Bruce Yandle of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center has just added a novel claim to the list of catastrophes allegedly triggered by President Trump’s tariff-centric trade policies. In an October 28 Washington (D.C.) Examiner post, He seems to understand that amid rock-bottom rates of U.S. joblessness, it’s getting ever tougher to contend that the trade wars are killing American employment (though the rate of net job gains has certainly slowed in most sectors since the advent of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports in March, 2018).
So Yandle, a former university business school dean, has come up with another reason for the nation’s workers and aspiring workers to hate the curbs on trade: They’re making Americans work too darned hard for the stuff they like to buy. It’s an intriguing idea with just one fatal flaw: It’s not supported by a shred of evidence. P.S.: It takes about 10 minutes of internet surfing and arithmetic-ing to demolish.
Here’s Yandle’s case:
“[T]he occurrence of high employment in the face of a slowing economy can be the result of putting tariff-made rocks in our own harbors to keep out lower-cost foreign goods. When cheaper goods can no longer be imported, we have to work longer and harder to maintain the same level of consumption.
“Low unemployment is something to celebrate but let’s at least note that there are some people who might (quite reasonably) prefer to work a little less with more leisure time and cheaper cars, clothes, and tools, which are some of the goods that have been hit with tariffs.”
I’m unaware of any instances of workers complaining that, “I’d be able to knock off earlier and clean out Walmart if only for those stupid tariffs,” but what I suppose really doesn’t matter. Nor should what anyone supposes matter – because the federal government keeps statistics both on Americans’ hours on the job and their pay.
The results of my research are below. They show hours worked for various major categories of private sector employees, and the change in their hourly inflation-adjusted wages, over two relevant time periods. The first goes from the first full month of the Trump administration (February, 2017) through the latest data month (this September – tomorrow the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) will release the October numbers), and from the first full month of the administration’s first important tariffs (April, 2018, for the steel and aluminum levies) through September. (Government employees’ wages aren’t monitored by BLS because their pay is set largely via politicians’ decisions, and therefore says little about the economy’s fundamental strengths or weaknesses.)
Total private weekly hours since Trump inauguration: 34.3 to 34.4
Total private weekly hours since 1st (metals) tariffs: 34.5 to 34.4
Total blue-collar weekly hours since Trump inauguration: 33.6 to 33.6
Total blue-collar weekly hours since 1st (metals) tariffs: 33.8 to 33.6
Total manufacturing weekly hours since Trump inauguration: 40.7 to 40.5
Total manufacturing weekly hours since 1st (metals) tariffs: 41.0 to 40.5
Total manufacturing blue-collar weekly hours since Trump inauguration: 41.9 to 41.5
Total manufacturing blue-collar weekly hours since 1st (metals) tariffs: 42.4 to 41.5
Total private real hourly wage since Trump inauguration: +2.53 percent
Total private real hourly wage since 1st (metals) tariffs: +.1.86 percent
Total blue-collar real hourly wage since Trump inauguration: +3.05 percent
Total blue-collar real hourly wage since 1st (metals) tariffs: +2.49 percent
Total manufacturing real hourly wage since Trump inauguration: +0.46 percent
Total manufacturing real hourly wage since 1st (metals) tariffs: +0.83 percent
Total manufacturing blue-collar real hourly wage since Trump inauguration: +2.77 percent
Total manufacturing blue-collar real hourly wage since 1st (metals) tariffs: +1.25 percent
For every category except two, over both time periods, workers’ weekly hours went down, and their real wages went up. That is, their leisure time and the buying power of their pay both have risen. They’ve been working less and been able to purchase more.
The first exception is overall private sector workers. Since Mr. Trump’s administration began, their work week has edged up – a tenth of an hour. Even so, their pay rose faster. So they don’t have much cause to complain about working too hard and enjoying the fruits of their labor less.
The second exception entails the overall blue-collar workforce (called “production and nonsupervisory employees” in BLS-ese). Its work week has stayed the same since the Trump inauguration. At the same time, however, this group experienced the fastest wage increase during this period. And its pay in constant dollars went up even faster after the metals tariffs were imposed – as its workweek dipped.
Moreover, this points to another problem with Yandle’s case: All four categories of workers saw their workweek fall faster after the tariffs’ imposition than before. And in three of the four (except for manufacturing blue-collar workers) wages rose faster after the tariffs went on as well.
And in case you’re wondering, to create some context, whether American workers recently have been significantly better off in the absence of tariffs and trade wars, the answer is, “Not consistently during the current economic recovery.”
No one’s saying that these results show that the United States is a workers’ paradise, or is becoming one because of the Trump tariffs. But if anyone has a right to be grumpy about the above trends, it’s trade mavens like Yandle, who are pushing fact-free arguments to take the levies down.