Varieties of the Phillips Curve

In this post, I first talk about a variety of ways that we can formalize the relationship between wages, inflation and productivity. Then I talk briefly about why these links matter, and finally how, in my view, we should think about the existence of a variety of different possible relationships between these variables.


My Jacobin piece on the Fed was, on a certain abstract level, about varieties of the Phillips curve. The Phillips curve is any of a family graphs with either unemployment or “real” GDP on the X axis, and either the level or the change of nominal wages or the level of prices or the level or change of inflation on the Y axis. In any of the the various permutations (some of which naturally are more common than others) this purports to show a regular relationship between aggregate demand and prices.

This apparatus is central to the standard textbook account of monetary policy transmission. In this account, a change in the amount of base money supplied by the central bank leads to a change in market interest rates. (Newer textbooks normally skip this part and assume the central bank sets “the” interest rate by some unspecified means.) The change in interest rates  leads to a change in business and/or housing investment, which results via a multiplier in a change in aggregate output. [1] The change in output then leads to a change in unemployment, as described by Okun’s law. [2] This in turn leads to a change in wages, which is passed on to prices. The Phillips curve describes the last one or two or three steps in this chain.

Here I want to focus on the wage-price link. What are the kinds of stories we can tell about the relationship between nominal wages and inflation?


The starting point is this identity:

(1) w = y + p + s

That is, the percentage change in nominal wages (w) is equal to the sum of the percentage changes in real output per worker (y; also called labor productivity), in the price level (p, or inflation) and in the labor share of output (s). [3] This is the essential context for any Phillips curve story. This should be, but isn’t, one of the basic identities in any intermediate macroeconomics textbook.

Now, let’s call the increase in “real” or inflation-adjusted wages r. [4] That gives us a second, more familiar, identity:

(2) r = w – p

The increase in real wages is equal to the increase in nominal wages less the inflation rate.

As always with these kinds of accounting identities, the question is “what adjusts”? What economic processes ensure that individual choices add up in a way consistent with the identity? [5]

Here we have five variables and two equations, so three more equations are needed for it to be determined. This means there are large number of possible closures. I can think of five that come up, explicitly or implicitly, in actual debates.

Closure 1:

First is the orthodox closure familiar from any undergraduate macroeconomics textbook.

(3a) w = pE + f(U); f’ < 0

(4a) y = y*

(5a) p = w – y

Equation 3a says that labor-market contracts between workers and employers result in nominal wage increases that reflect expected inflation (pE) plus an additional increase, or decrease, that reflects the relative bargaining power of the two sides. [6] The curve described by f is the Phillips curve, as originally formulated — a relationship between the unemployment rate and the rate of change of nominal wages. Equation 4a says that labor productivity growth is given exogenously, based on technological change. 5a says that since prices are set as a fixed markup over costs (and since there is only labor and capital in this framework) they increase at the same rate as unit labor costs — the difference between the growth of nominal wages and labor productivity.

It follows from the above that

(6a) w – p = y


(7a) s = 0

Equation 6a says that the growth rate of real wages is just equal to the growth of average labor productivity. This implies 7a — that the labor share remains constant. Again, these are not additional assumptions, they are logical implications from closing the model with 3a-5a.

This closure has a couple other implications. There is a unique level of unemployment U* such that w = y + p; only at this level of unemployment will actual inflation equal expected inflation. Assuming inflation expectations are based on inflation rates realized in the past, any departure from this level of unemployment will cause inflation to rise or fall without limit. This is the familiar non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or NAIRU. [7] Also, an improvement in workers’ bargaining position, reflected in an upward shift of f(U), will do nothing to raise real wages, but will simply lead to higher inflation. Even more: If an inflation-targetting central bank is able to control the level of output, stronger bargaining power for workers will leave them worse off, since unemployment will simply rise enough to keep nominal wage growth in line with y*  and the central bank’s inflation target.

Finally, notice that while we have introduced three new equations, we have also introduced a new variable, pE, so the model is still underdetermined. This is intended. The orthodox view is that the same set of “real“ values is consistent with any constant rate of inflation, whatever that rate happens to be. It follows that a departure of the unemployment rate from U* will cause a permanent change in the inflation rate. It is sometimes suggested, not quite logically, that this is an argument in favor of making price stability the overriding goal of policy. [8]

If you pick up an undergraduate textbook by Carlin and Soskice, Krugman and Wells, or Blanchard, this is the basic structure you find. But there are other possibilities.

