Friday, September 11, 2015
Wage Rates and Interest Rate
Comments due by Sept. 18, 2015
For most Americans, paychecks determine living standards. Unfortunately, wages in America have long stagnated or declined for most working people, including college graduates.
The disappointing employment report for August — in which wage growth showed no sign of accelerating — only drove home that reality.
Worse, flat or falling pay is self-reinforcing because it dampens demand and, by extension, economic growth. In the current recovery, median wages have fallen by 3 percent, after adjusting for inflation, while annual economic growth has peaked at around 2.5 percent. At that pace, growth isn’t able to fully repair the damage from the recession that preceded the recovery. The result is a continuation of the pre-recession dynamic where income flows to the top of the economic ladder, while languishing for everyone else.
Policy makers should be focused on strategies to raise wages, but the opposite appears to be happening. Just as Congress enfeebled the economy by switching too soon from stimulus spending to budget cuts, Federal Reserve officials have all but vowed to begin raising interest rates this year. That move reflects a belief that the economy is returning to “normal,” but it would be premature, because today’s norm is an economy that is incapable of generating and sustaining broad prosperity.
In a healthy economy with upward mobility and a thriving middle class, hourly compensation (wages plus benefits) rises in line with labor productivity. But for the vast majority of workers, pay increases have lagged behind productivity in recent decades. Since the early 1970s, median pay has risen by only 8.7 percent, after adjusting for inflation, while productivity has grown by 72 percent. Since 2000, the gap has become even bigger, with pay up only 1.8 percent, despite productivity growth of 22 percent.
Why has worker pay withered? The answer, in large part, is that rising productivity has increasingly boosted corporate profits, executive compensation and shareholder returns rather than worker pay. Chief executives, for example, now make about 300 times more than typical workers, compared with 30 times more in 1980, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Other research shows far greater discrepancies at some companies.
For younger people, pay has actually declined. The average hourly wage for recent college graduates in early 2015 was $17.94, compared with $18.41 in 2000. That “loss” in starting pay, about $1,000, can carry over to diminished earnings for years to come. Young high school graduates have it even worse. Their average hourly pay was $10.40 in early 2015 versus $11.01 in 2000.
The Fed is a crucial player in reversing those trends, since one of its mandates is to foster full employment. Wage stagnation is a clear sign that the economy is not at full employment, which means it needs loose monetary policy, not tightening. An interest rate hike, by sending the wrong signal of economic health, could make it harder for labor groups and policy makers to assert the urgency of their efforts to raise pay.
In the past year, low-wage workers have successfully fought for minimum wage increases in states and cities. Congressional Democrats have championed legislation to raise the federal minimum wage and to fight wage theft and abusive worker scheduling. The Labor Department is moving ahead with a much needed new rule to update the nation’s overtime-pay laws.
In the midst of those efforts, it would be a setback for the Fed to act as if the economy is already near full employment. It’s not. The proof is in the paycheck.(NYT Editorial 9/7/2015)