WASHINGTON – Too often we don't notice the good news, but all of a sudden there's plenty of it regarding the economy.
Job growth continues – and wages are starting to catch up. America's manufacturing heartland shows strong and unexpected growth. And there are signs that the economic growth America sees now may be just the start of a longer boom.
Granted, there are huge potential problems out there: private- and public-sector borrowing bubbles that could go bust, looming trade wars and a federal debt problem that could weigh the nation down for decades.
But today, for once, let's accentuate the positive:
• An uptick in wages. There's much to like in the jobs report the U.S. Department of Labor released Friday. Employers added another 201,000 jobs in August, and the unemployment rate remained at its astonishingly puny rate of 3.9 percent, the lowest it's been in about a half a century.
But one number in the jobs report stood out above all the others: the 2.9 percent increase in wages in the year ending in August. That's the highest level of wage growth since the Great Recession began a decade ago – and a sign that the wealth being produced by the growing economy is at least being shared a little bit more equitably.
“The labor market looks great,” Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist at Jefferies LLC in New York, told Bloomberg. "Perkier wages are the final confirmation the labor market is back to normal.”
• A blue-collar comeback. Difficult though it may be to believe, goods-producing jobs are growing these days at a rate the nation hasn't seen in decades. Those jobs – in manufacturing, mining and construction – grew at an annualized rate of 3.3 percent in the year ending in July, according to a Washington Post analysis. That's the highest rate since 1984.
The comeback is especially strong in the most unexpected places: the small towns and rural areas that had been left behind in recent decades when jobs and people flocked to major metropolitan areas. A Brookings Institution analysis released Sunday found that the rate of job growth in small towns and rural areas exceeded the national average in the past year.
It's all happening because the industries important to those areas are suddenly growing all at once.
"Resource extraction and manufacturing industries have been growing at their fastest rates since the financial crisis," Brookings reported. "Mining and logging pursuits (which include oil and gas extraction) have seen rapid employment growth."
• A durable recovery? Perhaps the most intriguing analysis of all this good economic news came from Neil Irwin of the New York Times, who noted that the late 2010s seem suspiciously like the mid-1990s.
Then, as now, the nation suffered through a long hangover after a recession, but finally saw unemployment drop to near-record lows. Then, as now, the low unemployment rate seemed likely to trigger a wave of inflation – but it didn't materialize. Then, as now, technological advances flooded into daily life but didn't quickly translate in the mother's milk of genuine economic growth: productivity gains.
Then, all of a sudden, those 1990s trends converged into strong growth that carried the nation through the rest of the decade. And Irwin wonders if that's about to happen again over the next few years.
"If ... businesses find ways to get more production of goods and services out of each hour of work, it should set the stage for higher wages and faster growth," Irwin wrote. "That’s what happened in the 1990s: Annual productivity rose an average of 1.8 percent from 1991 to 1995, then leapt to a 3 percent annual rate from 1996 to 2000."
Economic analysts, of course, leaven all that good news with words of warning. Irwin warned just last month that the expansion could die of old age, and with help from a trade war and the debt bubble.
It should be noted, too, that few economists credit the current good times to President Trump. Most say his tax cuts and deregulation efforts have boosted the economy, but just a little. And it's worth noting that the economic upturn began, bigly, under former President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
Predictably, though, Trump is taking credit for all the good economic news with a few of his signature exaggerations, earning a rebuke from CNN.
Quite accurately, though, Trump noted that the economy grew at an unusually brisk pace of 4.2 percent in the second quarter.
"We have just begun," Trump tweeted Monday.
And on that, at least, he might be right.
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