Closure 2: Bargaining over the wage share

A second possibility is what Anwar Shaikh calls the “classical” closure. Here we imagine the Phillips curve in terms of the change in the wage share, rather than the change in nominal wages.

(3b) s =  f(U); f’ < 0

(4b) y = y*

(5b) p = p*

Equation 3b says that the wage share rises when unemployment is low, and falls when unemployment is high. In this closure, inflation as well as labor productivity growth are fixed exogenously. So again, we imagine that low unemployment improves the bargaining position of workers relative to employers, and leads to more rapid wage growth. But now there is no assumption that prices will follow suit, so higher nominal wages instead translate into higher real wages and a higher wage share. It follows that:

(6b) w = f(U) + p + y

Or as Shaikh puts it, both productivity growth and inflation act as shift parameters for the nominal-wage Phillips curve. When we look at it this way, it’s no longer clear that there was any breakdown in the relationship during the 1970s.

If we like, we can add an additional equation making the change in unemployment a function of the wage share, writing the change in unemployment as u.

(7b) u = g(s); g’ > 0 or g’ < 0

If unemployment is a positive function of the wage share (because a lower profit share leads to lower investment and thus lower demand), then we have the classic Marxist account of the business cycle, formalized by Goodwin. But of course, we might imagine that demand is “wage-led” rather than “profit-led” and make U a negative function of the wage share — a higher wage share leads to higher consumption, higher demand, higher output and lower unemployment. Since lower unemployment will, according to 3b, lead to a still higher wage share, closing the model this way leads to explosive dynamics — or more reasonably, if we assume that g’ < 0 (or impose other constraints), to two equilibria, one with a high wage share and low unemployment, the other with high unemployment and a low wage share. This is what Marglin and Bhaduri call a “stagnationist” regime.

Let’s move on.

Closure 3: Real wage fixed.

I’ll call this the “Classical II” closure, since it seems to me that the assumption of a fixed “subsistence” wage is used by Ricardo and Malthus and, at times at least, by Marx.

(3c) w – p = 0

(4c) y = y*

(5c) p = p*

Equation 3c says that real wages are constant the change in nominal wages is just equal to the change in the price level. [9] Here again the change in prices and in labor productivity are given from outside. It follows that

(6c) s = -y

Since the real wage is fixed, increases in labor productivity reduce the wage share one for one. Similarly, falls in labor productivity will raise the wage share.

This latter, incidentally, is a feature of the simple Ricardian story about the declining rate of profit. As lower quality land if brought into use, the average productivity of labor falls, but the subsistence wage is unchanged. So the share of output going to labor, as well as to landlords’ rent, rises as the profit share goes to zero.

Closure 4:

(3d) w =  f(U); f’ < 0

(4d) y = y*

(5d) p = p*

This is the same as the second one except that now it is the nominal wage, rather than the wage share, that is set by the bargaining process. We could think of this as the naive model: nominal wages, inflation and productivity are all just whatever they are, without any regular relationships between them. (We could even go one step more naive and just set wages exogenously too.) Real wages then are determined as a residual by nominal wage growth and inflation, and the wage share is determined as a residual by real wage growth and productivity growth. Now, it’s clear that this can’t apply when we are talking about very large changes in prices — real wages can only be eroded by inflation so far.  But it’s equally clear that, for sufficiently small short-run changes, the naive closure may be the best we can do. The fact that real wages are not entirely a passive residual, does not mean they are entirely fixed; presumably there is some domain over which nominal wages are relatively fixed and their “real” purchasing power depends on what happens to the price level.

Closure 5:

One more.

(3e) w =  f(U) + a pE; f’ < 0; 0 < a < 1

(4e) y = b (w – p); 0 < b < 1

(5e) p =  c (w – y); 0 < c < 1

This is more generic. It allows for an increase in nominal wages to be distributed in some proportion between higher inflation, an increase in the wage share,  and faster productivity growth. The last possibility is some version of Verdoorn’s law. The idea that scarce labor, or equivalently rising wages, will lead to faster growth in labor productivity is perfectly admissible in an orthodox framework.  But somehow it doesn’t seem to make it into policy discussions.

In other word, lower unemployment (or a stronger bargaining position for workers more generally) will lead to an increase in the nominal wage. This will in turn increase the wage share, to the extent that it does not induce higher inflation and/or faster productivity growth:

(6e) s = (1  – b – c) w

This closure includes the first two as special cases: closure 1 if we set a = 0, b = 0, and c = 1, closure 2 if we set a = 1, b = 0, and c < 1. It’s worth framing the more general case to think clearly about the intermediate possibilities. In Shaikh’s version of the classical view, tighter labor markets are passed through entirely to a higher labor share. In the conventional view, they are passed through entirely to higher inflation. There is no reason in principle why it can’t be some to each, and some to higher productivity as well. But somehow this general case doesn’t seem to get discussed.

