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The real wage myth

Summary:
After the 2016 election, several pundits suggested that the Trump victory reflected frustration with stagnant real wages. Unfortunately, this argument is based on a misconception. The average hourly earnings series at the FRED data site only goes back 12 years, but real wages were doing well before the 2016 election: BTW, in nominal terms, average hourly earnings are currently .77/hour. FRED does have a much longer series for average wages earned by production and nonsupervisory employees (which currently stands at .31): I could not find median hourly wages, but they did have data on median weekly wages (currently 5): There was a period of stagnant real wages, but it ended in the mid-1990s. All of these series show significant growth in real wages since

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After the 2016 election, several pundits suggested that the Trump victory reflected frustration with stagnant real wages. Unfortunately, this argument is based on a misconception.

The average hourly earnings series at the FRED data site only goes back 12 years, but real wages were doing well before the 2016 election:

The real wage mythBTW, in nominal terms, average hourly earnings are currently $27.77/hour.

FRED does have a much longer series for average wages earned by production and nonsupervisory employees (which currently stands at $23.31):

The real wage mythI could not find median hourly wages, but they did have data on median weekly wages (currently $905):

The real wage mythThere was a period of stagnant real wages, but it ended in the mid-1990s. All of these series show significant growth in real wages since the mid-1990s.  Whatever explains the rise of populism in America, it is not stagnant wages.

BTW, these time series understate the growth in total labor compensation, as the cost of fringe benefits such as health care has risen faster than nominal wage growth.  Alternatively, if you believe that health benefits are nearly worthless (my view), then the nominal wage series should be deflated by a price index that excludes health care.  That would show even more rapid growth in real wages.

PS.  There is one downside to writing a post and then delaying the publication.  Today’s Bloomberg has an article that makes many of the same points, and in some cases more effectively.  But it doesn’t have my graphs.

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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