Trump’s Economic Record in Charts

A.  Introduction

Donald Trump has repeatedly asserted that he built “the greatest economy in history”.  A recent example is in his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination to run for a second term.  And it is not a surprise that Trump would want to claim this.  It would be nice, if true.  But what is surprising is that a number of election surveys have found that Trump polls well on economic issues, with voters rating Trump substantially above Biden on who would manage the economy better.

Yet any examination of Trump’s actual record, not just now following the unprecedented economic collapse this year resulting from the Covid-19 crisis, but also before, shows Trump’s repeated assertion to be plainly false.

The best that can be said is that Trump did not derail, in his first three years in office, the economic expansion that began with the turnaround Obama engineered within a half year of his taking office in 2009 (when Obama had inherited an economy that was, indeed, collapsing).  But the expansion that began under Obama has now been fully and spectacularly undone in Trump’s fourth year in office, with real GDP in the second quarter of 2020 plummeting at an annualized rate of 32% – to a level that is now even well below what it was when Trump took office.  The 32% rate of decline is by far the fastest decline recorded for the US since quarterly data on GDP began to be recorded in 1947 (the previous record was 10%, under Eisenhower, and the next worst was an 8.4% rate of decline in the last quarter of 2008 at the very end of the Bush administration.

This post will look at Trump’s record in comparison to that not just of Obama but also of all US presidents of the last almost 48 years (since the Nixon/Ford term).  For his first three years in office, that Trump record is nothing special.  It is certainly and obviously not the best in history.  And now in his fourth year in office, it is spectacularly bad.

The examination will be via a series of charts.  The discussion of each will be kept limited, but the interested reader may wish to study them more closely – there is a lot to the story of how the economy developed during each presidential administration.  But the primary objective of these “spaghetti” charts is to show how Trump’s record in his first three years in office fits squarely in the middle of what the presidents of the last half-century have achieved.  It was not the best nor the worst over those first three years – Trump inherited from Obama an expanding and stable economy.  But then in Trump’s fourth year, it has turned catastrophic.

Also, while there is a lot more that could be covered, the post will be limited to examination of the outcomes for growth in overall output (GDP), for the fiscal accounts (government spending, the fiscal deficit, and the resulting public debt), the labor market (employment, unemployment, productivity, and real wages), and the basic trade accounts (imports, exports, and the trade balance).

The figures for the charts were calculated based on data from a number of official US government sources.  Summarizing them all here for convenience (with their links):

a)  BEA:  Bureau of Economic Analysis of the US Department of Commerce, and in particular the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA, also commonly referred to as the GDP accounts).

b)  BLS:  Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor.

c)  OMB Historical Tables:  Office of Management and Budget, of the White House.

d)  Census Bureau – Foreign Trade Data:  Of the US Department of Commerce.

It was generally most convenient to access the data via FRED, the Federal Reserve Economic Database of the St. Louis Fed.

B.  Real GDP

Trump likes to assert that he inherited an economy that was in terrible shape.  Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council and Trump’s principal economic advisor recently asserted, for example in his speech to the Republican National Convention, that the Trump administration inherited from Obama “a stagnant economy that was on the front end of a recession”.  While it is not fully clear what a “front end” of a recession is (it is not an economic term), the economy certainly was not stagnant and there was no indication whatsoever of a recession on the horizon.

The chart at the top of this post shows the path followed by real GDP during the course of Obama’s first and second terms in office, along with that of Trump’s term in office thus far.  Both are indexed to 100 in the first calendar quarter of their presidential terms.  Obama inherited from Bush an economy that was rapidly collapsing (with a banking system in ruin) and succeeded in turning it around within a half year of taking office.  Subsequent growth during the remainder of Obama’s first term was then similar to what it was in his second term (with the curve parallel but shifted down in the first term due to the initial downturn).

Growth in the first three years of Trump’s presidency was then almost exactly the same as during Obama’s second term.  There is a bit of a dip at the start of the second year in Obama’s second term (linked to cuts in government spending in the first year of Obama’s second term – see below), but then a full recovery back to the previous path.  At the three-year mark (the 12th quarter) they are almost exactly the same.  To term this stagnation under Obama and then a boom under Trump, as Kudlow asserted, is nonsensical – they are the same to that point.  But the economy has now clearly collapsed under Trump, while it continued on the same path as before under Obama.

Does Trump look better when examined in a broader context, using the record of presidents going back to the Nixon/Ford term that began almost 48 years ago?  No:

The best that can be said is that the growth of real GDP under Trump in his first three years in office is roughly in the middle of the pack.  Growth was worse in a few administrations – primarily those where the economy went into a recession not long after they took office (such as in the first Reagan term, the first Bush Jr. term, and the Nixon/Ford term).  But growth in most of the presidential terms was either similar or distinctly better than what we had under Trump in his first three years.

And now real GDP has collapsed in Trump’s fourth year to the absolute worst, and by a very significant margin.

One can speculate on what will happen to real GDP in the final two quarters of Trump’s presidency.  Far quicker than in earlier economic downturns, Congress responded in March and April with a series of relief bills to address the costs of the Covid-19 crisis, that in total amount to be spent far surpass anything that has ever been done before.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the resulting spending increases, tax cuts, and new loan facilities of measures already approved will cost a total of $3.1 trillion.  This total approved would, by itself, come to 15% of GDP (where one should note that not all will be spent or used in tax cuts in the current fiscal year – some will carry over into future years).  Such spending can be compared to the $1.2 trillion, or 8.5% of the then GDP, approved in 2008/09 in response to that downturn (with most of the spending and tax cuts spread over three years).  Of this $1.2 trillion, $444 billion was spent under the TARP program approved under Bush and $787 billion for the Recovery Act under Obama).

