I made the counter argument, as do Cox and Alm, that the U.S. economy
is succeeding in providing real gains to a majority of its citizens.
Why, you might ask, did the authors and I feel compelled to make
our arguments? I'm
sure their answer would be the same as mine: to prevent bad policies
from being enacted. If one believes the U.S. economic system is failing,
one is prone to suggest policies to repair it.
Thus, at the economic forum I heard calls to raise the minimum wage,
slap a confiscatory tax on CEOs' salaries, increase the progressivity
of the income tax and restrict some business practices of corporations.
However, if one believes the U.S. economic system is not failing, all
of the proposed policies are seen to be counterproductive government interventions.
By comparing the argument I made then with the one the authors
do now, one can judge the contribution made by the book. My argument
was based on careful academic studies that attempted to set the
aggregate statistics straight. I relied heavily on the work of
Richard McKenzie, which directly took on the claims made by the
prominent speakers at the economic forum. (See, for example, The
"Fortunate Fifth" Fallacy, Center for the Study of American
Business, May 1992.)
On the decline in the real wage, McKenzie exposed problems in
both the measurement of the numerator, average hourly earnings,
and the denominator, the consumer price index. Average hourly
earnings omit benefits and pay increases in the form of promotions
and bonuses. Over recent years, these nonwage forms of compensation
have risen relative to wages. Meanwhile, the consumer price index
is now widely recognized to have been biased up historically.
This bias was estimated by a government-appointed commission to
be 1.1 percent per year. The bias has been addressed by the Bureau
of Labor Statistics (BLS) in a series of revisions to its method
of calculation. However, when the BLS revises its method, it does
not go back to correct previously reported data.
How important are these measurement problems, say, over the
period 1970-1998? If we look at average hourly earnings divided
by the reported consumer price index, we find that real earnings
on average declined by 8 percent over this period. In contrast,
if we look at a comprehensive measure of workers' pay (private
nonfarm compensation per hour) and divide by a corrected, unbiased
consumer price index, we find that real earnings on average increased
by 84 percent over this period. Cox and Alm cover a lot of this
In terms of the distribution of income across households, McKenzie
also showed there were all kinds of problems of measurement with
respect to both income and households over time. His corrected
measures show that all quintiles of the income distribution have
been gaining real income, although the gains for the top quintile
have been the largest. But, then McKenzie makes his strongest
argument that even if all the income gain is concentrated at the
top, that need not be a cause for concern. That is because if
we look at lifetime earnings profiles, the most common picture
is people starting low on the income ladder when they begin their
careers and then steadily working their way up the ladder. It
is not a big problem that the top quintile gets the majority of
the gains, if a majority of the employees eventually work their
way to the top. Again, Cox and Alm cover a lot of this same ground.
So, what do Cox and Alm add to the argument? Essentially, McKenzie,
I, and others had to argue that our aggregate data were better
than that of the opposing side. To a nontechnical audience, it
could well appear that the difference in the arguments of the
two sides just pits one set of phony books against another. What
Cox and Alm provide are the real-life stories behind the numbers.
They move the argument from the abstract to the concrete: from
"goods" and "services" to "microwaves" and "laser surgery." Instead
of numbers, they remind people of the great progress that has
been made, describing specific examples to which readers can relate.
Cox and Alm harness a tremendous volume of knowledge, in the
form of survey data, historical facts, and personal observations,
to buttress the arguments of McKenzie. After reading this book,
no one can doubt that the vast majority of Americans are better
off today than they were 20 to 30 years ago. Cox and Alm show
that in terms of material goods, such as televisions and appliances,
today's poor own more than the middle class did earlier. They
show that we work less and spend more time on recreation and entertainment.
Perhaps their greatest contribution is to bring to life the
dynamism of the U.S. economy: the unending churning, as new products
and services are invented and developed to improve the well-being
of society, and the associated churning of jobs, as workers are
moved from older, less productive industries to newer, advanced
technology industries. They include a wonderful chapter on products
and technologies that have been either recently developed or are
still in the development stage. The authors display an impressive
breadth of knowledge concerning technologies at the frontier.
The chapter also indicates another problem with using wage and
income data to measure well-being. How does one measure the value
of receiving life-saving organ transplants, communicating instantaneously
worldwide via the Internet, telephoning from one's car in an emergency,
or buying peaches in the middle of winter-options that were not
even available a few years back?
The book is not perfect. The vast amount of data it conveys
makes for a lot of tedious reading. A chapter is included to demonstrate
that the U.S. economy was, and continues to be, the best in the
world. That may or may not be, but it is irrelevant to their main
thesis that the United States is succeeding in providing improvement
to the lives of a majority of its citizens. Another chapter indicates
that the time, on average, U.S. employees must work to purchase
a large number of goods has gone down. They do this by looking
over time at the price of individual goods divided by average
hourly earnings. But their analysis is flawed by their selection
of goods. They largely omit services for which prices have risen
relative to goods. It cannot be that average hourly earnings relative
to the price of the whole market basket (the consumer price index)
has declined (which indicates that the time working required to
buy the whole market basket has increased), while prices taken
one at a time have declined relative to average hourly earnings
(which indicates that the time working required to buy each individual
good has declined).
The book leaves us with an unsolved puzzle: If times are so good, why
are there so many complaints? Part of the answer, the authors suggest,
is that the churning of new technologies, products and jobs has sped up
and people are uncomfortable with change. Another part of the answer,
I believe, is that an industry or organization does not get a larger share
of the economic pie by saying how well they are doing. Whether they are
spokespeople for unions or employers, for the old or young, or for students
or teachers, they can only get public largesse for their members by articulating
how badly their members are doing. Whatever the answer, though, Cox and
Alm make a convincing case that the complaints should not blur the big
picture of how well the U.S. economy is performing.