The Best Economic News No One Wants to Talk About

Something’s happening to wages that neither Democrats nor Republicans care to acknowledge.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: For most American workers, real wages have barely budged in decades. Inequality has skyrocketed. The richest workers are making all the money. Earnings for low-income workers have been pathetic this entire century.

These claims help drive the interpretation of breaking economic news. For example, the Labor Department yesterday reported that the unemployment rate fell to a 50-year low, while wage growth stalled. “The wage numbers here are INSANE,” the MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted. “The tightest labor market in decades and decades and ordinary working people are barely seeing gains.”

So, let’s play a game of wish-casting.

  • Imagine a world where wage growth was truly stagnant only for workers in high-wage industries, such as medicine and consulting.
  • Imagine a labor market where earnings growth for low-wage workers, such as those who work in retail and restaurants, had doubled in the past five years.
  • Imagine an economy where wages for the poorest Americans were rising twice as fast as hourly earnings for high-wage earners.

It turns out that all three of those things are happening right now.

According to analysis by Nick Bunker, an economist with the jobs site Indeed, wage growth is currently strongest for workers in low-wage industries, such as clothing stores, supermarkets, amusement parks, and casinos. And earnings are growing most slowly in higher-wage industries, such as medical labs, law firms, and broadcasting and telecom companies.

Bunker’s analysis is not an outlier. A Goldman Sachs look at data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found growth for the bottom half of earners at its highest rate of the cycle. And even among that bottom half, the biggest gains are going to workers earning the least. A New York Times analysis of data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that wage growth among the lowest 25 percent of earners had exceeded the growth in every other quartile.

In fact, according to Bunker’s research, wages for low-income workers may be growing at their highest rate in 20 years.

What’s happening here? Donald Trump hasn’t sprinkled MAGA pixie dust over the U.S. economy. In fact, his trade war has clearly diminished employment growth in industries, that are sensitive to foreign markets, such as manufacturing. Rather, a tight labor market and state-by-state minimum wage hikes have combined to push up wage growth for the poorest workers. The sluggishness of overall wage growth is concealing the fact that the labor market has done wonderful things for wages at the low end.

One reason you haven’t heard this economic narrative may be that it’s inconvenient for members of both political parties to talk about, especially at a time when economic analysis has, like everything else, become a proxy for political orientation. For Democrats, the idea that low-income workers could be benefiting from a 2019 economy feels dangerously close to giving the president credit for something. This isn’t just poor motivated reasoning; it also attributes way too much power to the American president, who exerts very little control over the domestic economy. Meanwhile, corporate-friendly outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, have reported on this phenomenon. But they’ve used it as an opportunity to take a shot at “the slow-growth Obama years” rather than a way to argue for the extraordinary benefits of tight labor markets for the poor, much less for the virtues of minimum-wage laws.

Democrats don’t want to talk about low-income wage growth, because it feels too close to saying, “Good things can happen while Trump is president”; and Republicans don’t want to talk about the reason behind it, because it’s dangerously close to saying, “Our singular fixation with corporate-tax rates is foolish and Keynes was right.”

But good things can happen while Trump is president, and Keynes was right. “Tighter labor markets sure are good for workers who work in low-wage industries,” Bunker told me. “This recovery has not been spectacular. But if we let the labor market get stronger for a long time, you will see these results.”

As Wages Rise, Black Workers See the Smallest Gains

Despite record-low unemployment, black workers’ weekly pay growth lags behind other groups

Black workers have received far smaller pay increases in recent years compared with other racial groups, despite unemployment for black Americans trending at historic lows.

For all U.S. workers, inflation-adjusted median weekly earnings rose 5.3% in the first quarter of 2019 compared with when the recession began in late 2007, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Labor Department data released Tuesday.

.. The disparity suggests black workers aren’t benefiting to the same degree as others from what is by several measures the best labor market in nearly half a century.

Black unemployment last year fell to the lowest level on records dating back to the 1970s. But the rate, an average of 6.8% in the first quarter, was well above the overall rate of 3.9%.

“In a hotter economy, it’s important to be looking at the structural issues that may be inhibiting black workers from seeing better gains.” said Valerie Wilson, an economist and director of the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race, ethnicity and the economy.

One of those is racial discrimination, she said. Other factors are lack of jobs near where black workers live and a reluctance of employers to hire those with criminal backgrounds. More prisoners are black than white, according to the Justice Department, despite black people accounting for about 13% of the U.S. population. And reports have shown black men receive longer sentences than white men for similar crimes.