And debate is currently underway on additional relief measures, where the Democratic-controlled Congress approved in May a further $3 trillion for relief, while leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate have discussed a possible $1 trillion measure.  What will happen now is not clear.  Some compromise in the middle may be possible, or nothing may be passed.

But the spending already approved will have a major stimulative effect.  With such a massive program supporting demand, plus the peculiar nature of the downturn (where many businesses and other centers of employment had to be temporarily closed as the measures taken by the Trump administration to limit the spread of the coronavirus proved to be far from adequate), the current expectation is that there will be a significant bounceback in GDP in the third quarter.  As I write this, the GDPNow model of the Atlanta Fed forecasts that real GDP in the quarter may grow at an annualized rate of 29.6%.  Keep in mind, however, that to make up for a fall of 32% one needs, by simple arithmetic, an increase of 47% from the now lower base.  (Remember that to make up for a fall of 50%, output would need to double – grow by 100% – to return to where one was before.)

Taking into account where the economy is now (where there was already a 5% annualized rate of decline in real GDP in the first quarter of this year), what would growth need to be to keep Trump’s record from being the worst of any president of at least the last half-century?  Assuming that growth in the third quarter does come to 29.6%, one can calculate that GDP would then need to grow by 5.0% (annualized) in the fourth quarter to match the currently worst record – of Bush Jr. in his second term.  And it would need to grow by 19% to get it back to where GDP was at the end of 2019.

C.  The Fiscal Accounts

Growth depends on many factors, only some of which are controlled by a president together with congress.  One such factor is government spending.  Cuts in government spending, particularly when unemployment is significant and businesses cannot sell all that they could and would produce due to a lack of overall demand, can lead to slower growth.  Do cuts in government spending perhaps explain the middling rate of growth observed in the first three years of Trump’s term in office?  Or did big increases in government spending spur growth under Obama?

Actually, quite the opposite:

Federal government spending on goods and services did rise in the first year and a half of Obama’s first term in office, with this critical in reversing the collapsing economy that Obama inherited.  But the Republican Congress elected in 2010 then forced through cuts in spending, with further cuts continuing until well into Obama’s second term (after which spending remained largely flat).  While the economy continued to expand at a modest pace, the cuts slowed the economy during a period when unemployment was still high.  (There is also government spending on transfers, where the two largest such programs are Social Security and Medicare, but spending on such programs depends on eligibility, not on annual appropriations.)

Under Trump, in contrast, government spending has grown, and consistently so.  And indeed government spending grew under Trump at a faster pace than it had almost any other president of the last half-century (with even faster growth only under Reagan and Bush, Jr., two presidents that spoke of themselves, as Trump has, as “small government conservatives”):

The acceleration in government spending growth under Trump did succeed, in his first three years in office, in applying additional pressure on the economy in a standard Keynesian fashion, which brought down unemployment (see below).  But this extra government spending did not lead to an acceleration in growth – it just kept it growing (in the first three years of Trump’s term) at the same pace as it had before, as was seen above.  That is, the economy required additional demand pressure to offset measures the Trump administration was taking which themselves would have reduced growth (such as his trade wars, or favoritism for industries such as steel and aluminum, which harmed the purchasers of steel and aluminum such as car companies and appliance makers).

Trump has also claimed credit for a major tax cut bill (as have Reagan and Bush, Jr.).  They all claimed this would spur growth (none did – see above and a more detailed analysis in this blog post), and indeed such sufficiently faster growth, they predicted, that tax revenue would increase despite the reductions in the tax rates.  Hence fiscal deficits would be reduced.  They weren’t:

Fiscal deficits were large and sustained throughout the Reagan/Bush Sr. years.  They then moved to a fiscal surplus under Clinton, following the major tax increase passed in 1993 and the subsequent years of steady and strong growth.  The surplus was then turned back again into a deficit under Bush Jr., with his major tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 coupled with his poor record for economic growth.  Obama then inherited a high fiscal deficit, which grew higher due to the economic downturn he faced on taking office and the measures that were necessary to address it.  But with the economic recovery, the deficit under Obama was then reduced (although at too fast a pace –  this held back the economy, especially in the early years of the recovery when unemployment was still high).

Under Trump, in contrast, the fiscal deficit rose in his first three years in office, at a time when unemployment was low.  This was the time when the US should have been strengthening rather than weakening the fiscal accounts.  As President Kennedy said in his 1962 State of the Union Address: “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”  Under Trump, in contrast, the fiscal deficit was reaching 5% of GDP even before the Covid-19 crisis.  The US has never before had such a high fiscal deficit when unemployment was low, with the sole exception of during World War II.

This left the fiscal accounts in a weak condition when government spending needed to increase with the onset of the Covid-19 crisis.  The result is that the fiscal deficit is expected to reach an unprecedented 16% of GDP this fiscal year, the highest it has ever been (other than during World War II) since at least 1930, when such records began to be kept.

