We Must Change the Way We Measure Economic Health

We Must Change the Way We Measure Economic Health

We Must Change the Way We Measure Economic Health

Our primary focus should be on improving the lives of our most marginalized—and without an arbitrary price tag.


The clock has started on Biden’s promise to Build Back Better, as Americans anxiously wait to see what will be passed in his American Rescue Plan. Will the bill center the needs of everyday people and dedicate resources accordingly, or will deficit hawks and lackeys of the rich continue to play an outsize role in guiding our economy?

Too often our conversations about the economy rely on the latest GDP figures or the stock market, measures that feel out of touch to most people. Such headline measures sanitize and dehumanize an issue that has a profound human impact. 

Too many people are facing impossible circumstances because policy-makers have consistently done too little. A few weeks ago, a DoorDash driver’s van was stolen—with his children inside—as a result of his having to take his kids to work, and a young woman felt compelled to give up her college savings to prevent her mother, who had lost her job, from being evicted. And this past week, Texans were without power and dying during a snowstorm. 

This is why talk about “overheating” the economy—as Larry Summers recently did in a Washington Post op-ed—is problematic. It detaches people from policy and commodifies the value and welfare of human life. It suggests that failing to invest in the policies and programs critical to human well-being is optional, and ignores the fact that decades of failing to invest in equitable care and energy infrastructures, robust public health programs, quality jobs, and adequate unemployment policies—just the tip of the iceberg—is a key reason we are in this mess.

Throughout the pandemic and its accompanying recession, our tepid response, in consort with institutional racism and sexism, has not protected Black and brown women from being pushed out of the labor market at a shocking rate, while their families and communities experience disproportionately high Covid-19 death rates. Black and brown renters are facing higher risk of eviction. Domestic workers—largely women of color—have lost their jobs with little recourse. And Black and brown communities—those most likely to be on the front lines—are struggling to secure vaccines.  

Meanwhile, millions of mothers across the United States are facing the very real crisis of juggling work and overseeing their children’s remote learning without child care. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Vice President Kamala Harris called attention to the ongoing crisis that women are shouldering, calling the mass exodus of women from the work force—2.5 million have been pushed out of their jobs since March 2020—a national emergency that demands a national response. 

How, when faced with these circumstances, can we fear doing too much? A better question is, What will it mean for race and gender inequities and the stark imbalance of power in America if we don’t do the absolute most we can to rectify the failings of our past and present? 

As Heather McGhee expertly points out, decades of budget-deficit fearmongering has resulted in divestment from public goods and infrastructure, which furthers racial and gender inequity and shortchanges all of us in times of need. After everything we have been through this past year, we literally and figuratively cannot afford to keep making the same mistakes over and over again, setting ourselves up for more of the same.  

We must push past thinking of our economy as a zero-sum budget game. When we do so, our immediate discussion becomes how much a policy will cost, with little consideration about what the cost of inaction is. 

The primary focus of our conversations today must be what is required to improve the lives of our most marginalized, and without an arbitrary price tag. We didn’t see collective hand-wringing in 2017 over the cost of a nearly $2 trillion tax package that did nothing but make rich people and corporations richer and more powerful. If we center people in our economic discussions, it helps everyone understand the tangible gains they will receive, building both the political and public will to adopt the policies we so desperately need in our Covid response and recovery. As renowned messaging expert Anat Shenker-Osorio says, sell the brownie, not the recipe

The health of our economy is only as good as the economic health of the American people—all of them. When racial and gender injustice are running rampant and people are facing eviction, cannot feed their families, and are coping with prolonged job loss, they do not care about K curves and wave charts. All they know is that they are hurting now, and that they deserve better. 

Many of those who are in crisis today were on the brink of crisis long before the coronavirus upended our society and economy. Black and brown people and women are tired of being treated as essential when it comes to work, yet dispensable and forgotten when it comes to pay equity and governing. We cannot go back to the “normal” we once knew. And we shouldn’t want to. 

Now is the time to dedicate resources and investment to address the flaws of our society that were unearthed by the pandemic. A big step in accomplishing this lies in how we measure and talk about the health of our economy. Centering the lived experiences of people would go a long way in ensuring a just and equitable new normal as we work to build back better.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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