Hispanic workers are likely benefiting from the effects of better educational attainment, Ms. Wilson said. As Hispanics are increasingly first- and second-generation Americans, rather than immigrants, they’re seeking more schooling and earning correspondingly higher wages.

Hispanic workers still earned the least among racial groups, an adjusted $692 a week. Black workers, while they’ve seen smaller percentage increases, earned a median wage of $711 a week.

Women earn less than men within all racial groups. That could be another factor holding back overall pay for black workers: More black women than men are employed. In every other racial group, male workers outnumber female workers. In the past decade, Hispanic men began earning more than black women.

From Coke to Macy’s, Pay for Typical Worker Takes Big Swings

Coca-Cola slashed its median pay figure by two-thirds after it finished shifting North American bottling operations to franchisees and acquired a controlling interest in African operations. The 2017 median worker was an hourly full-timer in the U.S. making $47,312, while last year’s made $16,440 as an hourly full-timer in South Africa.

In its proxy statement, Coca-Cola said it intends to shed the African operation again after making improvements and offered an alternative median employee excluding that unit: an hourly full-timer in the U.S. making $35,878, about 25% less than his or her 2017 counterpart. A company spokesman declined to comment further.

Don’t Blame Robots for Low Wages

So technological change is an old story. What’s new is the failure of workers to share in the fruits of that technological change.

I’m not saying that coping with change was ever easy. The decline of coal employment had devastating effects on many families, and much of what used to be coal country has never recovered. The loss of manual jobs in port cities surely contributed to the urban social crisisof the ’70s and ’80s.

But while there have always been some victims of technological progress, until the 1970s rising productivity translated into rising wages for a great majority of workers. Then the connection was broken. And it wasn’t the robots that did it.

What did? There is a growing though incomplete consensus among economists that a key factor in wage stagnation has been workers’ declining bargaining power — a decline whose roots are ultimately political.

Most obviously, the federal minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has fallen by a third over the past half century, even as worker productivity has risen 150 percent. That divergence was politics, pure and simple.

The decline of unions, which covered a quarter of private-sector workers in 1973 but only 6 percent now, may not be as obviously political. But other countries haven’t seen the same kind of decline. Canada is as unionized now as the U.S. was in 1973; in the Nordic nations unions cover two-thirds of the work force. What made America exceptional was a political environment deeply hostile to labor organizing and friendly toward union-busting employers.

The Stock Buyback Panic

Repurchases reallocate under-utilized capital to more efficient purposes.

Stock buybacks are the latest bipartisan piñata, whacked by politicians on the left and right who misunderstand capital markets. A refresher course is in order lest Congress stampede and undermine the investment needed for growth.

Repurchasing shares is simply one way a company can return cash to owners if it lacks better ideas for investment. Tax reform increased corporate cash flow by cutting tax rates and letting companies repatriate their cash held overseas by paying a one-time tax rate of 15.5%.

Using Federal Reserve data, Dan Clifton of Strategas Research Partners estimates that companies repatriated $730 billion in 2018. CEOs have deployed that for multiple purposes including new investment, debt reduction, pension contributions, employee bonuses, wage and dividend increases and stock repurchases.

This is a policy success. Mr. Clifton calculates that capital expenditures by S&P 500 companies grew about $75 billion in 2018, the fourth-biggest annual gain since 1991. Average wages are growing by at least 3.4% year over

.. The Senators complain that “when corporations direct resources to buy back shares on this scale, they restrain their capacity to reinvest.” But the money doesn’t fall into a black hole. An investor who sells stock into a buyback will save or reinvest the proceeds. Walmart gives shareholders cash, and capital markets redirect it to some other useful end.

Banning buybacks won’t create better investment options inside companies. Instead CEOs may spend more on corporate jets or pet projects with marginal economic returns. They could let cash pile up. They could raise dividends, which would also move cash toward better investments. But Messrs. Schumer and Sanders likewise want to “seriously consider policies to limit the payout of dividends, perhaps through the tax code.”

The Great American Tax Heist Turns One

Last December, Republicans relied on the support of conservative economists who predicted that the party’s corporate tax cuts would boost productivity and investment in the United States substantially. The forecasts were wrong, and the silence of those who made them suggests that they knew it all along.

BERKELEY – It has now been one year since US President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans rammed their massive corporate tax cut through Congress. At the time, critics of the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” described it as a cynical handout for wealthy shareholders. But a substantial number of economists came out in support of it.
For example, one prominent group, most of whom served in previous Republican administrations, predicted in The Wall Street Journal that the tax cuts would boost long-run GDP by 3-4%, with an “associated increase” of about 0.4% “in the annual rate of GDP growth” over the next decade. And in an open letter to Congress, a coterie of over 100 economists asserted that “the macroeconomic feedback generated by the [tax cuts]” would be “more than enough to compensate for the static revenue loss,” implying that the bill would be deficit-neutral over time.

