Data and anecdotes
Among the outcomes produced by a market economy, real wages are arguably the most important single variable for most people. With inflation rising around the world, and sensitive prices like those of food and petroleum going up a lot, most people’s living standards depend mainly on whether wages grow faster than prices. I got a couple of pieces of info on this today, which illustrate the difference between data and anecdote.
In my morning email, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (pdf file) advised that the US employment cost index (hourly wages + benefits) rose by 3.5 per cent last year, less than the inflation rate of about 4 per cent*. This continues a trend of declining real wages since 2003.
This afternoon, I looked at the NY Times to see a story about stagnant real wages in Europe, which began with a lengthy voxpop about a couple who had bought a breadmaker because baguettes were too dear, and continued in much the same vein. Deep within the article was the information that eurozone prices have risen by 22.5 per cent since 1999. But despite various claims about the declining purchasing power of wages, there is not a single piece of statistical evidence on wages anywhere in the story. Instead, we got a lengthy and inevitably inconclusive discussion of what constitutes the “middle class.
A quick visit to Eurostat reveals that Eurozone wages have risen about 30 per cent since 2000. German wages have increased by about 20 per cent, so the article’s claims of stagnation appear to be about right for Germany, but not for the EU as a whole. Of course, to do things properly you’d want to consider the impact of food prices on low-income households. But given the focus on the middle class, it seems reasonable to suppose that the price index measures the standard of living for the average middle class household reasonably well.
It seems sad that the NY Times has to cover issues like this by anecdote, but I guess it gets them a lot more readers than the BLS email statistics series.
* The US Fed prefers to focus on the “core” inflation rate, excluding food and energy prices, a use of “core” even more impressive than John Howard’s. so it says the rate is about 2 per cent. And the reforms to the CPI introduced by the Boskin Commission in the 1990s reduced the measured inflation rate by a percentage point or so, meaning that the current rate is comparable to 5 per cent inflation on the measures used in the 1970s and 1980s.