pay the writer I'm profiting by having them read my books.

Writers are generally pretty smart, or at least well read. But to maximize your ROI you need to hire academics. So much education and they make basically NO MONEY! I hired an academic studying early medieval Chinese literature and culture to play video games. The results were fantastic. His report on Dead Space 2 concluded with existential dread:

"I have only played this game for about half an hour so far, but to be honest it is not very fun and kind of depressing. Maybe that is the point? I will keep going if necessary."

The whole review is based on four points he discovered, written in outline form with sub-points to support each discovery. It's a perfect format for a video game review and a wonderful read. Next I had him play Homefront. And after another page of outlined notes he ended with:

"I don't know, I thought it would be fun to do some kind of cultural analysis of this game but it is so poorly conceived that there's barely anything there."

After reading this report it's clear that the game is culturally empty, the videogame equivalent of eating a Hostess Ding Dong. Think of the savings I achieved by not playing this game for hours and hours on end.

More recently I've hired an underemployed young man to play online financial edutainment games that aren't fun like 'Euro Cash Academy' and 'Monetary Policy Balloon' (these games highlight how bad we are at the lessons that Jane McGonigal, had I read her book, may be trying to teach us):

"This game has the music you would hear in a Safeway commercial." and "There’s no real way to get me excited for what is basically a glorified SAT-style test on the European banking industry."

I paid a wonderful poet to spend her entire Christmas inside a movie theatre. I paid a  musician a 12-pack of Coca-Cola to write me a theme song (recently updated and available on iTunes). I love science fiction films, but so many are awful. Perfect filtering opportunity! Who needs self-reflection when you can hire an arts writer to negatively critique your life:

"Merrill’s contentment with laboring in the margins, amusing his small audience of 'stakeholders' with his self-involved, sure-to-fail 'business' proposals is in many ways charming. But with regard to his posture as a misguided business entrepreneur, the joke is on him."

Taking advantage of market discrepancies I can serve my own consumer needs by exploiting the surplus value of overspecialized human capital. I don't play golf, my hobby is production. Adam Smith might call this "unproductive labor" but Karl Marx says "That labourer alone is productive, who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, and thus works for the valorisation of the capital."

But markets fluctuate, and the more talented the person I find the more likely the invisible hand is to correct the imbalance of my exploitation. Most recently I lost my most golden goose, a PhD in musicology (graduated from the second most prestigious musicology program in the country), who I was planning on sending to a monster truck jam. She has been hired as an tenure-track assistant professor and will be fully utilized within her odd overspecialization in 19th century French romantic music. And so I find myself trolling the halls of community colleges and the bylines of alternative weeklies looking for more undervalued overspecialized human capital.

Image credit: Jirsak/Shutterstock


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