The consequence is a public debt that is now shooting upwards:

As a share of GDP, federal government debt (held by the public) is expected to reach 100% of GDP by September 30 (the end of the fiscal year), based on a simple extrapolation of fiscal account and debt data currently available through July (see the US Treasury Monthly Statement for July, released August 12, 2020).  And with its momentum (as such fiscal deficits do not turn into surpluses in any short period of time), Trump will have left for coming generations a government debt that is the highest (as a share of GDP) it has ever been in US history, exceeding even what it was at the end of World War II.

When Trump campaigned for the presidency in 2016, he asserted he would balance the federal government fiscal accounts “fairly quickly”.  Instead the US will face this year, in the fourth year of his term in office, a fiscal deficit that is higher as a share of GDP than it ever was other than during World War II.  Trump also claimed that he would have the entire federal debt repaid within eight years.  This was always nonsense and reflected a basic lack of understanding.  But at least the federal debt to GDP ratio might have been put on a downward trajectory during years when unemployment was relatively low.  Instead, federal debt is on a trajectory that will soon bring it to the highest it has ever been.

D.  The Labor Market

Trump also likes to assert that he can be credited with the strongest growth in jobs in history.  That is simply not true:

Employment growth was higher in Obama’s second term than it ever was during Trump’s term in office.  The paths were broadly similar over the first three years of Trump’s term, but Trump was simply – and consistently – slower.  In Obama’s first term, employment was falling rapidly (by 800,000 jobs a month) when Obama took his oath of office, but once this was turned around the path showed a similar steady rise.

Employment then plummeted in Trump’s fourth year, and by a level that was unprecedented (at least since such statistics began to be gathered in 1947).  In part due to the truly gigantic relief bills passed by Congress in March and April (described above), there has now been a substantial bounceback.  But employment is still (as of August 2020) well below what it was when Trump took office in January 2017.

Even setting aside the collapse in employment this year, Trump’s record in his first three years does not compare favorably to that of other presidents:

A few presidents have done worse, primarily those who faced an economy going into a downturn as they took office (Obama) or where the economy was pushed into a downturn soon after they took office (Bush Jr., Reagan) or later in their term (Bush Sr., Nixon/Ford).  But the record of other presidents was significantly better, with the best (which some might find surprising) that of Carter.

Trump also claims credit for pushing unemployment down to record low levels.  The unemployment rate did, indeed, come down (although not to record low rates – the unemployment rate was lower in the early 1950s under Truman and then Eisenhower, and again in the late 1960s).  But one cannot see any significant change in the path on the day Trump was inaugurated compared to what it had been under Obama since 2010:

And of course now in 2020, unemployment has shot upwards to a record level (since at least 1948, when these records began to be kept systematically).  It has now come down with the bounceback of the economy, but remains high (8.4% as of August).

Over the long term, nothing is more important in raising living standards than higher productivity.  And this was the argument Trump and the Republicans in Congress made to rationalize their sharp cuts in corporate tax rates in the December 2017 tax bill.  The argument was that companies would then invest more in the capital assets that raise productivity (basically structures and equipment).  But this did not happen.  Even before the collapse this year, private non-residential investment in structures and equipment was no higher, and indeed a bit lower, as a share of GDP than what it was before the 2017 tax bill passed.

And it certainly has not led to a jump in productivity:

Productivity growth during Trump’s term in office has been substantially lower (by 3%) than what it was during Obama’s first term, although somewhat better than during Obama’s second term (by a cumulative 1% point at the same calendar quarter in their respective terms).

And compared to that of other presidents, Trump’s record on productivity gains is nothing special:

Finally, what happened to real wages?  While higher productivity growth is necessary in the long term for higher wages (workers cannot ultimately be paid more than what is produced), in the short term a number of other factors (such as relative bargaining strength) will dominate.  When unemployment is high, wage gains will typically be low as firms can hire others if a worker demands a higher wage.  And when unemployment is low, workers will typically be in a better bargaining position to demand higher wages.

How, then, does Trump’s record compare to that of Obama?:

During the first three years of Trump’s tenure in office, real wage gains were basically right in the middle of what they were over the similar periods in Obama’s two terms.  But then it looks like real wages shot upwards at precisely the time when the Covid-19 crisis hit.  How could this be?

One needs to look at what lies behind the numbers.  With the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, unemployment shot up to the highest it has been since the Great Depression.  But two issues were then important.  One is that when workers are laid off, it is usually the least senior, least experienced, workers who are laid off first.  And such workers will in general have a lower wage.  If a high share of lower-wage workers become unemployed, then the average wage of the workers who remain employed will go up.  This is a compositional effect.  No individual worker may have seen an increase in his or her wage, but the overall average will go up if fewer lower-wage workers remain employed.

Second, this downturn was different from others in that a high share of the jobs lost were precisely in low-wage jobs – workers in restaurants, cafeterias, and hotels, or in retail shops, or janitors for office buildings, and so on.  As the economy shut down, these particular businesses had to close.  Many, if not most, office workers could work from home, but not these, commonly low-wage, workers.  They were laid off.

The sharp jump in average real wages in the second quarter of 2020 (Trump’s 14th quarter in office) is therefore not something to be pleased about.  As the lower-wage workers who have lost their jobs return to being employed, one should expect this overall average wage to fall back towards where it was before.

But the path of real wages in the first three years of Trump’s presidency, when the economy continued to expand as it had under Obama, does provide a record that can be compared.  How does it look relative to that of other presidents of the last half-century?:

Again, Trump’s record over this period is in the middle of the range found for other presidents.  It was fairly good (unemployment was low, which as noted above would be expected to help), but real wages in the second terms of Clinton and Obama rose by more, and performance was similar in Reagan’s second term.