Here is a typical example  of the excluded middle in the conventional wisdom: “economic theory suggests that increases in labor costs in excess of productivity gains should put upward pressure on prices; hence, many models assume that prices are determined as a markup over unit labor costs.” Notice the leap from the claim that higher wages put some pressure on prices, to the claim that wage increases are fully passed through to higher prices. Or in terms of this last framework: theory suggests that b should be greater than zero, so let’s assume b is equal to one. One important consequence is to implicitly exclude the possibility of a change in the wage share.


So what do we get from this?

First, the identity itself. On one level it is obvious. But too many policy discussions — and even scholarship — talk about various forms of the Phillips curve without taking account of the logical relationship between wages, inflation, productivity and factor shares. This is not unique to this case, of course. It seems to me that scrupulous attention to accounting relationships, and to logical consistency in general, is one of the few unambiguous contributions economists make to the larger conversation with historians and other social scientists. [10]

For example: I had some back and forth with Phil Pilkington in comments and on twitter about the Jacobin piece. He made some valid points. But at one point he wrote: “Wages>inflation + productivity = trouble!” Now, wages > inflation + productivity growth just means, an increasing labor share. It’s two ways of saying the same thing. But I’m pretty sure that Phil did not intend to write that an increase in the labor share always means trouble. And if he did seriously mean that, I doubt one reader in a hundred would understand it from what he wrote.

More consequentially, austerity and liberalization are often justified by the need to prevent “real unit labor costs” from rising. What’s not obvious is that “real unit labor costs” is simply another word for the labor share. Since by definition the change real unit labor costs is just the change in nominal wages less sum of inflation and productivity growth. Felipe and Kumar make exactly this point in their critique of the use of unit labor costs as a measure of competitiveness in Europe: “unit labor costs calculated with aggregate data are no more than the economy’s labor share in total output multiplied by the price level.” As they note, one could just as well compute “unit capital costs,” whose movements would be just the opposite. But no one ever does, instead they pretend that a measure of distribution is a measure of technical efficiency.

Second, the various closures. To me the question of which behavioral relations we combine the identity with — that is, which closure we use — is not about which one is true, or best in any absolute sense. It’s about the various domains in which each applies. Probably there are periods, places, timeframes or policy contexts in which each of the five closures gives the best description of the relevant behavioral links. Economists, in my experience, spend more time working out the internal properties of formal systems than exploring rigorously where those systems apply. But a model is only useful insofar as you know where it applies, and where it doesn’t. Or as Keynes put it in a quote I’m fond of, the purpose of economics is “to provide ourselves with an organised and orderly method of thinking out particular problems” (my emphasis); it is “a way of thinking … in terms of models joined to the art of choosing models which are relevant to the contemporary world.” Or in the words of Trygve Haavelmo, as quoted by Leijonhufvud:

There is no reason why the form of a realistic model (the form of its equations) should be the same under all values of its variables. We must face the fact that the form of the model may have to be regarded as a function of the values of the variables involved. This will usually be the case if the values of some of the variables affect the basic conditions of choice under which the behavior equations in the model are derived.

I might even go a step further. It’s not just that to use a model we need to think carefully about the domain over which it applies. It may even be that the boundaries of its domain are the most interesting thing about it. As economists, we’re used to thinking of models “from the inside” — taking the formal relationships as given and then asking what the world looks like when those relationships hold. But we should also think about them “from the outside,” because the boundaries within which those relationships hold are also part of the reality we want to understand. [11] You might think about it like laying a flat map over some curved surface. Within a given region, the curvature won’t matter, the flat map will work fine. But at some point, the divergence between trajectories in our hypothetical plane and on the actual surface will get too large to ignore. So we will want to have a variety of maps available, each of which minimizes distortions in the particular area we are traveling through — that’s Keynes’ and Haavelmo’s point. But even more than that, the points at which the map becomes unusable, are precisely how we learn about the curvature of the underlying territory.

