The need to invest in people.

Monday Book Review

November 25, 1991|By Erica E. Gum

HUMAN CAPITAL AND AMERICA'S FUTURE: AN ECONOMIC STRATEGY FOR THE '90s. Edited by David W. Hornbeck and Lester M. Salamon. Johns Hopkins University Press. 402 pages. Paper, $16.95. Hard cover, $45.

What should the United Sates do to become more competitive? It needs to make greater investments in human capital: the skills, abilities and knowledge possessed by its workforce. So say the authors of "Human Capital and America's Future."

Lester A. Salamon, director of the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies, believes that "human capital investment must become the centerpiece of our economic strategy for the years ahead." Citing the classical economist Adam Smith, Salamon notes that a crucial part of a nation's wealth lies in its people.

The book is an anthology of 13 essays by 15 authors, each discussing a different aspect of human capital.

Most proposals call for improved federal leadership, some for more federal spending. The authors recommend both additional funding for existing programs, including Head Start, student loans and scientific research, and the creation of new programs in job training, education and social services. Such recommendations are not surprising, considering that most of the book's contributors served in Democratic administrations or are affiliated with liberal organizations.

One essay has a flaw serious enough to mention. In her chapter on social services, Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, asserts that cuts in federal programs in the 1980s are responsible for destroying families. Cuts certainly hurt families already dependent on government services, but there is considerable debate over the effect of federal anti-poverty programs on the family.

Edelman does her readers a disservice by completely ignoring this debate. While she makes a reasonable case that better financed and administered federal programs can help break the cycle of poverty, by asserting as fact a decidedly arguable conclusion about the dissolution of the family, she damages the credibility of her essay.

The last section contains suggestions for investment in human capital at the state and local levels, proposals for how to finance such investment and a concluding summary by David Hornbeck, former Maryland superintendent of schools. Hornbeck's chapter contains a well-intentioned but unworkable idea. He proposes that "boards of children and families" be established across the country, following the model of school boards.

But schools are very public institutions. Families, by tradition and legal precedent, are very private. Hornbeck's proposed boards have an air of Big Brotherism about them. Children and families face desperate problems, but this is one proposal that will not help solve them.

These quibbles aside, "Human Capital" accomplishes its primary mission extremely well and is particularly relevant to Baltimore, a city in dire need of investment in human capital. Hornbeck, Salamon and their colleagues make a compelling call to improve, if not completely overhaul, education and worker training in America. The book does less well in suggesting solutions, but most of those it offers are more than credible enough to open discussion.

Because it is a work of social science, the book is extensively documented and contains a fair number of charts and graphs. Readers should not be daunted by the documentation, as most of the essays are clearly written.

The authors of "Human Capital" offer an urgent message: America's economic competitiveness can be salvaged if we act now.

Erica E. Gum is a writer living in Odenton, Md.

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