The Second Coming? Trump vs. Biden

How have the macroeconomic problems in the US blinded many participants and observers to the actual state of the American economy as the election approaches?

The wafer-thin poll margins separating President Joe Biden and Donald Trump have surprised and baffled many analysts. This paper attempts no analysis of the election itself. It focuses instead on a clinical assessment of its macroeconomic context.

Building on previous work, our latest INET working paper looks first at inflation’s overall effect on real wages and salaries. It then considers claims advanced by Autor, Dube, and McGrew (2023) and others about the wages of the lowest-paid workers. Real wages for most American workers have declined substantially under inflation. We observe no sign of a radical transformation of the U.S. labor market in favor of the lowest-paid workers. The (modest) increase in real hourly wages of the bottom 10% of U.S. workers during 2021-2023 owed little to any policy change or declining monopsony power: It was a unique case of wages rising to subsistence levels as COVID exponentially multiplied risks of working at what had previously been relatively safe jobs at the bottom of the wage distribution.

The paper then analyzes inflation’s persistence in the face of substantial increases in interest rates. We document the wealth gains made by the richest 10% of U.S. households during 2020-2023. These wealth gains, which have no peacetime precedents, enabled the richest American households to step up consumption, even when their real incomes were falling. Empirically plausible estimations of the wealth effect on the consumption of the super-rich show that the wealth effect can account for all of the increase in aggregate consumption spending above its longer-term trend during 2021Q1-2023Q4. Importantly, the lopsided inequality in wealth makes controlling top-heavy consumption spending by raising interest rates much harder for the Federal Reserve, without interest rate increases that would bring the rest of the economy to its knees much earlier.

We also show that the persistence of inflation in several key service sectors is heavily influenced by captive regulators – a condition that higher interest rates cannot remedy.

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