E.  International Trade Accounts

Finally, how does Trump’s record on international trade compare to that of other presidents?  Trump claimed he would slash the US trade deficit, seeing it in a mercantilistic way as if a trade deficit is a “loss” to the country.  At a 2018 press conference (following a G-7 summit in Canada), he said, for example, “Last year,… [the US] lost  … $817 billion on trade.  That’s ridiculous and it’s unacceptable.”  And “We’re like the piggybank that everybody is robbing.”

This view on the trade balance reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of basic economics.  Equally worrisome is Trump’s view that launching trade wars targeting specific goods (such as steel and aluminum) or specific countries (such as China) will lead to a reduction in the trade deficit.  As was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, the trade balance ultimately depends on the overall balance between domestic savings and domestic investment in an economy.  Trade wars may lead to reductions in imports, but then there will also be a reduction in exports.  If the trade wars do not lead to higher savings or lower investment, such trade interventions (with tariffs or quotas imposed by fiat) will simply shift the trade to other goods or other nations, leaving the overall balance where it would have been based on the savings/investment balance.

But we now have three and a half years of the Trump administration, and can see what his trade wars have led to.  In terms of imports and exports:

Imports did not go down under Trump – they rose until collapsing in the worldwide downturn of 2020.  Exports also at first rose, but more slowly than imports, and then leveled off before imports did.  They then also collapsed in 2020.  Going back a bit, both imports and exports had gone up sharply during the Bush administration.  Then, after the disruption surrounding the economic collapse of 2008/9 (with a fall then a recovery), they roughly stabilized at high levels during the last five years of the Obama administration.

In terms of the overall trade balance:

The trade deficit more than doubled during Bush’s term in office.  While both imports and exports rose (as was seen above), imports rose by more.  The cause of this was the housing credit bubble of the period, which allowed households to borrow against home equity (which in turn drove house prices even higher) and spend that borrowing (leading to higher consumption as a share of current income, which means lower savings).  This ended, and ended abruptly, with the 2008/9 collapse, and the trade deficit was cut in half.  After some fluctuation, it then stabilized in Obama’s second term.

Under Trump, in contrast, the trade deficit grew compared to where it was under Obama.  It did not diminish, as Trump insisted his trade wars would achieve, but the opposite.  And with the growing fiscal deficit (as discussed above) due to the December 2017 tax cuts and the more rapid growth in government spending (where a government deficit is dis-saving that has to be funded by borrowing), this deterioration in the trade balance should not be a surprise.  And I also suspect that Trump does not have a clue as to why this has happened (nor an economic advisor willing to explain it to him).

F.  Conclusion

There is much more to Trump’s economic policies that could have been covered.  It is also not yet clear how much damage has been done to the economic structure from the crisis following the mismanagement of Covid-19 (with the early testing failures, the lack of serious contact tracing and isolation of those who may be sick, and importantly, Trump’s politicizing the wearing of simple masks).  Unemployment rose to record levels, and this can have a negative impact (both immediate and longer-term) on the productivity of those workers and on their subsequent earnings.  There has also been a jump in bankruptcies, which reduces competition.  And bankrupt firms, as well as stressed firms more generally, will not be able to repay their loans in full.  The consequent weakening of bank balance sheets will constrain how much banks will be able to lend to others, which will slow the pace of any recovery.

But these impacts are still uncertain.  The focus of this post has been on what we already know of Trump’s economic record.  It is not a good one. The best that can be said is that during his first three years in office he did not derail the expansion that had begun under Obama.  Growth continued (in GDP, employment, productivity, wages), at rates similar to what they were before.  Compared to paths followed in other presidencies of the last half-century, they were not special.

But this growth during Trump’s tenure in office was only achieved with rapid growth in federal government spending.  Together with the December 2017 tax cuts, this led to a growing, not a diminishing, fiscal deficit.  The deficit grew to close to 5% of GDP, which was indeed special:  Never before in US history has the fiscal deficit been so high in an economy at or close to full employment, with the sole exception of during World War II.

The result was a growing public debt as a share of GDP, when prudent fiscal policy would have been the reverse.  Times of low unemployment are when the country should be reducing its fiscal deficit so that the public debt to GDP ratio will fall.  Reducing public dis-saving would also lead to a reduction in the trade deficit (other things being equal).  But instead the trade deficit has grown.

As a consequence, when a crisis hits (as it did in 2020) and government needs to spend substantial sums for relief (as it had to this year), the public debt to GDP ratio will shoot upwards from already high levels.  Republicans in Congress asserted in 2011 that a public debt of 70% of GDP was excessive and needed to be brought down rapidly.  Thus they forced through spending cuts, which slowed the recovery at a time when unemployment was still high.

But now public debt under Trump will soon be over 100% of GDP.  Part of the legacy of Trump’s term in office, for whoever takes office this coming January 20, will therefore be a public debt that will soon be at a record high level, exceeding even that at the end of World War II.

This has certainly not been “the greatest economy in history”.

What Has Been Happening to Real Wages? Sadly, Not Much

A.  Introduction

There is little that is more important to a worker than his or her wages.  And as has been discussed in an earlier post on this blog, real wages in the US have stagnated since around 1980.  An important question is whether this has changed recently.  Trump has claimed that his policies (of lifting regulations, slashing corporate taxes, and imposing high tariffs on our trading partners) are already leading to higher wages for American workers.  Has that been the case?

