Fame makes for poor human capital

There’s a concept sometimes floated in academia of being “overqualified”. The story usually starts with a PhD in something either extremely narrow in focus or difficult to imagine having an application in the private sector, and ends with the subject either excluding the PhD from their resume or driving a taxi. The idea is simple – this advanced degree that took years of intense study and effort to acquire has negative signal value in the broader marketplace. It’s the most brutal anecdote highlighting the failure of the Labor Theory of Value I know of.

I think something similar happens with reality television stars. They acquire a level of public awareness and notariety a rung below classic celebrities, but still multiple orders of magnitude more than the average citizen. If they become sufficiently famous they can earn rents off this notariety, at least in the short run. In the long run, however, the source of their fame is external to them (i.e. the show they were featured in), but have no immediate means to keep generating the exposure and public interest. The real problem, however, arrives if they try to re-enter the traditional labor force. They have a huge gap in their resume that requires explanation and haven’t been building human capital in any classic trade (and I very much include acting as a classic trade). Fame makes for fleeting human capital. Fame as capital decays rapidly, while the associated notariety serves as a tax that persists long after that fame has dissipated. This tax most often takes the form of casual harassment, but also includes threats to their privacy and safety. They may find themselves presented with opportunities to appear at bars, concerts, or county fairs for small fees, but these financial stop gap solutions only serve to further maintain what is now costly notariety while still failing to invest in any human capital with long run value.

Which brings me, of course, to JD Vance.

Cards on the table, I suspect Mr. Vance is not particularly brilliant, but I also doubt he is a complete fool. What I do think is that he has trapped himself in a career path not dissimilar to a reality TV star. Much in a way that a lot of bachelors and bachelorettes think they can build a Kardashian-esque career, Vance thought he could be another Trump. He wrote a successful book and that was made into a film. He dabbled in venture capital and, much like Trump, probably failed (though I can’t really say). What he saw, like Trump, was a path from fame to a career being compensated for that fame. There’s a real chance that it’s not going to work, and forwards inducting from a failed political bid that has included consistently foolish proclamations in an effort to pantomime populist-Trumpism, he doesn’t like what he forsees. Being fame-trapped into a red state fairground fear-mongering stooge might be a way to make a living, but it’s not a living he is particularly excited about.

Fame is a zero-sum tournament, and like a lot of such tournaments the top prize is extremely lucrative. Unlike the basketball or golf, however, the losing here isn’t just costly, its potentially scarring. In this way, it’s a bit more like selling cocaine. You can live a very good life for a while, but if you lose you’re going to have a tough time succeeding at anything else down the line. JD is a shooting his shot, but I don’t think he’s making these sort of aggressive attacks on public figures because he’s excited about being a Senator so much as he’s scared of trying set up a quiet law practice in Ohio and spending the rest of his life explaining to folks he knew in high school what went wrong.

2 thoughts on “Fame makes for poor human capital

  1. James Bailey February 23, 2022 / 6:34 am

    I think of it in terms of exchange rates. These days there are more and more ways to turn fame into money, though plenty of people still don’t figure it out.
    Vance is burning his credibility with non-Trumpers in an attempt to win a primary, but finding out that the exchange rate is worse than he thought.

    Liked by 1 person

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