Here’s a good one for the right-for-the-wrong-reasons file.
David Glasner is one of an increasing number of Fed critics who would like to see a higher inflation target. Today, he takes aim at a Wall Street Journal editorial that claims that the real victims of cheaper money wouldn’t be, you know, people who own money — creditors — as one might think, but working people. Higher inflation just means lower real wages, says the Journal. Crocodile tears, says Glasner — since when does the Journal care about wage workers? So far, so good, says me.
“What makes this argument so disreputable,”he goes on,
is not just the obviously insincere pretense of concern for the welfare of the working class, but the dishonest implication that employment in a recession or depression can be increased without an, at least temporary, reduction in real wages. Rising unemployment during a contraction implies that real wages are, in some sense, too high, so that a falling real wage tends to be a characteristic of any recovery, at least in its early stages. The only question is whether the falling real wage is brought about through prices rising faster than wages or by wages falling faster than prices. If the Wall Street Journal and other opponents of rising prices don’t want prices to erode real wages, they are ipso facto in favor of falling money wages.
And here we have taken a serious wrong turn.
Glasner is certainly not alone in thinking that rising prices are associated with falling real wages, and vice versa. And he’s also got plenty of company in his belief that since the wage is equal to the marginal product of labor, and marginal products should decline, in the short run higher employment implies a lower real wage. But is he right? Is it true that if employment is to rise, “the only question” is whether wages fall directly or via inflation? Is it true that unemployment necessarily means that wages are too high?
Empirically, it seems questionable. Let’s look at unemployment and wages in the past few decades in the United States. The graph below shows the real hourly wage on the x-axis and the unemployment rate on the y-axis. The red dots show the two years after the peak of unemployment in each of the past five recessions. If reducing unemployment always required lower real wages, the red dots should consistently make upward sloping lines. The real picture, though, is more complicated.
As we can see, the early 2000s recovery and, arguably, the early 1980s recovery were associated with falling real wages. but in the early 1990s, employment recovered with constant real wages — that’s what the vertical line over on the left means. And in the two recessions of the 1970s, the recoveries combined falling unemployment with strongly rising real wages. If we look at other advanced countries, it’s this last pattern we see most often. (I show some examples after the fold.) So while rising employment is sometimes accompanied by a falling real wage, it is clearly not true that, as Glasner claims, it necessarily must be.
This is an important question to get straight. There seems to be a certain convergence happening between progressive-liberal economists and neo-monetarists like Glasner on the desirability of higher inflation in general and nominal GDP targeting in particular. There’s something to be said for this; inflation is the course of least resistance to cancel the debts. But we in the party of movement can’t support this idea or make it part of a broader popular economic program if it’s really a stalking horse for lower wages.
Fortunately, the macroeconomic benefits of a rising price level don’t depend on a falling real wage.
More broadly, the idea that reducing unemployment necessarily means reducing wages doesn’t hold up. It’s wrong empirically, and it involves a basic misunderstanding of what’s going on in recessions.
Yes, labor is idle in a recession, but does that mean its price, the wage, is too high? There is also more excess capacity in the capital stock in a recession; by the same logic, that would mean profits are too high. Real estate vacancy rates are high in a recession, so rents must also be too high. In fact, every factor of production is underutilized in recessions, but it’s logically impossible for the relative price of all factors to be too high. A shortfall in demand for output as a whole (or excess demand for the means of payment, if you’re a monetarist) doesn’t tell us anything about whether relative prices are out of line, or in which direction. If we were seeing technological unemployment — people thrown out of work by the adoption of more capital-intensive forms of production — then there might be something to the statement that “unemployment … implies that real wages are, in some sense, too high.” But that’s not what we see in recessions at all.
Glasner is hardly the only one who thinks that unemployment must somehow involve excessive wages. If he were, he’d hardly be worth arguing with. It’s a common view today, and it was even more common before World War II. Glasner quotes Mises (yikes!), but Schumpeter said the same thing. More interestingly, so did Keynes. In Chapter Two of the General Theory, he announces that he is not challenging what he calls the first postulate of the classical theory of employment, that the wage is equal to the marginal product of labor. And he draws the same conclusion from this that Glasner does:
with a given organisation, equipment and technique, real wages and the volume of output (and hence of employment) are uniquely correlated, so that, in general, an increase in employment can only occur to the accompaniment of a decline in the rate of real wages. Thus I am not disputing this vital fact which the classical economists have (rightly) asserted… [that] the real wage earned by a unit of labour has a unique (inverse) correlation with the volume of employment. Thus if employment increases, then, in the short period, the reward per unit of labour in terms of wage-goods must, in general, decline… This is simply the obverse of the familiar proposition that industry is normally working subject to decreasing returns… So long, indeed, as this proposition holds, any means of increasing employment must lead at the same time to a diminution of the marginal product and hence of the rate of wages measured in terms of this product.
