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Given the on-again-off-again nature of President Trump’s tariff policies (which against China went partly off again yesterday in the form of an announced short delay in the imposition of $250 billion worth of levies originally set for October 1), I figured there was no sense in performing my now-standard analysis of this morning’s new monthly U.S. consumer price inflation figures (for August).

Instead, I’ll focus on today’s inflation-adjusted wage data – which is always released by the Labor Department in tandem with the consumer inflation report –  and here there’s definitely some good news for President Trump, his supporters, and for manufacturing workers. One notable qualification: The shorter the memories of Trump working class voters, the better for his political future.

The table below makes clear what I mean. It shows the price-adjusted wage changes for the last three January-thru-August periods for private sector workers overall, for “blue-collar” private sector workers (that is, those not in management or supervisory positions), for manufacturing workers overall, and for blue-collar workers in general and their manufacturing counterparts. (To remind:  The Labor Department doesn’t track wages for public sector employees, since their pay stems mainly from politicians’ decisions, not economic fundamentals.) 

January thru Aug. real wages                  2019                2018                 2017

private sector:                                 +0.55 percent   +0.75 percent    +0.94 percent

private sector blue-collar:               +1.27 percent   +0.76 percent   +0.76 percent

manufacturing:                               +0.65 percent     -0.19 percent   +0.46 percent

manufacturing blue-collar:            +0.23 percent         0 percent      +1.15 percent

As you can see, manufacturing workers in particular have seen January-through-August constant-dollar wage gains in 2019 that were much better than in the comparable last year – but largely because the 2018 results were terrible. Moreover, for blue-collar manufacturing workers, the 2019 improvement was still much weaker than the 2017 increase. Private sector blue-collar after-inflation hourly wages accelerated year-on-year in 2019 as well, but the 2018 gain was at least identical to 2017’s.

Short blue-collar worker memories will also help Trumpworld if the Obama administration’s real wage record is forgotten. For Mr. Trump’s record trails that of his predecessor for all of these major worker categories (although the advance in inflation-adjusted manufacturing blue-collar wages under both Presidents during comparable periods of their terms in office is pretty similar).

                                                   Last 30 Obama months       First 30 Trump months

private sector:                                  +3.39 percent                      +2.62 percent

private sector blue-collar:               +3.97 percent                      +2.72 percent

manufacturing:                                +3.25 percent                     +0.37 percent

manufacturing blue-collar:              +3.22 percent                     +3.11 percent

Let’s end on a fairly positive note for Mr. Trump and his backers: The table below shows that overall, price-adjusted wages in manufacturing fared better after his tariffs’ advent in March, 2018 (for the most part) than during the pre-tariff phrase of his presidency. Because the two time periods have been of different lengths, I’m presenting the results in terms of average monthly changes in absolute dollars and cents terms.

                                                         Pre-tariffs                            Post-tariffs

Manufacturing:                               -0.31 cents                           +0.50 cents

Blue-collar manufacturing:           +0.85 cents                            +0.75 cents

Again, what these statistics mean for the future of American workers is anyone’s guess, especially in trade-heavy manufacturing, since trade policy decisions seem so ragged. And politically, the key question remains: Have times been good enough for working class and other voters during the Trump era to offset other concerns about his leadership sufficiently to bring him a second term?

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