Last week’s election should be dubbed the revenge of the neglected. The outcome would have been different if Hillary’s strategists had taken to heart James Carville’s famous quip in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid.” I remember it well, because I pulled together Bill Clinton’s economic program for the 1992 campaign. Of course, today’s economic problems are different from those of a quarter-century ago. But the political manifestation is virtually the same – tens of millions of Americans justifiably dissatisfied with their economic conditions and prospects.
As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve spent several years tracking what’s happened to the incomes of Americans of different ages, races and ethnicities, educational levels and gender, as they grew older. The Brookings Institution published the first results in 2015 covering the period 1980 to 2012. I sent that report to Hillary and Bill Clinton and as many of those who worked for them as I knew. The results refuted the left’s claims that incomes of average Americans have stagnated for two generations – across every category, median household incomes rose at healthy rates, year after year, through the presidencies of both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.
But the results also showed tectonic income changes from 2001 to 2012 as this steady income progress ended. Hillary was particularly struck by the study’s darkest finding: The median income of households headed by people without college degrees — which covers nearly two-thirds of all U.S. households – fell as their household heads aged from 2001 to 2012. This unprecedented development, of tens of millions of families losing income as they aged from their thirties to their forties, or from their forties to their fifties, held across race, ethnicity and gender, and for all age groups except millennials.
For example, the real median income of households headed by high school graduates ages 35-to- 39 in 2001 fell from $54,862 in 2001 to $49,800 in 2012. (All income data here are in 2012 dollars.) So, these Gen Xers earned $5,062 less at ages 46-to- 50 in 2012 than they did when they were 35-to- 39 years old in 2001. Their counterparts a decade earlier – households headed by high school graduates ages 35-to- 39 in 1991 – saw their real median incomes rise from $51,645 in 1991 to $63,614 in 2000, for gains of nearly $12,000 (about 20 percent) as they aged from their later-thirties to their later-forties.
Baby boomer households headed by high school graduates who were 45-to- 49 years old in 2001 suffered even larger income losses than the Gen Xers: From 2001 to 2012, their real median income slumped from $63,534 to $51,002, falling $12,532 or some 20 percent as they aged from their later-forties to their later-fifties.
Households headed by college graduates didn’t lose income as they aged over the following 11 years, but only barely so. The median income of those households headed by people ages 35-to- 39 in 2001 inched up from $97,470 in 2001 to $100,771 in 2007, and then fell back to $98,845 in 2012, when they were 45-to- 49 years old. Compare that to the 1990s, when households headed by college graduates ages 35-to- 39 in 1991 saw their median income rise from $81,742 in 1991 to $106,454 in 2000, gains of $24,712 or about 30 percent I calculated that about half of all working-age households lost substantial ground as they aged through that decade, and another quarter of Americans treaded water. This was an economic turn the United States has never seen before. It gave meaning to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders’ claims that the economy is rigged, and it bred the broad anger that ignited their campaigns.
Hillary’s campaign didn’t ignore these developments. But her strategists, intent on reprising President’s Obama winning coalition, focused instead on the special problems of young, minority, and female voters. The campaign offered the Hispanic community a new path to citizenship for undocumented workers, and promised pay equity for women. It called for larger Earned Income Tax Credit checks for working-poor families, and debt relief for recent college graduates. All of these initiatives have merit. But none of them directly addressed or even acknowledged the structural forces squeezing out income gains for much of the country.
Hillary pressed me to explain the long income slump. I told her the truth: These income problems did not bubble up from the trade deals of the 1990s and the offshoring of manufacturing jobs, which happened mainly in the 1970s and 1980s. The fault lay mainly in forces much harder to demonize, namely technological advances and the way globalization and the Internet affect how companies price their goods and services.
Americans love the entertainment and social networks fostered by information technologies and the Internet. But these technologies also restructured the operations of virtually every office, factory and storefront. As that happened, anyone without the skills and confidence to work effectively in an IT-dense workplace saw his or her “labor value” erode and wages fall. College graduates avoided the worst of the income slump, because virtually everyone who earned a bachelor’s degree in the last 15 years is IT literate.
The other major culprits for the recent income squeeze are the Internet and, yes, globalization. Again, manufacturing job losses are not the heart of it. Rather, the Internet and globalization both intensify pricing competition, and businesses facing those strong competitive pressures often find themselves unable to pass along any rising costs in higher prices. So, as energy and employer healthcare costs rose sharply, especially from 2000 to 2008, many U.S. companies were forced to cut other costs. The data show that those cuts started with jobs and wages.
All of these downward forces took hold throughout the 2002-2007 expansion, and the financial crisis and deep recession that followed only amplified them.
The data also show that conditions shifted again in 2013, when energy prices collapsed, Obamacare started to slow employer healthcare premium increases and, with wages and salaries depressed, hiring became an attractive proposition again for companies. The latest data show that incomes have been rising since 2013 across virtually every group. For my friend Hillary, it was too little, too late: A few years of modest income progress have not offset a decade of painful losses.
But Trump’s success as president will depend on sustaining those income gains for four more years. As I’ve said here before, the economy needs a good dose of stimulus, and Trump’s deficit-defying tax cuts should jump-start growth in late-2017 and 2018. But his tax plans are so excessive economically, they could set the Federal Reserve on a course of multiple interest rate increases that slow growth by 2019. Beyond that, the economic challenge that Hillary also would have faced is that income progress ultimately requires healthy productivity gains, but productivity growth have slowed dramatically for few years now. If Trump and the GOP Congress fail to nudge up productivity, they could face their own populist revolt in 2020.