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Archive for September 21st, 2018

Some economic statistics are very important in the world of politics.

When President Obama’s so-called stimulus was in effect, critics (including me) kept pointing to higher-than-predicted unemployment rates. President Trump, meanwhile, mistakenly thinks America somehow is losing because of the trade deficit. And the GDP numbers are the subject of considerable discussion on all sides.

Another very important piece of data is wage growth, especially since Trump wants to claim his policies are generating big results. I take a jaundiced view on such claims, but the issue is very important, so let’s take a look at two interesting columns.

Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute, writing for Bloomberg, starts by noting that some folks on the left think workers are being screwed.

Are wages determined by market forces, or do businesses get to decide what pay they offer to workers? …Why has wage growth been so sluggish for so many years? …you might answer that employers have made the decision to boost profits at the expense of raising wages. …it is common to hear some prominent analysts and organizations on the left argue that the link between wages and productivity for most workers has effectively been severed.

Not so fast, he writes.

Businesses don’t pay employees less than the value of their productivity — the amount of revenue workers generate for their employer — because doing so would result in their workers taking another job where they would get paid what they’re worth. In this sense, employers don’t “decide” what wages they pay. Instead, wages are set in markets. …worker productivity remains the dominant force in setting wages. …Market forces are powerful. A recent paper by economists Anna M. Stansbury and Lawrence H. Summers of Harvard confirms this. They find that over the last four decades, a one-percentage-point increase in productivity growth is associated with a 0.73 percentage point increase in the growth rate of median compensation. That’s a strong link.

I have two thoughts on this. First, productivity is the key to our prosperity. I’m in full agreement with Paul Krugman’s observation that, “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.”

Second, as illustrated by this chart, we get more productivity with greater levels of investment.

The problem is that government often undermines productivity growth.

Governments have thrown a wrench in the market machine through the absurd proliferation of occupational licenses, reducing wages for workers who can’t get a license and restricting the mobility of licensed workers. A recent study finds that the rate of migration across state lines for individuals in occupations with state-specific licensing requirements is over one-third lower than among individuals in occupations that don’t have such rules.

Amen.

And there are plenty of additional policies that have a negative effect as well.

In a column for the Wall Street Journal, David Henderson says the data on wage growth tell an incomplete story.

Standard wage data show that between the spring of 2017 and the spring of 2018, real wages in the U.S. increased only 0.1%. But there are three major problems with these data. First, they don’t account for fringe benefits, which are an increasing proportion of employee pay. Second, standard wage data use an index that overstates the inflation rate. Third, each year the composition of the workforce changes, as older, higher-paid workers retire and young, lower-paid workers enter the workforce.

He digs into some of the data that have been shared by the CEA.

…the White House Council of Economic Advisers addresses these three biases and concludes that real wages grew by 1% in 2017-18, not the measly 0.1% reported in the wage data. …including benefits would add 0.2 percentage point to the 2017-18 figure. …An alternate measure of inflation, the personal- consumption-expenditures price index, while also imperfect, is a better measure of inflation. Economists at the Federal Reserve prefer the PCEPI to the CPI. Using the PCEPI adds 0.5 percentage point to the 2017-18 growth of real wages. …The Census Bureau estimates that 3.57 million people turned 65 in 2017, compared with 2.68 million in 2010. Taking account of the decline in older, higher-paid workers and the increase in younger, lower-paid workers, the CEA estimates that this “composition factor” added 0.3 percentage point to real wage growth from 2017-18.

I have two thoughts about this data.

First, I don’t pretend to know the ideal measure to capture inflation, but I definitely know that we’d have lower prices in the absence of government intervention.

Second, the CEA definitely is right about fringe benefits being an ever-larger share of total compensation (mostly driven by government intervention).

And these observations apply, regardless of who’s in the White House.

This is not a partisan point. The same methodology would show that real wages grew more than was reported during much of President Obama’s time in office. …there is, in this context, one relevant difference between the Trump and Obama administrations: the 2017 tax cut. Real after-tax wages increased 1.4% between 2017 and 2018, according to the CEA study.

I obviously like the part about tax cuts being helpful, but I’ll reiterate my concern that this effect will evaporate if GOPers don’t get serious about spending restraint.

And I’ll close with the essential observation that there is no substitute for across-the-board pro-market policies if the goal is improving people’s lives.

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