The answer is no.  As the chart at the top of this post shows, real wages have been close to flat.  Nominal wages have grown with inflation, but once inflation is taken into account, real wages have barely moved.  And one does not see any sharp change in that trend after Trump took office in January 2017.

It is of course still early in Trump’s term, and the experience so far does not mean real wages will not soon rise.  We will have to see.  One should indeed expect that they would, as the unemployment rate is now low (continuing the path it has followed since 2010, first under Obama and now, at a similar pace, under Trump).  But the primary purpose of this blog post is to look at the numbers on what the experience has been in recent years, including since Trump took office.  We will see that the trend has not much changed.  And to the extent that it has changed, it has been for the worse.

We will first take an overall perspective, using the chart at the top of this post and covering the period since 2006.  This will tell us what the overall changes have been over the full twelve years.  For real wages, the answer (as noted above) is that not much has changed.

But the overall perspective can mask what the year to year changes have been.  So we will then examine what these have been, using 12 month moving averages for the changes in nominal wages, the consumer price index, and then the real wage.  And we will see that changes in the real wage have actually been trending down of late, and indeed that the average real wage in June 2018 was below where it had been in June 2017.

We will then conclude with a short discussion of whether labor market trends have changed since Trump took office.  They haven’t.  But those trends, in place since 2010 as the economy emerged from the 2008/09 downturn, have been positive.  At some point we should expect that, if sustained, they will lead to rising real wages.  But we just have not seen that yet.

B.  Nominal and Real Wages Since 2006

It is useful first to start with an overall perspective, before moving to an examination of the year to year changes.  The chart at the top of this post shows average nominal wages in the private sector, in dollars per hour, since March 2006, and the equivalent in real terms, as deflated by the consumer price index (CPI).  The current CPI takes the prices of 1982-84 (averaged over that period) as the base, and hence the real wages shown are in terms of the prices of 1982-84.  For June 2018, for example, average private sector wages were $26.98 per hour, equivalent to $10.76 per hour in terms of the prices of 1982-84.

The data series comes from the Current Employment Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which comes out each month and is the source of the closely watched figures on the net number of jobs created each month.  The report also provides figures on average private sector wages on a monthly basis, but this particular series only started being reported in March 2006.  That is part of the reason why I started the chart with that date, but it is in any case a reasonable starting point for this analysis as it provides figures starting a couple of years before the economic collapse of 2008, in the last year of Bush’s presidential term, through to June 2018.

The BLS report also only provides figures on average wages in the private sector.  While it would be of interest also to see the similar figures on government wages, they are not provided for some reason.  If they had been included, the overall average wage would likely have increased at an even slower pace than that shown for the private sector only, as government wages have been increasing at a slower pace than private wages over this period.  But government employment is only 15% of total employment in the US.  Private wages are still of interest, and will provide an indication of what the market pressures have (or have not) been.

The chart shows that nominal wages have increased at a remarkably steady pace over this period.  Many may find that lack of fluctuation surprising.  The economy in 2008 and early 2009 went through the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and unemployment eventually hit 10.0% (in October 2009).  Yet nominal private sector wages continued to rise.  As we will discuss in more detail below, nominal wages were increasing at about a 3% annual pace through 2008, and then continued to increase (but at about a 2% pace) even after unemployment jumped.

But while nominal wages rose at this steady pace, it was almost all just inflation.  After adjusting for inflation, average real wages were close to flat for the period as a whole.  They were not completely flat:  Average real wages over the period (March 2006 to June 2018) rose at an annual rate of 0.57% per year.  This is not much.  It is in fact remarkably similar to the 0.61% growth in the average real wage between 1979 and 2013 in the data that were discussed in my blog post from early 2015 that looked at the factors underlying the stagnation in real wages in the decades since 1980.

But as was discussed in that blog post, the average real wage is not the same as the median real wage.  The average wage is the average across all wage levels, including the wages of the relatively well off.  The median, in contrast, is the wage at the point where 50% of the workers earn less and 50% earn more.  Due to the sharp deterioration in the distribution of income since around 1980 (as discussed in that post), the median real wage rose by less than the average real wage, as the average was pulled up by the more rapid increase in wages of those who are relatively well off.  And indeed, the median real wage rose by almost nothing over that period (just 0.009% per year between 1979 and 2013) when the average real wage rose at the 0.61% per year pace.  If that same relationship has continued, there would have been no increase at all in the median real wage in the period since 2006.  But the median wage estimates only come out with a lag (they are estimated through a different set of surveys at the Census Bureau), are only worked out on an annual basis, and we do not yet have such estimates for 2018.

C.  12 Month Changes in Nominal Wages, the Consumer Price Index, and Real Wages Since 2006

While the chart at the top of this post tracks the cumulative changes in wages over this period, one can get a better understanding of the underlying dynamics by looking at how the changes track over time.  For this we will focus on percentage changes over 12 month periods, worked out month by month on a moving average basis.  Or another way of putting it, these will be the percentage changes in the wages or the CPI over what it had been one year earlier, worked out month by month in overlapping periods.

For average nominal wages (in the private sector) this is:

Note that the date labels are for the end of each period.  Thus the point labeled at the start of 2008 will cover the percentage change in the nominal wage between January 2007 and January 2008.  And the starting date label for the chart will be March 2007, which covers the period from March 2006 (when the data series begins) to March 2007.

