From the Community | Hooverthink, schools and race

Feb. 23, 2021, 7:32 p.m.

Over the long span of the pandemic, there have been a number of articles urging workers to go back to work and for schools to open. Trump economic advisor Kevin Hassett echoed these sentiments when he told CNN, “Our human capital stock is ready to get back to work, and so there are lots of reasons to believe that we can get going way faster than we have in previous crises.” Although it was later explained that “human capital stock” is a standard term in economics, it did not sit well with many in the general population, who were busy trying to get used to the idea of herd immunity. Few of this “stock,” as far as we know, have nodded their shaggy heads in assent to rush back to work. The overall idea that people picked up on was that, for the sake of the economy, certain sacrifices had to be made — and that it was unlikely that the likes of Mr. Hassett would be part of those sacrificed. Thanks to some fellows at the Hoover Institution, we have a better sense of who will be.

Many articles urging workers and students to get with the program have appeared on the Hoover website, where one finds the logo of Stanford University flying proudly at the top. Given the role the so-called “free market” plays in making everyone’s lives better, according to Hoover, this is not surprising. But to advocate for these things, Hoover fellows take some telling shortcuts. Since we are in Black History Month, I thought I would comment on how in its prescriptions on COVID-19 policy, Hoover lacks not only a serious concern about race and class, but attempts to exploit the emotions of those who actually do care about those things.

Let me start at a slightly higher level, to show how this all scopes out.

The supreme importance of free markets is only rivalled by a seeming concern about “freedom” itself. But freedom for whom, and from what, and for what? Hoover senior fellow Russell Berman’s “State of Emergency and the Fragility of Liberty Facing COVID-19” raises a very important philosophical point: “How much freedom are we willing to give up in order to gain how much safety?” However, this question, posed in this context, is abysmal. Like most Hooverites, Berman never probes who this “we” is. The sentence I just quoted could easily have come from one of the leaders of the Insurrection, no?

Berman makes his argument more cogent and precise with this: “The predominant response to the public health crisis has been informed solely by the medical point of view rather than attending to the other perspectives that ought to contribute to policy formation impacting the multiple dimensions of social life.” Better, but he is still deferring any engagement with the matter of whose social life we are talking about. My final citation from Berman: “Of course we should try to minimize fatalities, but is that humanity’s sole good? Initially little consideration was given to the consequences of the restrictions: the economic impact on businesses and their employees, the loss of schooling for students and the erosion of many industries.” And here is where the rubber hits the road. After a pro forma nod toward human life, we get to the market, and to schools, and the question of “we.”

Unsurprisingly, other Hoover fellows have been staunch advocates of getting people back to work and back to school — not necessarily for the sake of education itself, but for the future productivity of the student-turned-worker. Consider this statement from Eric A. Hanushek (Hoover Senior Fellow) and Ludger Woessmann (Visiting Fellow at Hoover): “For the United States, the already accrued learning losses are expected to amount to $14.2 trillion in current dollars (present value). These economic losses would grow if schools are unable to restart quickly. The losses are not evenly spread. The economic losses will be more deeply felt by disadvantaged students.” Margaret Raymond (Hoover distinguished research scholar), echoes this feeling: “The sad reality is that the shutdowns have had an unequal effect on many students … While most students have experienced a learning decay, the impact has been more severe among disadvantaged children.” (Here once more we see the conversion of any unit of analysis, including learning itself, into dollars. And we bemoan the fact that students think of their Stanford education in terms of economic investment — I wonder where they get this from.)

To his credit, Hanushek has said some very reasonable things about first developing safe classrooms for students to return to. But what caught my attention is the shared expression of concern for “disadvantaged children,” which is used to crown these arguments. Nowhere did I find any mention of the well-established fact that these same “disadvantaged children” are the ones who are disadvantaged in a far more dangerous way than by loss of future income — they are faced with a loss of life at much greater rates than any other population. USA Today put it this way: 

“Researchers found there was a staggering racial disparity in the more than 390,000 coronavirus cases and 121 deaths among people under the age of 21 reported to the CDC between Feb. 12 and July 31.”

Hispanic, Black and Native American children accounted for 78% of those deaths, even though those groups represent just 41% of the United States population, a disproportionate effect that reflects a similar disparity among adults. Previous research has shown that the death toll from COVID-19 is twice as high for people of color under the age of 65 as it is for white Americans

It was citing this well-known CDC study:

“Health disparities are preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations. Populations can be defined by factors such as race or ethnicity, gender, education or income, disability, geographic location (e.g., rural or urban), or sexual orientation. Health disparities are inequitable and are directly related to the historical and current unequal distribution of social, political, economic, and environmental resources.”

And a Stanford researcher has raised precisely this point. Beth Duff-Brown writes on the Stanford Health Policy website:

“Unusually high numbers of racial minorities and people of Hispanic origin nationwide died of all causes in the early days of the pandemic, according to a new study led by SHP’s Maria Polyakova.

After adjusting for age, sex and state of residence, researchers found that an additional 6.8 per 10,000 Black people died of all causes last April, compared with the average number who died since 2011 in April. For Hispanics, that figure was 4.3; for Asians, 2.7; and for whites, 1.5.

Excess mortality rates were greater in some areas than others.”

“The overall rates of excess mortality and differences by race and ethnicity in New York and New Jersey are absolutely staggering,” said Polyakova, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at Stanford Health Policy and co-author of the study, published Feb. 1 in Health Affairs.

If Hoover fellows did account for this data, that would be welcome knowledge. But they certainly did not mention them nearly as prominently as they did the loss of future earnings.

It is here that we should return to Berman’s toss-away line, “Of course we should try to minimize fatalities.” 

These expansive “philosophical” musings expose whose fatalities they are most willing to risk for the sake of their own “freedom” and “free markets.” And let us not forget this passage from the CDC report: “Health disparities are inequitable and are directly related to the historical and current unequal distribution of social, political, economic, and environmental resources [emphasis added].”

In our presentation to the Faculty Senate on Feb. 11, my colleagues and I demonstrated how Hoover’s commitment to partisan advocacy puts it at odds with many of Stanford’s core values — such as a commitment to diversity of ideas and of peoples, so that the question of “we” is answered affirmatively and inclusively. Hoover Institution does not hold those values — its priorities lie elsewhere. And skeptics like myself wonder for how long Stanford will continue to be independent from Hoover in any meaningful way.

As a literary scholar I cannot help but end with a quotation from one of the most powerful and eloquent writers we have had, Toni Morrison. This line is from her stunning Nobel Prize acceptance speech. She spends a great deal of time talking about language, calling out in particular “the systematic looting of language [that moves] relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.” By “looting” she means the evacuation from language of truth, discernment, and care for others. 

David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor

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