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What Does a Good Economy Look Like?

New York Times

September 15, 2023

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve written one column arguing that the economic situation for working class America is now better, relative to a decade ago, than some pessimistic populists make it sound, and another arguing that the eating-away at American wages because of inflation explains some important measure of President Biden’s political difficulties.

I think both of these points are true, but there’s at least a hint of a tension between them, one that’s worth exploring as we try to figure out the actual condition of our economy as we head into 2024.

Let’s start with a chart from Scott Winship at the American Enterprise Institute (where I am a nonresident fellow), who is a longtime skeptic of the more dire populist diagnoses of our ills. It shows, along various different methods of estimation, the median income for American men — whose difficulties are of particular concern to conservative populists worried about marriageability, family formation and relations between the sexes:

A chart tracking incomes for American men in recent decades.

What you see here is a story that doesn’t match a narrative of economic carnage or plutocratic domination. By any of Winship’s listed metrics, men earn more today than in 1995 and earned more in 2000 than 1975. But the chart does show a serious period of stagnation from the end of the dot-com era through the mid-2010s. Meaning that at the time of Trump’s first campaign, the populists had a point about economic disappointment, and the 21st century economy seemed to be letting workers down.

But then in the 2015-2020 zone, the stagnation gives way to rapid growth — growth, as I noted in my column on populism, that also became more equitably shared, with the rate of gains for the 50th percentile and the 10th percentile of income converging with the gains for the 90th percentile. And this last pattern, notably, has continued through Covid and beyond: The Biden economy has performed better for the lowest-wage workers than for either the upper-middle or the middle class.

Clearly class stratification persists, but those trends form a solid basis for thinking that the American economy is not as ruthlessly rigged against the working man as some populist writers seem to suggest, and — as I suggested in a counter to Sohrab Ahmari recently — for privileging culture over economics in explaining some of the troubling social trends of recent years. (Birthrates and marriage rates fell through this period of wage growth, young people’s unhappiness has intensified, and so on.)

But then in the corner of Winship’s chart you can see the problem for the Biden era, where income growth stops and drops in the 2020s as inflation kicks in. This is not a great trend if you became president in January 2021! And indeed, when I noted the Biden economy has been better for low-wage workers, what that actually meant in 2021 or 2022 was that real hourly wages for the 10th percentile rose modestly while falling meaningfully for both the middle class and well-to-do — reducing inequality in the least ideal and least politically palatable way.

2023 has been a better year, with wage growth finally outpacing inflation. But in this chart from former Obama administration official Jason Furman, you can see the continuing political challenge for Bidenomics:

A chart comparing real average hourly earnings in recent years to a prepandemic trend line.
Credit…Jason Furman, Harvard Kennedy School
A chart comparing real average hourly earnings in recent years to a prepandemic trend line.

Note that these figures are for “production and nonsupervisory workers.” As Furman notes, wage growth for managers has actually been worse — further evidence, perhaps, that the professional-managerial class isn’t simply hoarding the gains from economic growth.

And note, too, that just as Winship’s chart shows multiple ways of measuring income trends, there are more optimistic analyses and estimates than Furman’s — like this one from Arin Dube of UMass Amherst, for instance, showing workers regaining more ground.

But the sourness of public opinion on the economy seems to match up pretty well with Furman’s estimates. At the very least, no matter where we stand relative to the late Obama or early Trump economy, some further improvement seems necessary to convince the public that the Biden economy is actually in good shape.

So then the question for the Biden administration becomes: What counts as a good wage trend? Remember that the economic trends before 2020 were the best of the last few decades, so just returning to that dotted line in Furman’s chart would be great news. But does Biden need that scale of success to get credit for a good economy, or does he just need wage growth at any pace? What do his re-election odds look like, for instance, if we spend the next year on a slightly more disappointing economic path than we were on in 2018, but a slightly better one than what we were tracing under Barack Obama and George W. Bush?

And then finally, what is the impact on expectations of that wild income spike at the outset of the pandemic? Because the grimmest scenario for Biden would be that the outpouring of Covid spending reset expectations so high that people will be sour with just about any economy until the memory of that weird subsidy fades out.

Finally, a note on the position of right-wing populists in this landscape. I don’t think the possibility that the economy has improved, especially for lower-wage workers, relative to the landscape of 10 or 15 years ago, proves that they should just fold up their arguments and re-embrace low-tax libertarianism. That’s because the arguments for a more interventionist conservative economic policy don’t necessarily depend on the view that the American economy is unjust to wage-earners on the scale that, for instance, Ahmari’s new book, “Tyranny, Inc.,” sometimes seems to assume.

Rather, the case for populist interventions can hold if you just think low-tax libertarianism is failing to sustain some more specific good. For instance, a general increase in prosperity might not be creating the conditions necessary for above-replacement fertility, because the costs of child rearing are largely fixed and can’t drop in the same way as, say, consumer goods, and families are in a positional competition that makes them over-invest in one or two kids rather than having three or four. Or an increase in household income might be achieved through free-trade policies that also hollow out our industrial capacity and leave us vulnerable in a new age of great-power competition.

In these and other cases, conservatives could have good reasons to look for policy innovations even if Winship’s relatively optimistic take on the economic situation is correct. Though as Winship himself might then say, some of those innovations might themselves be libertarian — e.g., making family more affordable by the traditional capitalist expedient of building more housing.

My own mild point, though, is just that there’s a lot of space between Bernie Sanders and The Wall Street Journal editorial board — and thus a lot of room for an agenda with culturally conservative goals, an openness to experimentation, but a non-catastrophic view of the economic situation in which those experiments might take place.