Prior to the 2008/09 downturn, nominal wages were growing at roughly 3% a year.  Once the downturn struck they continued to increase, but at a slower pace of roughly 2% a year or a bit below.  And this rate then started slowly to rise over time, reaching 2.7% in the most recent twelve-month period ending in June 2017.  The changes are remarkably minor, as was also noted above, and cover a period where unemployment was as high as 10% and is now just 4%.  There has been very little year to year volatility.

[A side note:  There is a “bump” in late 2008/early 2009, with wage growth over the year earlier period rising from around 3% to around 3 1/2%.  This might be considered surprising, as the bump up is precisely in the period when jobs were plummeting and unemployment increasing, in the worst period of the economic collapse.  But while I do not have the detailed microdata from the BLS surveys to say with certainty, I suspect this is a compositional effect.  When businesses start to lay off workers, they will typically start with the least experienced, and lowest paid, workers.  That will leave them with a reduced labor force, but one whose wages are on average higher.]

There have been larger fluctuations in the consumer price index:

But note that “larger” should be interpreted in a relative sense.  The absolute changes were generally not all that large (with some exceptions), and can mostly be attributed to changes in the prices of a limited number of volatile commodities, namely for food items and energy (oil).  The prices of such commodities go up and down, but over time they even out.  Thus for understanding inflationary trends, analysts will often focus instead on the so-called “core CPI”, which excludes food and energy prices.  For the full period being examined here, the regular CPI rose at a 1.88% annual pace while the core CPI rose at a 1.90% pace.  Within round-off, these are essentially the same.

But what matters to wage earners is what their wages earn, including for food and energy.  Thus to examine the impact on real living standards, what matters is the real wage defined in terms of the regular CPI index.  And this was:

With the relatively steady changes in average nominal wages, year to year, the fluctuations will basically be the mirror image of what has been happening to inflation.  When prices fell, real wages rose, and when prices rose more than normal, real wages fell.

Prices are now again rising, although still within the norm of the last twelve years.  For the 12 months ending in June 2018, the CPI (using the seasonally adjusted series) rose at a 2.8% rate.  The average nominal wage rate rose at a rate of 2.74% and thus the real wage fell slightly by 0.05% (calculated before rounding).  Average real wages are basically the same as (and formally slightly below) where they were a year ago.

D.  Employment and Unemployment

There is thus no evidence that the measures Trump has trumpeted (of deregulation, slashing taxes for corporations, and launching a trade war) have led to a step up in real wages.  This should not be surprising.  Deregulation which spurs industry consolidation increases the power of firms to raise prices while holding down wages.  And there is no reason to believe that tax cuts will lead quickly to higher wages.  Corporations do not pay their workers out of generosity or out of some sense of charity.  In a market economy they pay their employees what they need to in order to get the workers in the number and quality they need.  And although there can be winners in a trade war, there will also certainly be losers, and overall there will be a loss.  Workers, on average, will lose.

But what is surprising is that wages are not now rising by more in an economy that has reached full employment.  Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, for example, has called this “a puzzle”.  And indeed it is.

The labor market turned around in the first two years of the Obama administration, and since then employment has grown consistently:

This has continued (although at a slightly slower pace) since Trump took office in January 2017.  The same trend as before has continued.  And this trend growth in net jobs each month has meant a steady fall in the unemployment rate:

Again, the pace since Trump took office is similar to (but a bit slower than) the pace when Obama was still in office.  But the somewhat slower pace should not be surprising.  With the economy at close to full employment, one should expect the pace to slow.

Indeed, the unemployment rate cannot go much lower.  There is always a certain amount of “churn” in the job market, which means an unemployment rate of zero is impossible.  And many economists in fact have taken a somewhat higher rate of unemployment (or at least 5.0%) as the appropriate target for “full employment”, arguing that anything lower will lead to a wage and price spiral.

But we have not seen any sign of that so far.  Nominal wages are rising at only a modest pace, and indeed over the last year at a pace less than inflation.

E.  Conclusion

There has been no step up in real wages since Trump took office.  Indeed, over the past twelve months, they fell slightly.  But while there is no reason to believe there should have been a jump in real wages following from Trump’s economic policies (of deregulation, tax cuts for corporations, and trade war), it is surprising that the economy is not now well past the point where low unemployment should have been spurring more substantial wage gains.

This very well could change, and indeed I would expect it to.  There is good reason to believe that the news for the real wage will be a good deal more positive over the next year than it has been over the past year.  But we will have to wait and see.  So far it has not happened.

What a Real Tax Reform Could Look Like – II: Social Security

A.  Introduction

The previous post on this blog looked at what a true tax reform could look like, addressing issues pertaining to corporate and individual income taxes.  This post will look at what should be done for Social Security and the taxes that support it.  Our federal tax system involves more than just income taxes.  Social Security taxes are important, and indeed many individuals pay more in Social Security taxes than they do in individual income taxes.  Overall, Social Security taxes account for just over a quarter of total federal revenues collected in FY2017, and are especially important for the poor and middle classes.  With a total tax of 12.4% for Social Security (formally half paid by the employee and half by the employer, but in reality all ultimately paid by the employee), someone in the 10% income tax bracket is in fact paying tax at a 22.4% rate on their wages, someone in a 15% bracket is actually paying 27.4%, and so on up to the ceiling on wages subject to this tax of $128,400 in 2018.  They also pay a further 2.9% tax on wages for Medicare (with no ceiling), but this post will focus just on the Social Security side.

