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So it seems like a 'this time it's different' hypothesis requires not just enduring low expenses, but also for something to be wrong with competition.

Good point. I certainly don't have a snappy comeback that makes it all make sense.

Won't stop me from trying, of course.
How's this for a possible narrative:
This (stagnant median real wages) is a rich world phenomenon only.
Since labour has become not only more plentiful but much more competitive
on a global scale, one would expect equalization as workers in disparate
places seriously compete with one another for the first time.
That leads to higher wages for those in poor places that were previously unable to get work that had a high value added, and lower
wages for those in rich countries who have been overpaid until now
because their jobs couldn't be done by people elsewhere.
The average guy in Guangdong is doing much better, the average guy in Michigan less so.

Looked at in a similar way:
The anomaly isn't that American blue collar workers can't get highly paid jobs any more.
The anomaly is the once-in-a-universe 50 year period that they could.
Tightening screws simply isn't worth $50k a year and never was.
Since so many of the low end white collar jobs are no longer plentiful, like bank
tellers and travel agents, the blue collar effect becomes even more visible in the stats.

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