This past week the S&P 500 went up 301 points, or 12 percent, its best performance in 46 years.
During the same week, the reported number of Americans killed by Covid-19 went up 11,499, or 161 percent, the coronavirus’s best performance ever.
So this seems like a good time to reevaluate our treasured belief that a rising stock market reflects general human flourishing.
Consider a few more events that happened this week around the same time as this excited tweet from Donald Trump, who somehow is the president of the United States:
This week, in only 4 days, we had the biggest Stock Market increase since 1974. We have a great chance for the really big bounce when the Invisible Enemy is gone!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 10, 2020
Hurrah! Meanwhile, the Covid-19 death toll that day topped 2,000 for the first time. It is now, according to a San Diego gerontologist, the leading cause of death in the U.S., beating out the traditional champions, heart disease and cancer. New data showed that Covid-19 is killing African Americans and Latinos in New York City at rates twice that of whites, with a similar disjunction in rates appearing across the country.
Also last week, over 6 million Americans filed for unemployment. The chief economist at RSM, one of the largest accounting firms in the U.S., said this demonstrated that “the carnage in the American labor market continued unabated.” The recent cumulative total of the newly unemployed is 16.8 million people, or about one in 10 workers.
As Americans were thrown out of work and into sudden fear of hunger, our economic system encouraged farmers to intentionally destroy their crops. At least 60,000 gallons of milk were dumped into dairy farm manure pits, traditionally the last place you like to see food. Milking cows were sent to slaughter. Fertilized chicken eggs were crushed rather than hatched.
A report sent to the White House on Tuesday from the National Academy of Sciences cast doubt on hopes that the novel coronavirus will naturally diminish in the spring and summer. “A decrease in cases with increases in humidity and temperature elsewhere should not be assumed,” the report explained. “Pandemic influenza strains have not exhibited the typical seasonal pattern of endemic/epidemic strains.”
Amid all of this, Trump demonstrated that he apparently believes Covid-19 is a disease caused by bacteria, rather than a virus. The difference between bacteria and viruses is often taught around fifth grade, when children are 10 years old.
The combination of this bad news with the stock market’s ebullience makes it tough not to think that it actively delights in human suffering. During the 1990s in particular, it was notorious for leaping upward when corporations announced massive layoffs.
What would truly make the stock market skyrocket, you might think by now, would be nuclear war followed immediately by a gigantic asteroid striking Manhattan. A hideously mutated Jim Cramer, the last man on Earth, would shriek “Dow 10,000,000!” just before expiring.
This is not the case, however. Rather, the stock market is simply agnostic about human happiness. It’s just a best-guess measure of future post-tax corporate profitability. If future post-tax corporate profitability is compatible with people being alive and having enough to eat, that’s OK. If not, that’s likewise totally fine. We’re just not part of the equation.
Looked at through this lens, the stock market’s latest behavior is easy to understand. As Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., puts it: “We should take the recent jump to mean that investors are betting that Congress and Trump just gave them lots of money.”
That’s the true meaning of this week’s odd combination of events. Your grandmother can die of Covid-19 minutes after being discharged from the hospital. Nurses can be forced to protest their employers failing to provide them with basic personal protective equipment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could fail completely at developing a test for the virus. All of that is irrelevant.
What matters is that the Trump administration will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship to keep big corporations alive and profitable. That is, from the GOP’s perspective, the sole legitimate function of the U.S. government. And given their ferocious commitment and the government’s financial firepower, they have a plausible shot at success.
So get ready for further triumphalist tweets from Trump anytime the stock market goes up. You may be reading them while picking up sanitized food containers from a soup kitchen, or auctioning off the wreckage of your bankrupt small business, or attending a funeral via Zoom. Or you may just hazily hear them being celebrated on Fox while intubated and sedated.
None of that will matter, from the perspective of the stock market. What we should all see clearly now is that it can giddily thrive, even as America disintegrates around it.
We should let science and evidence prevail while recognizing that science, like other disciplines, is shaped by competing interests.