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

Summary:
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

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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.

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

But, in periods of very tight labor markets—the latter 1990s and now—they grew at a decent clip. This is key insight #1 about 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.

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

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.

Jared Bernstein
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, and between 1995 and 1996, he held the post of Deputy Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Labor.

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