In deftly convoluted language, Stiglitz writes that, "Two-thirds (68 percent) of the net job growth in full-time employment between February 1994 and February 1996 occurred in industry/occupation groups paying above-median wages." The implication is that the actual jobs paid good wages.
The press missed the distinction and took the bait. The New York Times headlined its story, "Pay is Higher For New Jobs, Study Reports."
But that's not quite what Stiglitz said, or what his statistics show. Since wage inequality has been increasing within occupations and industries; you can't assume that a job pays a high wage just because it is located in a high-wage sector.
For example, a new pilot on a fast-grow-ing commuter airline will be paid far less than the pilot of a big trunk airline with a static labor force. A nonunion factory assembler in a small shop earns less than a unionized worker in a shrinking basic industry. These newer jobs tend to pay less than the old ones, even though both are in high-wage sectors.
To say that most jobs are being created in sectors and occupations with above-average wages tells you nothing about the actual wages of the new jobs. Stiglitz reports that "even in the lower-paying service industry, a majority of the net employment growth has been in managerial and professional specialty positions, which typically pay above average wages." But the "managerial" category includes low-wage assistant managers in clothing and fast food shops, whose ranks are growing, as well as high-salary corporate middle managers, whose numbers are dwindling.
Stiglitz touts a graph showing that nearly a million of the new jobs were in the "Professional Specialty," category (teachers, engineers, scientists, etc.) But according to the Labor Department, overall median pay even in that elite category fell by 1 percent last year.
The real bottom line is the economy's actual median wage. In the past year, that number declined again, as it has in six of the last seven years. Whatever is really happening with new jobs, more than 50 percent of all workers are earning less than a year ago.
The Stiglitz report should have been released in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon (where all the children are above average). As a careful economist, Stiglitz doubtless sees through his own statistical artifice. His present job, of course, is more political than economic.
The economy presents President Clinton with a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, lots of new jobs have been created. On the other, millions of workers are newly vulnerable. And there is a huge gap between the typical earner and the executive suite, where average CEO compensation was up another 23 percent last year.
If Clinton emphasizes the bad news and the inequality, he looks like an "economic declinist" or a practitioner of class warfare. But if he overstates the good news, he is telling a story at odds with most people's actual experience of rising insecurity and flat earnings--and it becomes harder for him to pose as their champion.
The Stiglitz report was prompted by increasing press coverage of the "downsizing of America," tacitly suggesting that all is not well on Clinton's watch. Stiglitz's text originated at the White House, went through several back-and-forth drafts with technical experts and ultimately sought to strike a balance.
Mostly, went the White House message, the economy's doing great. Things are really better than they seem. But some people are being left out and we have to help them. That sets the stage for Clinton's program of a higher minimum wage and new education and training initiatives.
This is a broadly plausible way for Clinton to play the economic hand that history has dealt him But creative use of statistics will backfire if the effect is to tell anxious people they aren't hurting.
Epochal changes in the economy are creating enormous dislocations that people feel in their daily lives. CEOs treat employees like disposable parts, not valued colleagues. The Federal Reserve is determined not to let the economy grow at its full potential.
Given these constraints, median wages will necessarily stagnate, and career transitions will be more arduous than they need be. If Clinton is not willing to take on the Fed or the business elite, putting the best possible face on ambiguous numbers is a tempting substitute--but not a very effective one.
(C)1996 Washington Post Writers Group