Imports, Technology Hurt Low-Skilled Workers' Pay Not all Americans have benefited equally from the strength of the U.S. economy over the past decade. But low-skilled workers have been hurt the most as they face competition from imports and automation.
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Imports, Technology Hurt Low-Skilled Workers' Pay

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Imports, Technology Hurt Low-Skilled Workers' Pay

Imports, Technology Hurt Low-Skilled Workers' Pay

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Not all Americans have benefited equally from the strength of the U.S. economy over the past decade. The chief executives of United Health and the New York Stock Exchange, for example, did a lot better than most - and have been in the headlines as a result.

To talk about how widely American prosperity has or has not been shared, we turn to David Wessel. He's deputy Washington bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal and regular guest here. David, good morning.

Mr. DAVID WESSEL (Deputy Washington Bureau Chief, The Wall Street Journal): Good morning.

INSKEEP: So, let's start with William Mcguire of United Health, Dick Grasso of the New York Stock Exchange. The faces of CEO pay today, what do they say about the broader economy?

WESSEL: Well, these men are clearly at the extremes. They made so much money. But they're real illustrations of a much broader trend. I mean, last year, the average CEO made about 370 times what the average worker did.

INSKEEP: 370 times?

Mr. WESSEL: Right. And in 1993, it was only 131 times.

INSKEEP: A mere 131. Wasn't it even way lower than that if you went back a few decades?

Mr. WESSEL: Yes, it is.

INSKEEP: So if you're making 370 times the average worker, how much money is that, in the case of someone like Grasso?

Mr. WESSEL: Well, Mr. Grasso is being asked to return perhaps as much as $100 million for his time at the New York Stock Exchange. And Mr. McGuire at United Health has stock options that were worth, at the end of the year, nearly $1.8 billion.

INSKEEP: Wow. So what's happening?

Mr. WESSEL: Well, CEOs aren't the only ones winning. There are a group of winners in the labor market who were doing really, really well. The CEOs at one extreme, but not alone, hedge fund managers, baseball players, rock stars, are doing pretty well. And if you look at the typical wage - the median worker -the median worker in the last five or six years has barely kept up with inflation.

In fact, if you look just at wages - not at health benefits and other compensation - the average wages of college graduates are actually not keeping up with inflation. Only those with graduate degrees like MBAs or doctorates or law degrees or medical degrees have managed to, on average, do better than inflation.

INSKEEP: So you have a few people in the stratosphere. The median worker, the person in the middle, is just treading water, doing okay, not getting any worse. Who's really losing here?

Mr. WESSEL: The real loser is somebody who didn't finish high school, can't read and write very well, and is forced to compete with a lot of other workers in that category. Some of them, maybe immigrants - legal or illegal - some of them, maybe factory workers who've fallen out of the middle-class. But there's a big pool, a big supply of workers, who don't have the skills that are now required to get a middle-class wage in our economy.

INSKEEP: Are immigrants to blame here at all?

Mr. WESSEL: I don't think immigrants are to blame, per se. I think what's - it's hard to say exactly what's causing this. I think both globalization and technology, broadly defined, have something to do with this. If you're a low-skilled worker in America, you may be competing with an immigrant. You may be competing with an import that's made by foreign workers. You may be competing with someone who's employed by an American company in some place like India or China.

Or you may, in fact, have a job that's about to be automated out of existence. And all these things have reduced the demand for your labor. And as we know, when demand goes down, so do wages.

INSKEEP: Everything you just mentioned is something that has been a political issue or maybe a political issue in this fall's elections, which leads to the question of whether these trends began with the office of President Bush.

Mr. WESSEL: The trends did not begin with the arrival of President Bush. A lot of the stuff began in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. Some of it has intensified recently. The political issue is not about when did this start. The political issue is, what is the appropriate response of government? Should government actively try and resist this trend towards inequality or should it look at it as the price we pay for a prosperous society where we can do better than other countries?


Mr. WESSEL: Well, the voters will decide in November.

INSKEEP: Okay. David Wessel, Deputy Washington Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal. Thanks very much.

Mr. WESSEL: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And you can read David's Wall Street Journal column on income disparity by going to a link at

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