Steve Mnuchin is not exactly a tribune of the people. A wealthy financier with a taste for the high life, he is better known for his glamorous spouse than for his commitment to public service. One could argue that Mnuchin’s chief qualification as treasury secretary is simply that while other more distinguished Goldman Sachs veterans refused to back Donald Trump’s seemingly quixotic presidential campaign, he was an early and enthusiastic supporter, opening his wallet in service to a cause most of his peers found distasteful, if not loathsome in the extreme. And Mnuchin was an unlikely Trump supporter at that. The investment banker turned Hollywood impresario, far from being an enemy of America’s coastal elite, is practically its embodiment. Yet somehow it is Mnuchin who has divined the soundest economic strategy for a populist Trump White House to pursue: Let the economy run hot, and ignore self-serving cries of labor shortages from corporate CEOs.
I say “divined” because it’s not entirely clear that Mnuchin’s thoughts on these matters are carefully considered. At the recent Milken Global Conference in Los Angeles, a sort of mini-Davos, Mnuchin offered an insouciant reply to a question from the business journalist Maria Bartiromo about the dire labor shortages supposedly plaguing the country: “What do you say to managers when they say—and I’m sure you’ve heard it, I’ve heard it a lot—I can’t find the people to put in the jobs I have available? Is that about training?” In response, the secretary said, “I think some of it is about training, but I’m not hearing that from the companies I speak to.” Bartiromo was flummoxed by Mnuchin’s reply, so certain was she that labor shortages are indeed a pressing issue. Dan Primack and Steve LaVine of Axios took him to task for daring to suggest that labor shortages were not his concern, pointing to the fact that many U.S. employers claim otherwise. They pointed to his remarks as part of a larger pattern of willful blindness when it comes to America’s labor-market challenges, as evidenced by Mnuchin’s earlier expressions of skepticism about the job-destroying potential of advances in artifical intelligence. That there might be a slight tension between panicking about a shortage of labor today (there aren’t enough workers to fill the jobs!) and a superabundance of labor tomorrow (there won’t be enough jobs for all the workers!) was left unexamined. Of course we don’t have enough workers. Of course robots will take all the jobs. Who could possibly believe otherwise? Well, Steve Mnuchin, apparently. If he really is dismissing talk of labor shortages with the wave of a well-groomed hand, he is absolutely right to do so.