The US began by abandoning the system of fixed exchange rates established by the Bretton Woods Agreements in 1944 and introducing a system of generalised floating exchange rates. There was a strong economic motive for the decision, which the US authorities took unilaterally in 1973. They were seeking to compensate for declining competitiveness and a growing national debt by exporting the country’s macroeconomic imbalances. The floating exchange rate system provided a flexible and efficient monetary tool that enabled them to avoid the adjustments that would otherwise have been required by America’s new situation as a debtor. In a system of fixed exchange rates and gold convertibility, the US would have been obliged, like every third-world country today, to pay for its indebtedness with a relative loss of sovereignty and highly unpopular domestic austerity measures.
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Probably the most illustrative measure contained in Table 1 is the hourly wage of the median worker. This is simply the worker at the 50th percentile of the wage distribution, who makes higher hourly wages than half of the American workforce and lower hourly wages than the other half. The overall real median wage has risen just percent cumulatively over the past 34 years, compared with economy-wide productivity growth of just under 65 percent. In essence, more than 90 percent of the economy’s productivity growth in the past generation has leaked away from the wages of median workers.