10/02/2014 11:19 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

Thinking Broadly About Capital

We live in a world that is so complex; I believe it takes the heart and soul of caring for all human life to a breaking point. After all, we are only human, and our humanity, as passionate and rife with the potential for truly beautiful things can and do produce contradictions that undermine the logic and reason we try so hard to preserve. I am a professor at a school of management, the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico.

Last year, as I sat down to develop a presentation for my undergraduate students; I looked out my window to observe a career fair that had taken place earlier in the day. Students from all backgrounds dressed in their best attire to impress potential employers covered our part of campus, talking with each other with a palpable level of anxiety about the future. Some of that discussion spilled into the hallway, and I could hear them talking about resumes and entry-level salaries. There was a lot of anxiety about what skills were going to be the most attractive this year, and I recall one student mentioning that he had changed his resume three times in as many semesters to meet what he perceived as the most urgent thing on the minds of employers. I was expecting two students in my office in 20 minutes. They asked me if I'd be willing to sit down with them to discuss some things I mentioned in class. I get accused of being "the zombie guy" and "the squid guy" in the business school because sometimes, I use analogies in class wrought from literature, art, and philosophy -- and to varying degrees, I'm either met with a sense of novelty, confusion, or outright resistance. I expect that coming from a background that doesn't always fit within a prescribed discipline, and I do my best to balance my quirkier sides with a sort of practicality that comes from living with resource constraints most of my life. I returned to UNM both because it's a place with a rich heritage (a thing that can often be used as a cliché) and has a level of creativity that I believe comes from our status as a poorer state, a state that often doesn't get recognized for being a resilient state.

When my students arrived, they too had been dressed in their most formal attire, and they were worried about their resumes and the skill du jour that was on the employer menu these days. I spent a little time helping them understand the difference between a resume and a curriculum vita (C.V.) and as we discussed this, I impressed up them that I liked that a C.V. literary translates into a "life's work." I asked them about their excel skills and their language skills, and whether or not they thought to mention the international work they did with our honors student group on campus. But after the lists and categories had been discussed, I asked them if they had considered what it meant to commit to paper their life's work. Decades from now, when we are reduced to a narrative about the life we lived, what parts of that story did we consciously shape? What do you want to be remembered for? In my nascent history mentoring and serving students I encountered the strangest transition to date. One of my students, a quiet young man with bushy eyebrows and a skeptical gaze, widened his eyes and said "thank you. Can we now talk about zombies a bit more?" This needs a little explaining.

Two days before this meeting I was discussing with students the "base of the income pyramid," a representation of the world's 4.5-5 billion people that make less than $2,000 USD annually but who are the world's largest sector of economic growth. I asked the students where business should focus their attention. The default answer is normally "at the top" of the pyramid, where people have the most discretionary income. But my students were particularly sharp that semester, and they chimed in with a significant number of responses that said, "at the top you pay too much for discretionary dollars." They were correct. At the top, we saturate markets and spend a lot of dollars to develop flashy ad campaigns to distinguish ourselves from our competitors. In large pockets of relative wealth, we are so inundated (even assaulted) with attention-grabbing campaigns, that we have effectively become consumer zombies. I elaborated with an anecdote about George Romero, director of the hallmark zombie-film Night of the Living Dead, and his directive to his choreographers to emulate the affect the casual mall shopper. Their gait, their response to flashy, loud noises, and their slow, but overwhelming presence, in my telling of this pop-culture phenomenon served as a critique of latent capital in an increasingly consumer-culture society. It was no mistake that his popular sequel, Dawn of the Dead, was set in a shopping mall. I then mentioned that the zombie as a representation of plague, served as a fantasy of post national anxiety, the idea that nations are not always capable of managing global problems. Our recent encounter with Ebola brings makes the Walking Dead seem a little more than mindless entertainment.

My little anecdote was met with the same kind of response I'm normally used to. However, this time around, my students, despite a day filled with resumes and elevator speeches, came to me to discuss zombies. I had to say, it made my day, maybe even my week, and that's hard to do to an eternal pessimist.

The next week, I received a card and an email. The card was from my bushy browed student, thanking me for our discussion and letting me know that he had received an internship at an investment firm, something he's always wanted to do. In the end, he wrote. "Thanks for the zombies, I think the recruiting guy really liked that I mentioned it." My initial reaction was to sigh, wondering whether or not it was such a good idea to deploy a whole generation of my students into job talks with zombie anecdotes. Then I read an email later that day. It was the recruiter from the investment firm. He wanted to thank me for encouraging critical thinking skills in our students. For him, critical thinking skills are the primary skill we need our students to have. He relayed how this student was able to explain how the world economy is being shaped and he did it using the metaphor of the zombie. I found it poetic that in a world filled with saturated job markets the flash of zombie revealed the not so flashy concept of intellectual curiosity, of critical thinking skills. They are the core supplement to the "hard skills" we try very hard to train our students to master, and they extend beyond what is fashionable. The ability for the mind to act with the tools of the decision maker requires that we incorporate the skill of the futurist, the craftsman, the philosopher, and the poet.

I have long read about capital. It has been poured down my throat more than any other subject I have encountered. I have read it as a philosophical problem, as a mind-broadening concept, and as a powerful geo-political force. I've read it in business textbooks and in pop-culture critiques. If we are to train a generation of students to make decisions that shape the world in an effective, equitable, just, and yes, even profitable manner, we must help one another understand the principal forces that shape the world around us. Our next generation of MBAs and graduate students will be world-shapers in unprecedented ways. If they do not have the critical skills to think broadly about capital, we run the risk of producing a generation of ideologues that will let our complacency determine the global agenda. We don't have that luxury, and our students know better. They even take time to write thank you cards when it occurs.

I will be posting a short series of blog postings around a graduate class I created as a result of my thoughts on capital. The class is called Global Relations and Theories of Capital, designed to address 13 major global issues in the context of theories of capital that would otherwise not be a significant part of the business students training. There are only a few schools I admire that combine philosophy and humanistic inquiry in the context of global issues and the management problems they produce. It is our hope that this serves as an example for how this can be achieved, particularly in a state like New Mexico that is prime for this kind of thinking in the context of our emerging world. Stay tuned.