Human Capital: A Chilling Fable for America
by Ben Stein
One day last month, after realizing that I had run out of
file folders, I took myself down to the local drugstore to buy
more. I quickly found what I needed, took a handful to the counter,
and asked a male clerk, who looked to be in his late teens,
how much they cost. "I don't know," he answered sullenly. "I
guess about a buck each."
"A dollar for a file folder?" I asked. "I don't think that's
right." The clerk shrugged.
I found another clerk - an older Asian woman - in the back
of the store, and she told me the correct price was 12 cents
each. I returned to the front counter, where a teenage girl
had taken over the cash register. I counted the folders. "Twenty-three
at 12 cents each," I said. "That's $2.76 before tax."
The young woman looked at me as if I had come from Mars.
"You did that in your head?" she asked in amazement. "How can
you do that?"
"It's magic," I said.
"Really?" she asked.
"Really," I said.
No modestly well educated adult who comes into frequent
contact with young Americans can fail to be truly upset by the
experience. While they seem to be more genial and good-natured
than ever, they are so ignorant - and so ignorant of their ignorance
- that they literally terrify me. In a class of about 60 juniors
and seniors at a "prestige" private college where I recently
taught, not one student could consistently write a sentence
without misspellings. Not one. Not one had heard of Adam Smith
or knew who he was. Not one had read a word of The Communist
But this is just a tiny sliver of the problem. The ability
to perform even the simplest computations is just a memory among
most students I see, and their knowledge of world history or
geography is zilch. Moreover, there is a certain horrifying
complacency about all this ignorance. It's an attitude that
was summed up by a friend's bright, lazy 16-year-old son, who
explained to me why he did not want to go to school at UCLA.
"I don't want to have to compete with Asians," he said.
"They work hard and know everything."
The fact is that the young man will have to compete with
Asians whether he wants to or not. He cannot expect to live
forever on the financial, material, and human capital that was
accumulated by his forebears. At some not too distant point,
the intellectual laziness of the typical American young person
will seriously and negatively affect his or her way of life.
It will also affect the safety, security, and prosperity
of the rest of us Americans. A modern industrial state cannot
function with a slothful, ignorant labor force. Aircraft crash
on carrier decks. Cars break. Computers jam. That's it. No two
ways about it. Gar nicht.
But I have more than criticism: I have a humble suggestion
about how to make a start at explaining this to young Americans,
a beginning at altering their attitudes and perhaps their behavior.
Make a movie. Or maybe a series of movies or television shows
that dramatize even to the illiterate just how difficult it
was for America to get where it is and how easily it can all
be lost. I offer the following fable.
As the story opens, our hero, young Kevin Hanley 1999, a
17-year-old high school senior in Anytown, USA, is sulking in
his room. He is upset because his parents have insisted that
he stay home and study for his European-history test when he
wants to go down to the shopping center to look for headphones
for his portable compact-disc player.
The book he has been forced to read - The Wealth of Nations
- puts him to sleep. And in his sleep he dreams.
In his dream, it is 1835, and he is his own great, great
great-grandfather at 17, a peon in County Kerry, Ireland. He
lives in a sod hut, never clean. He sleeps next to a hog. He
is always hungry. He scrounges all winter for food, and the
potatoes he plants in summer die of blight.
His greatest wish is to learn to read and write so that
he might get a job as a clerk in the local parish. With steady
wages, he would be able to feed himself and help his family.
But the British, who rule this land, discourage education among
the Irish. Also, Hanley's poverty allows no leisure for such
luxuries. Without education and money, he is powerless - powerless
to stop the British from taking away his father for Fenian activities,
powerless when his sister is raped by a British soldier. His
only hope lies in his children. If they are educated, they will
have a better life.
Then Kevin Hanley 1999 dreams he is his own great-grandfather.
Kevin Hanley 1928. He, too, is 17 years old, and he works in
a steel mill in Pittsburgh. His father emigrated from Ireland
and helped build the New York City subway.
Kevin Hanley 1928 is far better off than either his father
or his grandfather. He can read and write, which means he can
follow the instructions for operating an open-hearth furnace
and get a decent job. His own wages are incomparably better
than anything his ancestors had in Ireland. Moreover, because
he can read and write, he can vote: political power offers some
Even so, Kevin Hanley 1928, too, believes real hope lies
in the future generations. Kevin 1928 has already lost an eye
to a spark from the blast furnaces, and he has cuts all over
his body from flying debris. He knows that education is the
key. He had to go to work before he could finish high school.