Likewise, in a  for Project Syndicate, Robert J. Barro of Harvard University argued that the tax cuts would increase long-run real (inflation-adjusted) per capita GDP by an improbable 7%. And Michael J. Boskin of the Hoover Institution endorsed his analysis in a .

Finally, Kevin Hassett, Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and Greg Mankiw of Harvard University claimed that the productivity gains stemming from the tax package would primarily boost wages, rather than profits, because foreign savers would pour investment into the US.

.. To be sure, these were primarily long-run predictions. But proponents of the bill nonetheless claimed that we would see enough additional investment to boost growth by 0.4% per year. That implies an annual GDP increase of roughly $800 billion, which would require annual investment to rise from 17.5% to about 21.5% of GDP. We cannot know how much the US economy would grow in the absence of the tax cuts. But, as the chart below shows, investment has not jumped to that level, nor does it show signs of doing so anytime soon.

.. Back when all the aforementioned economists were issuing their sanguine predictions about the tax package’s likely effects, neutral scorekeepers such as the Tax Policy Center were painting a more realistic picture. And unlike most proponents of the cuts, the Tax Policy Center’s raison d’être is not to please donors or support a particular political party, but rather to make the best forecasts that it can.

The deep disagreement last year over the tax bill’s potential effects anguished Binyamin Applebaum of The New York Times. “What does it mean to produce the signatures of 100 economists in favor of a given proposition when another 100 will sign their names to the opposite statement?” Applebaum asked on Twitter at the time. “How does Harvard, for example, justify granting tenure to people who purport to work in the same discipline and publicly condemn each other as charlatans? How are ordinary people, let alone members of Congress, supposed to figure out which tenured professors are the serious economists?

.. We can now answer that last question. Scholarship is about the pursuit of truth. When scholars find that they have gotten something wrong, they ask themselves why, in order to improve their methodology and possibly get it less wrong in the future. The economists who predicted that tax cuts would spur a rapid increase in investment and sustained growth have now been proven wrong. If they were serious academics committed to their discipline, they would take this as a sign that they have something to learn. Sadly, they have not. They have remained silent, which suggests that they are not surprised to see investment fall far short of what they promised.

But why should they be surprised? After all, it would be specious to assume, as their models do, that investment can rapidly rise (or fall) as foreign investors flood into (or flee) the US. Individuals and firms do not suddenly ratchet up their savings just because the after-tax profit rate has increased. While a higher profit rate does make saving more profitable, it also increases the income from one’s past savings, thus reducing the need to save. Generally speaking, the two balance out.

While a higher profit rate does make saving more profitable, it also increases the income from one’s past savings, thus reducing the need to save. Generally speaking, the two balance out.

All of those who published op-eds and released studies supporting the corporate tax cuts last year knew (or should have known) this to begin with. That is why they have not bothered to investigate their flawed forecasts to determine what they may have missed. It is as if they knew all along that their predictions were wrong.

For reporters still wondering which economists to listen to, the answer should now be clear. If there is one message to take from the past year, it is: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

For Wages, a Trump Slump

If the Trump economy were so wonderful, why would the speaker of the House feel the need to traffic in disingenuousness? Because the Trump economy isn’t actually so wonderful. For most Americans, it is downright mediocre, and it has deteriorated somewhat since President Trump took office, despite the healthy G.D.P. and unemployment statistics.

.. Let’s start with the good news. The unemployment rate keeps falling, and economic growth is solid. These headline numbers are the ones that Republicans emphasize

.. As a result of the growth, nominal wages — that is, the numbers people see in their paychecks, before taking inflation into account — are growing. You can see the pickup in the gentle upward slope of the chart’s solid gray line. Over the past year, the average hourly nominal wage has risen 2.7 percent.

.. Prices matter, too. When the prices of good and services are rising faster than nominal wages, people end up with less buying power. And that is exactly what’s happening now.

.. Events in the Middle East, Russia and Venezuela have reduced the supply of oil, even as a growing global economy is increasing demand. Trump has aggravated the situation by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, further raising oil prices.

.. My best guess is that real wages will do modestly better over the next year, barring another oil spike or an unexpected recession. But there is no reason to think that most Americans are on the cusp of truly healthy pay increases

.. They face too many obstacles:

Right now, Trump is presiding over precisely the wage growth that he deserves: zero.