White House economics adviser Kevin Hassett went viral over the weekend for referring to American workers as “human capital stock” — a racially charged, dehumanizing turn of phrase that conjured up images of livestock.
“Our human capital stock is ready to get back to work,” Hassett told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday, as part of his argument that the US economy is poised for a quick turnaround, even as he acknowledged that the unemployment rate will linger in double figures through November’s election.
While many, including the House Democratic Caucus, took umbrage with Hassett’s remarks, others, such as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, pointed out that “human capital” has a less incendiary connotation.
“Yes, economists should probably avoid confusing jargon when communicating in public, but I think people are getting way too outraged over an economist using an economics term,” Chait tweeted.
And indeed, there are a number of academic publications using the term, which economists use to mean “the knowledge, skills, competencies and other attributes embodied in individuals or groups of individuals acquired during their life and used to produce goods, services or ideas in market circumstances.”
Hassett generally comes across as one of the Trump White House’s more level-headed spokespeople, so it’s not unreasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt. But even if one is inclined to interpret the “human capital stock” remark in a benign manner, it’s worth noting that the point he was trying to make — namely that Americans are eager to return to work despite the dangers posed by Covid-19 — actually contradicts the available evidence.
America’s “human capital stock” actually isn’t eager to get back to work
Polling, in fact, indicates everyday Americans are much less excited about returning to normal life than people like Hassett and President Donald Trump would have you believe.
On Saturday, my colleague Zeeshan Aleem detailed new Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research polling that found Americans are broadly unenthusiastic about resuming activities they were doing before the pandemic hit, such as using public transportation or going to the gym.
There’s good reason for that reluctance — the number of new coronavirus cases diagnosed per day is currently stuck around 20,000, with many states showing an increase. In short, people are rightfully still worried about getting sick.
New cases continued very slowly floating downwards. pic.twitter.com/MzSe4a1xN6— The COVID Tracking Project (@COVID19Tracking) May 25, 2020
The AP/NORC Center polling dovetails with a Washington Post/Ipsos poll taken from April 27 to May 4 that found 74 percent of Americans want the US to focus on controlling the virus instead of reopening businesses — and that 54 percent felt Trump is doing too little to ensure people can safely return to work. Other recent polls, from Citrix and Qualtrics, have found about two-thirds of Americans saying they are not yet ready to return to work.
But rather than taking measures aimed at making it as safe as possible for workers to return to work, Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have made immunizing corporations from legal liability for potentially unsafe working conditions their top priority for any future coronavirus legislation.
To the extent that Trump has promoted a plan to safely return Americans to work, he’s hyped a combination of wishful thinking (“it’s going to go away”) and the promotion of unproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine that he hopes will emerge as miracle cures. Meanwhile, his hopes for a second term grow increasingly faint each day that the economy is damaged by businesses being shut down.
But instead of developing a plan — or even advocating the one drafted by his Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Trump on Tuesday nonsensically cited a strong day for the Dow as evidence that “States should open up ASAP.”
Stock Market up BIG, DOW crosses 25,000. S&P 500 over 3000. States should open up ASAP. The Transition to Greatness has started, ahead of schedule. There will be ups and downs, but next year will be one of the best ever!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2020
But the stock market is not the economy. As my colleague Emily Stewart has explained, it is being artificially inflated by help from the Federal Reserve and Congress. On the other hand, businesses that have reopened in states like Georgia and Texas are struggling with a lack of demand and decreased capacity, thanks to ongoing social distancing efforts.
In a perfect world, of course, Americans would be able to go back to work and do so safely. But in reality, those who can’t work from home are largely reluctant to return to their workplaces because they don’t yet feel safe.
Hassett’s remarks represented an effort to mislead people about that state of affairs. And in so doing, he may have let the mask slip a little.