His son will finish high school; he won't have to work in factory.
Then Kevin Hanley of 1999 dreams that he is Kevin Hanley
of 1945, his own grandfather, fighting on Iwo Jima against the
world's most tenacious foe, the Japanese Army. He is always
hot, always hungry, always scared.
One night in a foxhole, he tells a buddy why he is there:
"So my son and grandson can live in peace and security. When
I get back, I'll work hard and send my son to college so he
won't have to get killed in a union confrontation with the steel
mill like my dad did. So he can live by his brains instead of
Then Kevin Hanley of 1999 is his own father, Kevin Hanley
of 1966, who studies all the time so he can get into college
and then law school. He lives in a tract house in a new development.
He has never seen anything but peace and plenty. He does not
see why he should have to study so hard. He tells his girlfriend
that when he has a son, he won't make him study all the time,
as his father makes him.
At that point, Kevin Hanley 1999 wakes up somewhat shaken
by his dream. But he also is relieved to be away from Ireland
and Iwo Jima and the steel mill. He goes back to sleep.
When he dreams again, he is his own son, Kevin Hanley 2030.
He lives in a virtual stockade. There is gunfire all day and
all night. There is no rule of law for the working class. His
whole generation forgot why there even was law, so there is
none. They pay no attention to the political process, so government
exists only to transfer ever more wealth to the rich. It offers
no services to the working class, especially no law enforcement.
Kevin 2030's father works as a janitor in a factory owned
by the Japanese. Kevin Jr. works as a porter in a local hotel
for wealthy Europeans and Asians. Public education stops at
the sixth grade. There is no tax base to pay for decent schools.
It has been a long time since Americans demanded a good education
for their children.
An elite cadre of Americans who have worked to educate themselves
have highly paid jobs working for the Europeans and Asians who
dominate American life. The rest are either drones for foreign
investors - who consider Americans inherently stupid and lazy,
fit only for manual labor- or criminals who supply drugs to
the numbed workers, or prostitutes for the wealthy foreigners.
The last person Kevin 1999 sees in his dream is his own
grandson in 2060. Kevin 2060 lives in what is basically a favela,
like one of the slums that were common in the Rio de Janeiro
of 1999. There is no heat, no plumbing, no privacy. He lives
by foraging scraps from the Japanese and European tourists who
come to see the ruins of American cities and the great national
parks reserved for them.
Kevin 2060 has no useful skills. Machines built in Japan
and Taiwan do all the complex work, and there is little menial
work to be done. All that remains is rifling through trash piles,
stealing, selling drugs, and prostitution. Without education,
without discipline, he cannot command even a subsistence wage.
In a word, he lives much as Kevin Hanley 1835 did in Ireland.
But Kevin Hanley 2060 gets a lucky break. In his wanderings,
he is befriended by a visiting Japanese anthropologist studying
the decline of America. The man explains to Kevin how the world
works. The boy learns that when a man has no money, education
can supply the human capital necessary to start acquiring financial
capital. Hard work, education, saving, and discipline can do
anything. "This is how we rose from the ashes after you defeated
us in a war 100 years ago."
"America defeated Japan in war?" asks Kevin 2060. He is
astounded. He has never heard of it; it seems as impossible
as Brazil defeating the US would sound in 1999. Kevin 2060 vows
that if he ever has children, he will make sure that they work
and study and learn, that they discipline themselves unto the
last generation. "To be able to make a living by one's mind
instead of by stealing," he says. "It would be a miracle. Some
day, we could be like the Japanese."
When Kevin Hanley 1999 wakes up, there on the bed next to
him is his TV remote control and his copy of The Wealth of Nations.
He picks up the masterwork and opens it at random,. "A man without
the proper use of the intellectual faculties of a man is, if
possible, even more contemptible than a coward and seems to
be mutilated and deformed in a still more essential part of
the character of human nature," says the passage he finds.
As he reads it, his father walks in the door. "All right,
son." he says. "Let's go look at that stereo stuff."
"Sorry, Pop," Kevin 1999 says. "I have to study."