Real wage stagnation, year 41

Remember the Economic Report of the President? Of course you do. It’s where we get our annual data on real wages (and apparently some other stuff, too). The 2014 edition was released on March 10. As you may recall, I made my first post on the declining real wage trend through 2011 and was literally the first person to notice 2012’s further slight decline.

The good news is that, in what is now Table B-15 rather than B-47, real wages advanced somewhat in 2013, from $294.31 per week (in 1982-84 dollars) to $295.51, an increase of 0.4%. Woo hoo!

The bad news, of course, is that this is still 13.5% off the peak real weekly wage of $341.73, achieved in 1972. One swallow doesn’t make a spring, and all that.

Interestingly, last week Paul Krugman felt compelled to argue that real wages aren’t going up all that fast, but so what if they did? He said that basically, this was something primarily only visible in the real hourly (my emphasis) wages of production and non-supervisory workers, which happens to be one of the components of Table B-15. However, he was reporting based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly reporting of this stat.

As he puts it, the folks he is criticizing are saying that “a dangerous acceleration in the pace of wage increases is already underway. Time to raise interest rates!” His response to them is fine as far as it goes, but he misses that even on the terrain of the supposedly most rapidly increasing measure, there is no there there.

 

Table A-2. Current and real (constant 1982-1984 dollars) earnings for production and nonsupervisory employees on private nonfarm payrolls, seasonally adjusted(1)
Feb.2013 Dec.2013 Jan.2014(p) Feb.2014(p)

Real average hourly earnings(2)

$8.73 $8.81 $8.83 $8.86

Real average weekly earnings(2)

$294.96 $295.22 $295.69 $295.08

Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers

229.180 230.919 231.233 231.344

Average hourly earnings

$20.00 $20.35 $20.41 $20.50

Average weekly hours

33.8 33.5 33.5 33.3

Average weekly earnings

$676.00 $681.73 $683.74 $682.65

OVER-THE-MONTH PERCENT CHANGE

Real average hourly earnings(2)

-0.3 -0.1 0.2 0.3

Real average weekly earnings(2)

0.2 -0.6 0.2 -0.2

Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers

0.6 0.3 0.1 0.0

Average hourly earnings

0.3 0.2 0.3 0.4

Average weekly hours

0.6 -0.6 0.0 -0.6

Average weekly earnings

0.8 -0.3 0.3 -0.2

OVER-THE-YEAR PERCENT CHANGE

Real average hourly earnings(2)

0.1 0.8 0.8 1.5

Real average weekly earnings(2)

0.4 0.2 0.4 0.0

Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers

1.9 1.5 1.6 0.9

Average hourly earnings

2.0 2.3 2.3 2.5

Average weekly hours

0.3 -0.6 -0.3 -1.5

Average weekly earnings

2.3 1.7 2.0 1.0

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (link above), footnotes omitted

 

First of all, we should remember that a couple months’ trend is not really equal to a 41-year trend. That kind of error we’ll leave to Reinhart and Rogoff.

Second, we can see the “scary” number: nominal hourly earnings increased from $20.00 in February 2013 to $20.50 in February 2014, or 2.5%.

Third, we know that we actually want to adjust that for inflation; hence we find that real hourly earnings went from $8.73 in February 2013 (1982-84 dollars) to $8.86 in February 2014, or just 1.5%,

Fourth, what Krugman appears to miss is that average weekly hours have fallen substantially since 1972. In fact, as the BLS table shows, they fell by half an hour, from 33.8 to 33.3 hours, from February 2013 to February 2014, or 1.5%.

You can see where this is going now: Real weekly earnings went up by 0. More precisely, 0.04%. And you’ll note that the February 2014 figure is lower than the full-year 2013 level. So there is actually no increase to explain in the production/non-supervisory workers series.

But Krugman does hit the nail on the head: “What’s so bad about rising wages?” And the answer, of course, is “Absolutely nothing.” (“Say it again!”)

Cross-posted at Middle Class Political Economist.

 

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