Pushing back gently but firmly on Michael Strain’s non-stagnation argument

Jared Bernstein

Jared Bernstein Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

A few folks have asked me about my friend Michael Strain’s recent Bloomberg piece where he argues against wage stagnation (it’s “more wrong than right”). It’s an old argument but one worth having, and Michael makes some important points and misses some big ones too (5, to be precise).

Larry Mishel and I counter a much shorter-term version of Michael’s case here but similar issues pertain. Certainly, the evidence he presents doesn’t change the basic wage story that I and many others carry around in our heads.

I think Michael’s most germane point is that nobody defines “stagnation.” If you think stagnation means real wages for low-wage workers have never gone up in the past four decades, you’re wrong. The figure below, from a recent piece I published (one I’ll get back to re a key point Michael misses), shows real wages for low and moderate wage workers stagnated through the 1970s, 80s, and 2000s.

 

But, in periods of very tight labor markets—the latter 1990s and now—they grew at a decent clip. This is key insight #1about real wage growth for too many workers. It’s not that they’ve never grown. It’s that their growth periods in recent decades have been few and far between. And it’s largely dependent of achieving persistent full employment, a condition that’s also been too rare in recent years (see this exciting new paper on precisely this point!).

Key insight #2 is that, sure, switching to a slower-growing deflator leads to faster wage growth and there are good arguments for various choices (see Mishel/Bivens’ cautions re Michael’s choice of using the PCE for wages). But it doesn’t wipe out long periods of stagnation. Here’s the real 20th percentile wage (2018 $’s) using both the CPI-RS (used in the figure above) and the PCE. Just like the above figure: periods of growth, but longer periods of stagnation.

Key insight #3 is especially important and I’d urge fair-minded conservatives to think more about it. If you’re trying to understand why a lot of people have long been unhappy about their paychecks, you can’t just look at wage trends, you must look at their wage levels. That’s what I do here, and I argue that given what a lot of people are taking home in their paychecks, it’s awfully hard for them to make ends meet when paying for child care, health care, housing, and maybe even saving a little afterwards.

Insight #4 is that non-wage benefits don’t change the story, and probably make it less favorable for the “no stagnation” argument. We know, for example (because Larry Mishel always tells us), that the average benefit share of compensation has not accelerated over the stagnation periods shown above. Thus, non-wage comp cannot have offset slower real growth.

But it’s also likely the case—we don’t have long time series on this—that low- and moderate wage workers are no more likely, and I suspect are less likely, to have improved benefit packages over time. That is, if the average hasn’t accelerated, my bet is that the median and below have done worse.

Insight #5 provides what I suspect is another big reason that many workers feel left behind: the rise of wage inequality. As Larry shows here, from 1979-2017, real earnings of the top 1% grew 135% faster than those of the bottom 90%. And such disparities would remain no matter which deflator you use (because both low and high wages would be deflated by the same values).

Finally, I’d urge the no-stagnation crowd to consider why, as Michael notes, stagnation is frequently asserted as fact, by “[p]residential candidates,” “commentators and other opinion leaders….” Why does this resonate with audiences, especially in places feeling the pinch of globalization and deindustrialization?

It could be that they’re using the wrong deflator. But I’ll bet it cuts a lot deeper than that. I’ll bet it’s because they’re right.

***

Reposted from On the Economy

Jared Bernstein joined the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in May 2011 as a Senior Fellow.  From 2009 to 2011, Bernstein was the Chief Economist and Economic Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, and a member of President Obama’s economic team. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Bernstein was a senior economist and the director of the Living Standards Program at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Between 1995 and 1996, he held the post of deputy chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. He is the author and co-author of numerous books, including “Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed?” and nine editions of “The State of Working America.”

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Jared Bernstein

Union Matters

Uber Drivers Deserve Legal Rights and Protections

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

In an advisory memo released May 14, the U.S. labor board general counsel’s office stated that Uber drivers are not employees for the purposes of federal labor laws.

Their stance holds that workers for companies like Uber are not included in federal protections for workplace organizing activities, which means the labor board is effectively denying Uber drivers the benefits of forming or joining unions.

Simply stating that Uber drivers are just gig workers does not suddenly undo the unjust working conditions that all workers potentially face, such as wage theft, dangerous working conditions and  job insecurity. These challenges are ever-present, only now Uber drivers are facing them without the protection or resources they deserve. 

The labor board’s May statement even seems to contradict an Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that couriers for Postmates, a job very similar to Uber drivers’, are legal employees.

However, the Department of Labor has now stated that such gig workers are simply independent contractors, meaning that they are not entitled to minimum wages or overtime pay.

While being unable to unionize limits these workers’ ability to fight for improved pay and working conditions, independent contractors can still make strides forward by organizing, explained executive director of New York Taxi Workers Alliance Bhairavi Desai.

“We can’t depend solely on the law or the courts to stop worker exploitation. We can only rely on the steadfast militancy of workers who are rising up everywhere,” Desai said in a statement. 

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Make Father's Day Union Made!

Make Father's Day Union Made!