Some good examples of this way of thinking are found in the work of Lance Taylor, which often situates a variety of model closures in various particular historical contexts. I think this kind of thinking was also very common in an older generation of development economists. A central theme of Arthur Lewis’ work, for example, could be thought of in terms of poor-country labor markets that look  like what I’ve called Closure 3 and rich-country labor markets that look like Closure 5. And of course, what’s most interesting is not the behavior of these two systems in isolation, but the way the boundary between them gets established and maintained.

To put it another way: Dialectics, which is to say science, is a process of moving between the concrete and the abstract — from specific cases to general rules, and from general rules to specific cases. As economists, we are used to grounding concrete in the abstract — to treating things that happen at particular times and places as instances of a universal law. The statement of the law is the goal, the stopping point. But we can equally well ground the abstract in the concrete — treat a general rule as a phenomenon of a particular time and place.




[1] In graduate school you then learn to forget about the existence of businesses and investment, and instead explain the effect of interest rates on current spending by a change in the optimal intertemporal path of consumption by a representative household, as described by an Euler equation. This device keeps academic macroeconomics safely quarantined from contact with discussion of real economies.

[2] In the US, Okun’s law looks something like Delta-U = 0.5(2.5 – g), where Delta-U is the change in the unemployment rate and g is inflation-adjusted growth in GDP. These parameters vary across countries but seem to be quite stable over time. In my opinion this is one of the more interesting empirical regularities in macroeconomics. I’ve blogged about it a bit in the past  and perhaps will write more in the future.

[3] To see why this must be true, write L for total employment, Z for the level of nominal GDP, Y for per-capita GDP, W for the average wage, and P for the price level. The labor share S is by definition equal to total wages divided by GDP:

S = WL / Z

Real output per worker is given by

Y = (Z/P) / L

Now combine the equations and we get W = P Y S. This is in levels, not changes. But recall that small percentage changes can be approximated by log differences. And if we take the log of both sides, writing the log of each variable in lowercase, we get w = y + p + s. For the kinds of changes we observe in these variables, the approximation will be very close.

[4] I won’t keep putting “real” in quotes. But it’s important not to uncritically accept the dominant view that nominal quantities like wages are simply reflections of underlying non-monetary magnitudes. In fact the use of “real” in this way is deeply ideological.

[5] A discovery that seems to get made over and over again, is that since an identity is true by definition, nothing needs to adjust to maintain its equality. But it certainly does not follow, as people sometimes claim, that this means you cannot use accounting identities to reason about macroeconomic outcomes. The point is that we are always using the identities along with some other — implicit or explicit — claims about the choices made by economic units.

[6] Note that it’s not necessary to use a labor supply curve here, or to make any assumption about the relationship between wages and marginal product.

[7] Often confused with Milton Friedman’s natural rate of unemployment. But in fact the concepts are completely different. In Friedman’s version, causality runs the other way, from the inflation rate to the unemployment rate. When realized inflation is different from expected inflation, in Friedman’s story, workers are deceived about the real wage they are being offered and so supply the “wrong” amount of labor.

[8] Why a permanently rising price level is inconsequential but a permanently rising inflation rate is catastrophic, is never explained. Why are real outcomes invariant to the first derivative of the price level, but not to the second derivative? We’re never told — it’s an article of faith that money is neutral and super-neutral but not super-super-neutral. And even if one accepts this, it’s not clear why we should pick a target of 2%, or any specific number. It would seem more natural to think inflation should follow a random walk, with the central bank holding it at its current level, whatever that is.

[9] We could instead use w – p = r*, with an exogenously given rate of increase in real wages. The logic would be the same. But it seems simpler and more true to the classics to use the form in 3c. And there do seem to be domains over which constant real wages are a reasonable assumption.

[10] I was just starting grad school when I read Robert Brenner’s long article on the global economy, and one of the things that jumped out at me was that he discussed the markup and the wage share as if they were two independent variables, when of course they are just two ways of describing the same thing. Using s still as the wage share, and m as the average markup of prices over wages, s = 1 / (1 + m). This is true by definition (unless there are shares other than wages or profits, but none such figure in Brenner’s analysis). The markup may reflect the degree of monopoly power in product markets while the labor share may reflect bargaining power within the firm, but these are two different explanations of the same concrete phenomenon. I like to think that this is a mistake an economist wouldn’t make.

[11] The Shaikh piece mentioned above is very good. I should add, though, the last time I spoke to Anwar, he criticized me for “talking so much about the things that have changed, rather than the things that have not” — that is, for focusing so much on capitalism’s concrete history rather than its abstract logic. This is certainly a difference between Shaikh’s brand of Marxism and whatever it is I do. But I’d like to think that both approaches are called for.


