Human Capital is Socially Contingent

The Deaf community is interesting.

Before I did research, I thought that deaf people simply could not hear. After seeing the Spiderman episodes that featured Daredevil, I believed that it was plausible and likely that deaf people had some sort of cognitive or sensory compensatory skill.

But it wasn’t until recently that I learned of the Deaf Studies field. There is an entire field that’s dedicated to studying deaf people. It’s related to, but not the same as Disability Studies. In fact, there are some sharp divisions between the two fields.

The name ‘Disability Studies’ presumes that there is something defective or deficient about people who are disabled. And, from the medical perspective, you might commonly think so too. But there is another whole line of research that rejects deafness as a disability. That line of research states that any consideration of deafness as exceptional or as a disadvantage is socially created. On it’s face, this theory seems laughable. After all, a lion surprising a deaf person on the savannah who couldn’t hear the warning calls of his friends seems like the difference between deafness and hearing is quite natural and not socially constructed.

Indeed, deaf people can’t hear well or at all. That’s a real difference. BUT, deaf people being unable to use standard telephones is not a natural difference – that’s imposed socially. Let me explain. The technology that we discover and employ and the social institutions, standards, and norms that we adopt are definitely products of our social interaction. The only reason that the ‘standard’ telephone became the standard is because hearing people were the majority and made it so. If we used ticker tape instead of audio, then the deaf would have no disadvantage.

Back to the savannah. The fact that the people were so dispersed, and that the friends were attempting to use audio in order to warn their deaf peer is all socially constructed. A world in which deafness is the norm would have meant that people stayed within peripheral view. Or that they carried a flag to alert others who were at a distance. The fact that the deaf friend was so proximately separated and could not be alerted was endogenous to the technology and social institutions. His disadvantage was the result of living in the context of a hearing society.

As an economist, I might reason that deaf people would have 3 reasons for being less productive: 1) Lower human capital, 2) difficulty communicating in the majority language, and 3) animus discrimination. But the social theory of deafness says that these three reasons are unrefined.  If you were able to find an island in which sign language was the norm and that deafness was so common as to avoid animus, then the logical economist would be forced to conclude that there was a human capital difference if deaf people still lived with lower incomes. Maybe deaf people, due to all the things that go along with deafness, are just less productive.

But, we must engage honestly with the social theory of deafness. If this special island existed when most of the outside world could hear, then we still can’t measure the impact of physical deafness as such. There are two reasons. 1) The hearing people on the island would have an absolute advantage in trading with the hearing foreigners. 2) Assuming that technology can cross borders, which it can, most of the devices that we find on the island will have been invented elsewhere and for use by a hearing-majority society. In this manner, even the deaf people on the idealized island would have lower measured productivity due to the *social* leg-up that the hearing enjoy by being the majority. If the social theory is correct to any degree, which seems reasonable, then it is impossible to distinguish the natural impact of deafness on productivity from the social impact. Removing the social impact would require removing the history, institutions, and technology that the hearing world supplies.

Why does all of this matter?

It matters because human capital is technologically contingent. We know that additional years of education do not necessarily imply greater human capital. We reason that, if productivity does not rise with an additional year of education, then it must be that human capital was not imparted during that marginal year. That is, we look to productivity to determine whether an investment added human capital.

This is the economic answer to the social theory advocates in Deaf Studies. Economist conclusions about human capital are not inherent evaluations of individuals. Human capital is implied by the productivity that it yields. And that productivity occurs not in a vacuum, but in a particular time and place, with particular social institutions, norms, and technology (and preferences!).

It’s easy to imagine that early 20th century deaf people would be at a disadvantage when business competitors could more quickly make a phone call to inquire about the sales of a remote office or take the order of a customer. But, with the recent advances in software, smartphones, and voice-to-text software, the deaf-hearing divide is smaller (maybe?). It’s not that deaf people are any more productive now in some inherent sense. It’s that they are more productive given the technology that society has at its disposal.

3 thoughts on “Human Capital is Socially Contingent

  1. StickerShockTrooper May 20, 2022 / 1:15 pm

    What about the opportunity cost? Deaf hunter-gatherers holding flags and staying in proximity lose the ability to use one hand and forage further. Research and capital devoted to ticker tape and Braille signs are resources not going into other things.

    (Obviously, I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t do these things… but if you’re talking about the benefits of mitigation, you can’t forget the costs as well.)

    Note also that Daredevil is a superhero not because he’s blind, but because he has superhuman senses that are BETTER than eyesight.


    • Zachary Bartsch May 20, 2022 / 1:58 pm

      Yes to all of that!

      You’re absolutely right. Let’s ignore the flags (physical capital) and let’s focus on the proximity. The appropriate proximity is endogenous to the norm of hearing. If hearing isn’t the norm, then there is a greater opportunity cost to spatial dispersion (avoiding being a lion’s lunch). Or, in a world of deafness, people’s visual attention is spent differently such that maybe more lions are noticed at all.

      Does ticker tape require more resources than a telephone? It’s not at all clear. I think the argument that the social theory advocates need to answer is “if the deaf were the majority, what could the deaf do that the hearing couldn’t do?”. If the answer is ‘nothing’, then that’s a point in favor of the medical theory.

      Re Daredevil: I don’t take a stance on whether deaf compensatory cognitive/sensory ability are better or worse than hearing. IOW, maybe the deaf are superheroes.


  2. StickerShockTrooper May 23, 2022 / 4:19 pm

    I’d make the evolutionary argument that if non-hearing hunter-gatherer tribes of protohumans (or tribes that included non-hearing members) had an advantage over all-hearing protohumans, a million years of natural selection would have shown that.

    That’s a great point to ask the counterfactual… I’ve heard autism spectrum advocates argue that, in environments that require more engineering/logic/mathematics vs social skills (coding? robotics? IDK) people with autism do have a natural advantage, and those are jobs that hold a premium, and moreso in the future.


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