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David Frum has played an invaluable role during this presidential campaign in explaining why the rise of soon-to-be Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has been such a deserved rebuke to the party’s out-of-touch establishment. His indictments of the GOP’s Washington-centered chattering class have been especially devastating since he comes out of the party’s Bush wing.

That’s why I was so surprised to read Frum’s claims in a Saturday Wall Street Journal article that the kinds of economic nationalist trade policies Trump says he favors were harmful to American workers when they were in effect during in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Comparing Trump to the leading political maverick of that era – Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan – Frum contends that “The great irony of [the 1896 election] was that Bryan was more right than wrong about his central issues” including freer trade, which “would have enhanced consumer purchasing power at a time when wages were growing slowly.”

The problem is, the best data we have tells exactly the opposite story: In the days when America’s (mainly Republican) presidents determinedly shielded American industry from foreign competition, the country’s workers saw their paychecks grow strongly.

As detailed in the U.S. government’s authoritative Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, from 1900 to 1929 – when the Great Depression struck – the annual earnings of U.S. employees adjusted for inflation increased by a total of 68 percent. The closest version of these figures available that covers a comparable period of time is the Social Security Administration’s average annual net compensation series. It shows that this measure of pay – during a period when U.S. trade flows have been almost unprecedentedly free – was up nearly 121 percent between 1990 and 2014.

Free trade wins hands down, then? Not by a long shot. First, those more recent statistics haven’t been adjusted for inflation. Second, during that 1900 to 1929 period, U.S. workers might have been protected from imports, but for most of those years, they were exposed to record increases in immigration – which all else equal tends to suppress wages by increasing the supply of labor.

In fact, according to Historical Statistics, before World War I’s outbreak greatly reduced immigration opportunities from Europe, the prime source region, the arrival of these newcomers regularly increased the labor supply by between 1.10 and 2.87 percent. (This figure counts only working-age immigrants who are recorded as boasting occupations.)

Total legal immigration inflows into the country recently have been roughly one million, and some 20 percent are not working age. In addition, they represent a much smaller share of the total national workforce – which currently numbers about 144 million.

It’s true that the labor available to domestic employers has been augmented as well by a sizable illegal immigration inflow. But even taking this population into account, legal immigration-fueled labor force increases in the early 20th century were considerably higher than in the first 15 years of this century. Then, the rate of growth typically hovered around 2.50 percent annually. Since 2000, it’s only topped two percent annually once (in 2014), and has ranged from that 2.19 percent increase to a 3.76 percent plunge during the recession year 2009.

No one’s saying that policies that succeeded 100 years ago will succeed today. But the historical record remains clear. Despite unprecedented immigrant-dominated increases in the labor force, when Washington curbed imports, American workers’ pay still tended to rise healthily – and at rates most of their descendants would envy.

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