And as is well known, the Social Security Trust Fund is forecast to be depleted by around 2034 if Congress does nothing.  Social Security benefits would then be automatically scaled back by about 22%, to a level where the then current flows going into the Trust Fund would match the (cut-back) outflows.  This would be a disaster for many.  Congress needs to act.

A comprehensive tax reform thus should include measures to ensure the Social Security Trust Fund remains solvent, and is at a minimum able, for the foreseeable future, to continue to pay its obligations in full.  Also, and as will be discussed below, Social Security benefit payments are embarrassingly small.  Cutting them further is not a “solution”.  And despite their small size, many now depend on Social Security in their old age, especially as a consequence of the end of most private company defined benefit pension schemes in recent decades.  We really need to look at what can be done to strengthen and indeed expand the Social Security safety net.  The final section below will discuss a way to do that.

B.  Remove the Ceiling on Wages Subject to Social Security Tax

As was discussed in an earlier post on this blog, the Social Security Trust Fund is forecast to run out by around 2034 not because, as many presume, baby boomers will now be retiring, nor because life expectancies are turning out to be longer.  Both of these factors were taken into account in 1983, when following recommendations made by a commission chaired by Alan Greenspan, Social Security tax rates were adjusted and other measures taken to ensure the Trust Fund would remain solvent for the foreseeable future.  Those changes were made in full awareness of when the baby boomers would be retiring – they had already been born.  And while life expectancy has been lengthening, what matters is not whether life expectancy has been growing longer or not, but rather whether it has been growing to be longer than what had earlier been forecast when the changes were made in 1983.  And it hasn’t:  Life expectancy has turned out to be growing more slowly than earlier forecast, and for some groups has actually been declining.  In itself, this would have lengthened the life of the Social Security Trust Fund over what had been forecast.  But instead it was shortened.

Why is it, then, that the Trust Fund is now forecast to run out by around 2034 and not much later?  As discussed in that earlier post, the Greenspan Commission assumed that wage income inequality would not change going forward.  At the time (1983) this was a reasonable assumption to make, as income inequality had not changed much in the post World War II decades leading up to the 1980s.  But from around 1980, income distribution worsened markedly following the Reagan presidency.  This matters.  Wages above a ceiling (adjusted annually according to changes in average nominal wages) are exempted from Social Security taxes.  But with the distribution of wages becoming increasingly skewed (in favor of the rich) since 1980, adjusting the ceiling according to changes in average wages will lead to an increasing share of wages being exempted from tax.  An increasing share of wage income has been pulled into the earnings of those at the very top of the income distribution, so an increasing share of wages has become exempt from Social Security taxes.  As a direct consequence, the Social Security Trust Fund did not receive the inflows that had been forecast.  Thus it is now forecast to run out by 2034.

Unfortunately, we cannot now go back in time to fix the rates and what they covered to reflect the consequences of the increase in inequality.  Thus what needs to be done now has to be stronger than what would have been necessary then.  Given where we are now, one needs to remove the ceiling on wages subject to the Social Security tax altogether to ensure system solvency.  If that were done, the depletion of the Social Security Trust Fund (with all else unchanged, including the benefit formulae) would be postponed to about 2090.  Given the uncertainties over such a time span (more than 70 years from now), one can say this is for the foreseeable future.

The chart at the top of this post (taken from the earlier blog post on this issue) shows the paths that the Social Security Trust Fund to GDP ratio would take.  If nothing is done, the Trust Fund would be depleted by around 2034 and then turn negative (not allowed under current law) if all benefits were continued to be paid (the falling curve in black).  But if the ceiling on wages subject to tax were removed, the Trust Fund would remain positive (the upper curves in blue, where the one in light blue incorporates the impact of the resulting benefit changes under the current formulae, as benefits are tied to contributions).

As discussed in that earlier blog post, the calculations indicate the Social Security Trust Fund then would remain solvent to a forecast year of about 2090.  That is over 70 years from now, and the depletion at that time is largely driven by the assumption (by the Social Security demographers) on how fast life expectancy is forecast to rise in the future.  This could again be over-estimated.

Lifting the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security tax would also be equitable:  The poor and middle classes are subject to the 12.4% Social Security tax on all of their wages; a rich person should be similarly liable for the tax on all of his or her earnings.  And I cannot see the basis for any argument that a rich person making a million dollars a year cannot afford the tax, while a poor person can.

C.  Apply the Social Security Tax to All Forms of Income, Not Just Wages, and Then Raise Benefits

But I would go further.  In the modern era, there is no reason why the Social Security tax should be applied solely to wage earnings, while earnings from wealth are not taxed at all.  As one of the basic principles of taxation noted in the previous post on tax reform, all forms of income should be taxed similarly, and not with differing rates applied to one form (e.g. 12.4% on wages) as compared to another (e.g. 0% on income from wealth).

Broadening the base would allow, if nothing else is changed, for a reduction in the rate to produce the same in revenues.  We can calculate roughly what that lower rate would be.  Making use of IRS data for incomes reported on the Form 1040s in 2015 (the most recent year available), one can calculate that if Adjusted Gross Income (line 37 of Form 1040) was used as the base for the Social Security tax rather than just wages, the Social Security tax rate could be cut from 12.4% to 8.6% to generate the same in revenues.  That is, taxing all reported income (including income from wealth) at an 8.6% rate (instead of taxing just wages at 12.4%) would generate sufficient revenues for the Social Security Trust Fund to remain solvent for the foreseeable future.  This would be a more than 30% fall in the taxes on wages, but also, of course, a shift to those who also earn a substantial share of their income from wealth.

