White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett went viral this weekend for referring US workers to “human capital stock” – a racially charged, inhuman turn that evoked images of cattle.
“Our equity 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 ready for a quick turnaround, even though acknowledged that the unemployment rate will remain in double digits up to and including the November elections.
While many, including the House Democratic Caucus, was outraged by the comments of Hassett, others, such as New York Jonathan Chait of the magazine pointed out that “human capital” has a less incendiary connotation.
“Yes, economists should probably avoid confusion with jargon when communicating in public, but I think people are much too indignant about an economist using an economic term,” Chait tweeted.
And indeed there are a number of them academic publications the use of the term, which economists use to mean “the knowledge, skills, competences and other traits embodied in individuals or groups of individuals acquired during their lives and used to produce goods, services or ideas in market conditions. “
Hassett generally comes across as one of the more level-headed spokespersons for the Trump White House, so it’s not unreasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt. But even if one tends to interpret the comment about “human capital stock” in a benign way, it is worth noting that the point he tried to make – that Americans would like to return to work despite the dangers posed by Covid- 19 are threatened – in fact contradicts the available evidence.
America’s “human capital stock” actually doesn’t want to work anymore
In fact, Polling indicates that ordinary Americans are much less enthusiastic about returning to normal life than people like Hassett and President Donald Trump would have you believe.
On Saturday, my colleague Zeeshan told Aleem new Associated Press / NORC Center for Public Affairs Research polls that showed Americans generally were not keen on resuming activities they did before the pandemic, such as using public transportation or going to the gym.
There’s a good reason for that reluctance: the number of new cases of coronavirus diagnosed per day is currently around 20,000, and many states are showing an increase. In short, people are rightly still worried about getting sick.
The AP / NORC Center polling is consistent with a Washington Post / Ipsos poll taken from April 27 to May 4, with 74 percent of Americans wanting the U.S. to focus on controlling the virus rather than reopening businesses – and 54 percent felt Trump is doing too little to make sure people can return to work safely. Other recent polls, from Citrix and Qualtrics, about two-thirds of Americans have said they are not ready to return to work.
But instead of taking steps to make it as safe as possible for workers to return to work, Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have immunized companies from civil liability for potentially unsafe working conditions their top priority for future coronavirus legislation.
To the extent that Trump has promoted a plan to get Americans back to work safely, he has hyped a combination of wishful thinking (“it will disappearAnd the promotion of unproven drugs such as hydroxychloroquine which he hopes will appear as miracle drugs. Meanwhile, his hopes of a second term become more blurred every day that the economy is being damaged by company closings.
But instead of developing a plan – or even advocating for the one drawn up by his Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Trump senselessly called Tuesday a strong day for the Dow as evidence that “States should open as soon as possible.”
Stock Market up BIG, DOW crosses 25,000. S&P 500 over 3000. States must open as soon as possible. The transition to greatness has started earlier than planned. There will be ups and downs, but next year it 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 artificially inflated through assistance from the Federal Reserve and Congress. On the other hand, companies that have reopened in states like Georgia and Texas suffer from a lack of demand and reduced capacity due to continued efforts in social distance.
In a perfect world, Americans would of course be able to return to work safely. But in reality, those who can’t work from home are largely reluctant to return to their workplace because they don’t feel safe yet.
Hassett’s comments were an attempt to mislead people about that state of affairs. And he may have slipped the mask a bit.
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