EDIT: As several people pointed out, some of the equations were referred to by the wrong numbers. Also, Equation 5a and 5e had inflation-expectation terms in them that didn’t belong. Fixed.

EDIT 2: I referred to an older generation of development economics, but I think this awareness that the territory requires various different maps, is still more common in development than in most other fields. I haven’t read Dani Rodrik’s new book, but based on reviews it sounds like it puts forward a pretty similar view of economics methodology.

12 thoughts on “Varieties of the Phillips Curve”

  1. This was very enlightening, thanks! I’m just confused by note 6. Surely a positive relationship between the “real” wage and labour supply (I.e a labour supply curve) is implicit? I guess I just haven’t picked up the distinction you’re making there. But that’s a minor point.

      1. I was thinking more of what drives the change in bargaining strength of labour, not of some equilibrium wage setting mechanism. But on reflection you are right; no particular labour supply curve is actually implied.

      2. Agreed. I was thinking more of what drives the change in bargaining strength of labour, not of some equilibrium wage setting mechanism. But on reflection you are right; no particular labour supply curve is actually implied.

  2. Minor comment on footnote 8:

    You are right, of course. But I think most economists, like me, say that superneutrality implies that any inflation target is as good (or bad) as any other. And we then ask why superneutrality might be false, and go through the standard list: shoeleather; menu costs & relative price distortions; yardsticks and confused (professional and amateur) accountants; ZLB on nominal interest rates and wage changes; non-indexed tax systems; others I might have forgotten.

    I can’t see any benefits from starting from your first identity. Why??

    1. I can’t see any benefits from starting from your first identity. Why?

      Well, I try to answer this in the post.

      I would say the benefits are: to make clear the relationship between the “short run” questions of nominal wage growth and inflation and the “long run” questions of factor shares and productivity growth. To be able to discuss a variety of ways of thinking about the links between these variables in a consistent way. And to see that the orthodox case, in which monetary policy affects only nominal variables, is a special case of a more general framework. It’s important to see that in any setting in which changes in nominal wages are not passed through to prices one for one, a monetary policy will have distributional consequences.

      Can you explain more why those don’t seem like useful benefits to you? (I realize it’s not easy to explain why something is pointless.)

      More broadly, this is part of my idea that we should formalize macroeconomics by considering various possible systematic relationships between aggregate variables, rather than starting from a simplified market setting. I guess this is “structuralism,” I don’t know.

  3. Nice post, but I’m a little unclear on the interaction here between absolute levels and rates of change. Looking at your closure 1, are we saying that the actual level of the real wage does not figure in 3a? So if, for example, workers underestimate inflation and end up with real wages less than they expected, do they adjust downwards their target for future real wages? Likewise with 5a, do firms ignore actual profitability when price setting? Do they not mind making a loss, as long as it’s the same loss they made previously?

    1. Yikes, the pE in equation 5e should not be there. The inflation expectations of firms don’t matter if their prices are just set as a markup over their costs. Corrected!

      On the larger issue, I should have been clearer. All the equations are in terms of rates of change.

      This is standard textbook stuff, it is not something I came up with. In the textbook setting this isn’t really an issue because we (usually implicitly) assume that errors are mean zero over time.

      In terms of how to interpret it, I think it’s best not to frame the question in terms of representative agents, but just think of the behavior of the system as a whole. But in general, yes, I think it is very reasonable to suppose that wage setting takes past values of wages and prices as a starting point. Certainly at the level of individuals there is pretty overwhelming evidence that wage differences due to demand conditions (e.g. graduating in a period of high unemployment) are persistent.

      There is a deeper question here about when we want to use static models, and when we want to use dynamic ones. One of the big things I take from Leijonhufvud is that the stability of market processes depends on expectations NOT being adjusted in response to realized outcomes. For example, the multiplier effect will only exist (or at least will be much stronger) if people treat their current income as highly informative about their future income. But that’s beyond what I’m trying to talk about here.

      1. And yes, in a system written only in terms of changes, the levels of the variables in general will follow a random walk. This may or may not be acceptable, depending on the domain. It’s obviously not the case in the real world that persistently high or low unemployment will cause the wage share to fall or rise without limit. But if the changes we do see are sufficiently persistent, the random-walk assumption may be acceptable in practice. This is a case in point. The idea that we can use a single framework to talk about nominal wages, unemployment and inflation, on the one hand, and productivity and factor shares, on the other, is appealing precisely because “the great disinflation” has been accompanied by a persistent downward drift in the wage share.

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