Robert Samuelson Says That He Is Very Closed-Minded and Won't Accept Wage Stagnation

Dean Baker

Dean Baker Co-Director, Author, Center for Economic and Policy Research

Sorry, I misread that one. This is what he quoted my friend Steve Rose saying about the people who disagree with him on income stagnation. Yes, it's Monday and Robert Samuelson is once again trying to insist that everyone's income is rising just fine.

The bizarre part of the story is that no one is really disagreeing on the facts, just how we talk about them. Before-tax income has been largely stagnant over the last four decades. For families at the middle and bottom, there has been some rise, but this has largely been because there are more earners per family, not rising hourly wages.

This is primarily the story of women entering the labor force. That was mostly a 1979–2000 story, since women's employment rates have actually slipped somewhat in the last two decades. It's great that barriers to women working are lower today than four decades ago (although discrimination is still huge), but saying that a two-earner family typically has higher income than a one-earner family doesn't really contradict the stagnation story.

The way Samuelson shows larger gains for families at the middle and bottom is by including government transfers, most importantly health care programs like Medicaid and SCHIP, in the story. As I pointed out in the past, the value of these transfers increases every time the pay of a heart surgeon or the cost of drugs increase, so people can be excused for not seeing this as a rise in their income.

It is also important to note that most people are healthy and have few health expenses. This means they don't directly benefit to any great extent from having these forms of insurance, although they are clearly valuable if their health deteriorates.

Samuelson is also intent on picking the price index that shows the lowest rate of inflation and therefore the most income growth. While he is in tune with most economists in this respect, it is worth making a couple of points on these inflation measures.

First, while many are fond of citing ways in which the quality of goods and services have improved over the last four decades, and may not be fully picked up in the price indices, there are also ways in which there have been areas of deterioration that don't get measured, as anyone who has flown recently can tell you. Also, those of us who use their smartphones for e-mail and Internet access, may not place a high value on all the wonderful quality improvements over the last decade that allow Apple to monitor your heart rate and everything else. 

The other point is that these indexes do not take account of the costs associated with new items that might now be necessities. The cost of monthly Internet service does not show up as an increase in the cost of living, nor does the cost of cell phone service. These items can be substantial and necessary expenses, but they don't figure into standard measures of inflation.

Constructing a true measure of the cost of living would be a difficult, if not impossible, task. But it is more than a bit annoying seeing Samuelson in the Post every week telling us that we are actually doing great and we are just too stupid to realize it — because he can do some calculations that show a rising standard of living. But apparently, there is a market for this stuff at the WaPo.

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Reposted from CEPR

Dean Baker is author of the new book, “Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy,” PoliPoint Press, LLC. This piece was first published on the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Jobs Byte. CEPR’s Jobs Byte is published each month upon release of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment report. For more information or to subscribe by fax or email contact CEPR at 202-293-5380 ext. 102 or chinku@CEPR.net.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Uber Drivers Deserve Legal Rights and Protections

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

In an advisory memo released May 14, the U.S. labor board general counsel’s office stated that Uber drivers are not employees for the purposes of federal labor laws.

Their stance holds that workers for companies like Uber are not included in federal protections for workplace organizing activities, which means the labor board is effectively denying Uber drivers the benefits of forming or joining unions.

Simply stating that Uber drivers are just gig workers does not suddenly undo the unjust working conditions that all workers potentially face, such as wage theft, dangerous working conditions and  job insecurity. These challenges are ever-present, only now Uber drivers are facing them without the protection or resources they deserve. 

The labor board’s May statement even seems to contradict an Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that couriers for Postmates, a job very similar to Uber drivers’, are legal employees.

However, the Department of Labor has now stated that such gig workers are simply independent contractors, meaning that they are not entitled to minimum wages or overtime pay.

While being unable to unionize limits these workers’ ability to fight for improved pay and working conditions, independent contractors can still make strides forward by organizing, explained executive director of New York Taxi Workers Alliance Bhairavi Desai.

“We can’t depend solely on the law or the courts to stop worker exploitation. We can only rely on the steadfast militancy of workers who are rising up everywhere,” Desai said in a statement. 

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