Last week, we talked about the power of the free market and why the anti-work community misses the point when it comes to fighting exploitation. Click here to read that post. Today, we’re continuing the series by looking at another of their most common arguments. They say inflation has caused the buying power of the U.S. dollar to plummet and wages haven’t risen enough to compensate. This means that many jobs no longer provide a “livable wage” for Americans. But is this true?
Especially this year, Americans are feeling the effects of inflation and how easily it can get away from us. What happens when the price of milk and bread goes up, but you don’t get a raise? Your money, and in turn your job, are worth less and less. It can feel hopeless. But is that really what’s happening?
I decided to look into this for myself. Here’s what I found. The typical wage for a bank teller in 1944 was around $1.00 per hour or $160.00 per month.1 Adjusting for inflation, how much should that job be worth today? The buying power of $1.00 in 1944 is roughly equivalent to $15.79 in 2021.2 How much do bank tellers actually get paid right now? My wife worked as one up until this year. Her wages started around $15 per hour in her first month. By the time she switched jobs, she was making $16.70 per hour.
Now, I’m no economist. I’m sure there are examples of jobs with wages that don’t match what they were 70 years ago. But on the whole, inflation is not a sufficient explanation for your financial struggles. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe inflation is a problem. It’s a big problem, actually. But it’s not an excuse, or at least not a good one in this case. Your job probably pays you a fair wage. But just in case, you can always compare what you make to the average for your profession. There are plenty of websites out there to help you do this. Stop complaining on the internet if you want to see real change in your life. If you feel like you deserve a raise, ask for it. If you want a new job, go out and interview for it. We’ll talk more about this mentality in a minute. But first, we slay another pitiful dragon.
What About Productivity?
Another common argument in the anti-work community is that productivity has increased substantially more than compensation has in the last few decades. This would imply that workers deserve higher wages because they’re more efficient nowadays, which is separate from the effects of inflation. But this raises an important question. What is “productivity?”
Well, as it turns out, the most commonly cited analysis on this issue, done by the Economic Policy Institute, defines for us what is meant by productivity. It says, “Productivity measures how much total economywide income is generated (i.e., for workers, business owners, landlords, and everybody else together) in an average hour of work.”3 This means we are not measuring efficiency of labor to produce product, number of tasks completed per hour, quality of service, or any other metric we might commonly think of when presented with the idea of being productive at our jobs. No, instead, the analysis is specifically talking about total income per hour across the board. I’m sure you can see how the term “productivity” might easily be misinterpreted by morons on the internet. Now that we have that clear, let’s take a look at the graph everyone loves to talk about.
At face value, this graph seems to show that total income per hour (productivity) has climbed steadily, while the typical worker’s compensation has stagnated. I’ve explained the first variable. Now we ought to look at the second variable, which is defined as “the average compensation (wages and benefits) of production and nonsupervisory workers.”4 By EPI’s own admission, this only accounts for the lowest paid 80% of the U.S. workforce. Already, we’re comparing apples to oranges. We’re not discussing the average worker. We’re discussing the average worker in the bottom 80%. It’s common knowledge that supervisory positions are paid significantly more than lower positions. That’s just how the job market works. It’s valuable to be able to manage teams efficiently. Removing these workers from the equation skews the results quite a bit, all in the name of representing “the common man.”
And that right there is the problem. This graph is frequently presented as representing how unfair the system is, such that more productive workers are not rewarded with higher wages as they should be. It’s designed to make the reader bolt upright and exclaim, “How dare they!” But it’s a lie. It’s not showing an increase in the work ethic of individual employees. It’s showing an increase in income throughout our economy. It’s not showing a stagnating wage for your average American. It’s showing that compensation is shifting in favor of supervisory positions. Unfortunately for EPI, honest data gets you a very boring graph rather than one that’s useful for pushing an agenda.
Another significant problem with this graph is that productivity is calculated using NDP (Net Domestic Product) while compensation is calculated using CPI (Consumer Price Index).5 In short, this is another case of comparing apples to oranges, a deliberate attempt to widen the gap artificially. Scott Sumner, an economics professor, says it better than I can. Read his article on the topic here.
“This is a pay/productivity gap being invented by using the slowly moving price index (NDP, which is similar to the PCE) to make worker productivity look better, and the faster moving price index (CPI) to make real wages look lower. That’s not kosher. You need to use the same type of index for both lines on the graph.”6
As far as I’m concerned, this is the final nail in the coffin. The argument that we’re all working harder than ever for less than ever is flat out wrong and needs to die. The anti-work community would do well to stop perpetuating it if they want to be taken seriously. Journalists should do better research before highlighting this rubbish as often as they have. Thankfully, there are some out there who have set the record straight.
One thing the data is clear on is that income inequality is growing. But this isn’t anything new. It tends to happen in all economies, not just capitalist ones. But this is a completely different topic for another day. For now, I’ll leave it at that.
What Then Shall We Do?
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the conversation surrounding income, inflation, and value of labor. How all these factors truly affect people is difficult to determine, even for experts. I don’t claim to understand it completely, but my research has convinced me that, if nothing else, inflation and the so-called “productivity gap” are poor excuses for financial woes in modern America. Stop using them as a scapegoat and take responsibility for the resources and time you’ve been given.
“Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”Proverbs 3:9-10 (ESV)
Your decisions in spending habits, assertiveness at work, and standard of living are infinitely more impactful than any campaign in the streets to raise the minimum wage to outrageous levels. The harsh reality is that our economy adjusts for inflation out of necessity. As money decreases in value, the price for labor, goods, and services rises. That’s just how the market works. Could we fix things someday? Who knows? For now, focus on using what you have to honor the Lord as best you can. Be a wise steward. Remember the parable of the talents.
“And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.'”Matthew 25:20-21 (ESV)
Trust me, you don’t want to find yourself, a privileged American, before the almighty God shuffling your feet, admitting you failed to use your resources for the kingdom because inflation was scary. What a sorry excuse for a servant of the Most High.
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (ESV)
Whether it’s your time, money, or effort, it’s not your own. It belongs to the one who purchased you on the cross. Spend your time studying the Word, supporting your church, and reaching out to those who are lost. Use your skills and labor likewise, spreading the truth and helping those around you. Finally, be generous with the money God gives you, knowing you are building up for yourself treasure in heaven, where inflation does not erode value and the government does not tax.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”Matthew 6:19-21 (ESV)
Next week, we’ll continue our discussion of the anti-work movement. Enter your email if you want to be notified when the next post goes live. Thanks for reading. Godspeed.
- The Regional War Labor Boards, Manuel of Going Wage Rates (Washington, D.C.: The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., 1944), 175.
- “$1 in 1944 → 2021,” Inflation Calculator, Official Inflation Data, Alioth Finance. Accessed December 14th, 2021. https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1944?amount=1.
- “The Productivity–Pay Gap,” Economic Policy Institute. Accessed December 26, 2021. https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap/.
- Josh Bivens and Lawrence Mishel, “Understanding the Historic Divergence Between Productivity and a Typical Worker’s Pay,” Economic Policy Institute, September 2, 2015. https://www.epi.org/publication/understanding-the-historic-divergence-between-productivity-and-a-typical-workers-pay-why-it-matters-and-why-its-real/
- Scott Sumner, “Pay/productivity gap graphs are nonsense,” TheMoneyIllusion, September 11th, 2015. https://www.themoneyillusion.com/payproductivity-gap-graphs-are-nonsense/