So, wait, if Keynes says it then it can’t be a basic misunderstanding of the principle of aggregate demand, can it? Well, here’s where things get interesting.
Keynes didn’t participate much in the academic discussions following the The General Theory; the last decade of his life was taken up with practical policy work. (As Hyman Minsky observed, this may be one reason why many of his more profound ideas never made into postwar Keynesianism.) But he take part in a discussion in the pages of the Quarterly Journal of Economics, in which the “most important” contribution, per Keynes, was from Jacob Viner, who zeroed in on exactly this question. Viner:
Keynes’ reasoning points obviously to the superiority of inflationary remedies for unemployment over money-wage reductions. … there would be a constant race between the printing press and the business agents of the trade unions, with the problem of unemployment largely solved if the printing press could maintain a constant lead… [But] Keynes follows the classical doctrine too closely when he concedes that “an increase in employment can only occur to the accompaniment of a decline in the rate of real wages.” This conclusion results from too unqualified an application of law-of-diminishing-returns analysis, and needs to be modified for cyclical unemployment… If a plant geared to work at say 80 per cent of rated capacity is being operated at say only 30 per cent, both the per capita and the marginal output of labor may well be lower at the low rate of operations than at the higher rate, the law of diminishing returns notwithstanding. There is the further empirical consideration that if employers operate in their wage policy in accordance with marginal cost analysis, it is done only imperfectly and unconsciously…
Viner makes two key points here: First, it is not necessarily the case that the marginal product of labor declines with output, especially in a recession or depression when businesses are producing well below capacity. And second, the assumption that wages are equal to marginal product is not a safe one. A third criticism came from Kalecki, that under imperfect competition firms would not set price equal to marginal cost but at some markup above it, a markup that will vary over the course of the business cycle. Keynes fully agreed that all three criticisms — along with some others, which seem less central to me — were correct, and that the first classical postulate was no better grounded than the second. In what I believe was his last substantive economic publication, a 1939 article in the Economic Journal, he returned to the question, showing that it was not true empirically that real wage fall when employment rises and exploring why he and other economists had gotten this wrong. The claim that higher employment must be accommpanied by a lower real wage, he wrote, “is the portion of my book which most needs to be revised.” Indeed, it was the only substantive modification of the argument of the General Theory that he made in his lifetime.
I bring all this up because — well, partly just because I think it’s interesting. But it’s worth being reminded, how much of our current economic debate is recapitulating what people were figuring out in the 1930s. And it’s interesting to see how just how seductive is the idea that high unemployment means that “real wages are, in some sense, too high.” Even Keynes had to be talked out of it, even though it runs counter to the logic of his whole system, and even though there’s no good theoretical or empirical reason to believe it’s true.
Right, back to empirics. Here are a few more graphs, showing, like the US one above, unemployment on the vertical axis and real hourly wages on the horizontal. Data is from the OECD.
The first picture shows five Western European countries in the decade before the crisis. The important part is the left side; what you see there is that in all five countries unemployment fell sharply in the late 90s/early 2000s, even while real wages increased. In Belgium, for example, unemployment fell from 10 percent to a bit over six percent between 1996 and 2002, at the same time as real wages rose by close to 10 percent. The other four (and almost every country in the EU) show similar patterns.
The second one shows Korea. The 1997 Asian crisis is clearly visible here as the huge spike in unemployment in the middle of the graph. But what’s relevant here is the way it seems to slope backward. That’s because real wages fell along with employment in the crisis, and rose with employment in the recovery. Over the same period that unemployment comes back down from 8 to 4 percent, the real wage index rises from 70 to 80. This is the opposite of what we would expect in the Glasner story.
The third one shows Australia and New Zealand. Australia shows two periods of sharply falling unemployment — one in the 1980s accompanied by flat wages (a vertical line) and one in the 1990s accompanied by rising wages. Of all these countries, only New Zealand’s recoveries show a pattern of falling unemployment accompanied by falling real wages — clearly after 1992, and for a quarter or two in 2000.
You may object that these are mostly small open economies. So while the real wage is deflated by the domestic price level, the real question is whether labor costs are rising or falling relative to trade partners. If employment and wages are rising together, that probably just means the currency is depreciating. I don’t think this is true either. Countries often improve their trade balance even when real wages as measured in a common currency are rising, and conversely. That’s “Kaldor’s paradox” — countries with persistently strengthening trade balances tend to be precisely those with rising relative labor costs. But that will have to wait for a future post.
UPDATE: In comments, Will Boisvert calls the graphs above the worst he’s ever seen. OK!
So, here is the same data presented in a hopefully more legible way. The red line is unemployment, the blue line is the real hourly wage. The key question is, when the red line is falling from a peak, is the blue line falling too, or at least decelerating? And the answer, as above, is: Sometimes, but not usually. There is nothing dishonest in the claim that, in a recession, unemployment can be reduced without a decline in the real wage.