Sunday, January 22, 2017

Real aggregate wage growth: Barack Obama's final record

 - by New Deal democrat

Particularly in view of the massive protests yesterday, which were probably the biggest grassroots protests in US history since the 1960s, there is much to be written about the deep and intense division in this country, both economically and politically.  I anticipate writing about this in depth in the near future.

But before that, let's take one last look at one important aspect of Obama's economic record.

In my opinion the best measure of how average Americans are doing in an economic expansion isn't jobs, and it isn't wages per hour.  Rather, it is real aggregate wage growth.  This is calculated as follows: 
  • average wages per hour for nonsupervisory workers
  • times aggregate hours worked in the economy
  • deflated by the consumer price index
This tells us how much more money average Americans are taking home compared with the worst point in the last recession.

Why do I believe that this is the best measure of labor market progress?  Let me give you a few examples.

First, compare an economy that creates 1 million 40 hour a week jobs at $10/hour, with an economy that creates 2 million jobs at 10 hours a week at $10/hour.  If we were to count by job creation, the second economy would be better.  But that's clearly  not the case.  The second economy is paying out only half of the cold hard cash to workers as the first.

Next, let's compare two economies that both create 1 million 40 hour a week jobs, but one pays $10/hour and the other pays $12/hour.  Clearly the second economy is better.  It is paying workers 20% more than the first.

Finally, let's compare two economies that create 1 million 40 hour a week jobs at $10/hour.  In the first economy, there are 3% annual raises, but inflation is rising 4%.  In the second, there are 2% annual raises, but inflation is rising 1%.  Again, even though the second economy is giving less raises, it is the better one -- those workers are seeing their lot improve in real, inflation-adjusted terms, whereas the workers in the first economy are actually losing ground.

In each case, the economy creating more jobs, or more hourly employment, is inferior to the economy  that pays more in real wages to its workers,  In other words, the best measure of a labor market recovery is that economy which doles out the biggest increase in real aggregate wages.

In short, at the end of the analysis, people generally work not for hours, and not for jobs themselves, but for the cold hard cash that is put in their pockets.  That's why I believe that real aggregate wage growth is the best measure of a labor market recovery.

With that introduction, here are real aggregate wages for the entire past 50 years: 

So how does the current expansion compare with past ones?  Here is the graph, normed to 100 at the post-recession bottom in real aggregate wages in October 2009:

To compare, here is a chart I created several years ago showing the real aggregate wage growth in every economic expansion beginning with 1964:

* start of series

The most recent trough for aggregate real wages was in October 2009.  So  far, real wages grew 20.7%, or just shy of .25% per month, as of July, 81 months after the last bottom.

As  shown in the above chart, four of the past 7 recoveries have been better.  Three were worse. The peak so far in this wage recovery is only 0.1% lower than Carter's, and 0.9% lower than Reagan's.  

Obama's wage recovery is the second longest on record, surpassed only by Clinton's, but it is also the second weakest in terms of monthly wage growth, beating only George W. Bush's.  The  peak in Reagan's wage recovery, at +21.6%, actually happened during George H.W. Bush's presidency. The peak so far in Obama's recovery is 20.7%, but there may be further improvement this year.

In short, Obama finished his term with about average real aggregate wage growth -- not spectacular, but not awful either.