[Note:  There would also be second-order effects as Social Security benefits paid are tied to the taxes paid over the highest 40 years of an individual’s earnings, there is some progressivity in the formulae used, and taxes on all earnings rather than just on wages will shift the share of the taxes paid towards the rich.  But the impact of these second-order effects would be relatively small.  Also, the direction of the impact would be that the break-even tax rate could be cut a bit further to allow for the same to be paid out in benefits, or a bit more in benefits could be paid for the same tax rate.  But given that the impact would be small, we will leave them out of the calculations here.]

The 8.6% tax on all forms of income would generate the revenues needed to keep the Social Security Trust Fund solvent at the benefit levels as defined under current law.  But Social Security benefit payments are embarrassingly small.  Using figures for September 2017 from the Social Security Administration, the average benefit paid (in annualized terms) for all beneficiaries is just $15,109, for retired workers it is $16,469, and for those on disability it is $12,456.  These are not far above (and for disability indeed a bit below) the federal poverty guideline level of $13,860 in 2017 for a single individual.  And the average benefit levels, being averages, mean approximately half of the beneficiaries are receiving less.

Yet even at such low levels, Social Security benefits account for 100% of the income of 20% of beneficiaries aged 65 or higher; for 90% or more of the incomes of 33% of those aged beneficiaries, and 50% or more of the incomes of 61% of those aged beneficiaries (data for 2014; see Table 9.A1).  And for those aged 65 or older whose income is below the federal poverty line, Social Security accounts for 100% of the income of 50% of them, for 90% or more of the income of 74% of them, and for 50% or more of the income for 93% of them (see Table 9.B8).  The poor are incredibly dependent on Social Security.

Thus we really should be looking at a reform which would allow such benefit payments to rise.  The existing levels are too low to serve as an effective safety net in a country where defined benefit pension plans have largely disappeared, and the alternative approach of IRAs and 401(k)s has failed to provide adequate pensions for many if not most workers.

Higher benefits would require higher revenues.  To illustrate what might be done, suppose that instead of cutting the Social Security tax rate from the current 12.4% to a rate of 8.6% (which would just suffice to ensure the Trust Fund would remain solvent at benefit levels as defined under current law), one would instead cut the tax rate just to 10.0%.  This would allow average Social Security benefits to rise by 15.8% (= 10.0%/8.6%, but based on calculations before rounding).  One can work out that based on the distribution of Social Security benefit payments in 2015 (see table 5.B6 of the 2016 Annual Statistical Supplement), that if benefits were raised by 5% for the top third of retirees receiving Social Security and by 10% for the middle third, then the extra revenues would allow us to raise the average benefit levels by 45% for the bottom (poorest) third:

Annual Social Security Benefits

Avg in 2015

% increase

New

Difference

   Bottom Third of Retirees

$8,761

45%

$12,733

   $3,972

   Middle Third of Retirees

$16,010

15%

$18,411

   $2,401

   Top Third of Retirees

$23,591

5%

$24,771

   $1,180

Overall for Retirees

$16,044

15.8%

$18,574

   $2,531

This would make a significant difference to those most dependent in their old age on Social Security.  The poorest third of retirees receiving Social Security received (in December 2015 and then annualized) a payment of just $8,761 per year.  Increasing this by 45% would raise it to $12,733.  While still not much, it would be an increase of almost $4,000 annually.  And for a married couple where both had worked and are now receiving Social Security, the benefits would be double this.  It would make a difference.

D.  Conclusion

Conservatives have long been opposed to the Social Security system (indeed since its origin under Roosevelt), arguing that it is a Ponzi scheme, that it is unsustainable, and that the only thing we can do is to scale back benefits.  None of this is true.  Rather, Social Security has proven to be a critically important support for the incomes of the aged.  An astonishingly high share of Americans depend on it, and its importance has only increased with the end of defined benefit pension schemes for most American workers.

But there are, indeed, problems.  Due to the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security tax, and the sharp increase in inequality starting in the 1980s under Reagan and continuing since, an increasing share of wages in the nation have become exempt from this tax.  As a consequence, and if nothing is done, the Trust Fund is now forecast to run out in 2034.  This would trigger a scaling back of the already low benefits by 22%.  This would be a disaster for many.

Lifting the ceiling on wages, so that all wages are taxed equally, would resolve the Trust Fund solvency issue for the foreseeable future (to a forecast year of about 2090).  Benefits as set under the current formulae could then be maintained.  Furthermore, if the base for the tax were extended to all forms of income (including income from wealth), and not limited just to wages, benefits as set under current formulae could be sustained with the tax rate cut from the current 12.4% to a new rate of just 8.6%.

But as noted above, current benefits are low.  One should go further.  Cutting the rate to just 10%, say, would allow for a significant increase in benefits.  Focussing the increase on the poorest, who are most dependant on Social Security in their old age, a rate of 10% applied to all forms of income would allow benefits to rise by 5% for the top third of retirees, by 15% for the middle third, and by a substantial 45% for the bottom third.  This would make a real difference.