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April 13, 2005

Why Aren't Real Wages Rising?

Matthew Yglesias asks a good question http://yglesias.typepad.com/matthew/2005/04/why_low_wages.html:

Why Low Wages? I'm a little puzzled by Steven Greenhouse's inquiry into the falling wages problem. The bulk of the hypotheses and so forth mooted about seem to suggest that wages are being held down by something or other, with possibilities such as foreign competitition, WalMart's low wages, the possibility of substituting technology for labor, etc. being canvassed. That seems to suggest that, in the past, wages went up when productivity went up because bosses were nice and realized that with productivity on the rise they could afford to raise wages. Now thanks to foreign competition, WalMart, and other low wage sources they "can't afford" pay raises. But that's not how the economy works, now or ever. If productivity is growing much faster than wages, then it should be easy to make a lot of money by hiring new workers.

As people do that, wages should start to go up, until it no longer becomes profitable to add new workers, at which point wages will start levelling off. Wages and productivity can't become de-linked because today's businessmen are greedy or because WalMart is cunning, the link between wages and productivity depends on the fact that businessmen are greedy and cunning. You don't raise wages out of altruism, instead you expand your workforce out of greed, and the expanding workforce pushes wages up. So what's going on nowadays? None of the stuff discussed in the article seems relevant to the issue at hand. Professor DeLong is quoted in the article but doesn't have any further comments. I'd be interested to know.

Well, there are three hypotheses:

  1. Improvements in firms' ability to squash unions, and thus shift wage bargains toward employers (the Wal-Mart hypothesis).
  2. A slack labor market--much more labor-market slack than the level of the unemployment rate would lead one to expect--in which firms find it easy to hire workers and workers find it hazardous to ask for higher wages.
  3. Changes in the international economy that boost the wages of the skilled and educated (whose products can be sold abroad for more) and put downward presure on the wages of the less-skilled and less-educated (who now face much stronger competition from abroad).

I believe that (3) is likely to be a very important factor over the next two generations. But this wage-growth slowdown we have seen since 2000 has hit too rapidly and has been too large to be credibly attributed to "offshoring" or other long-run international factors. (1) is surel a factor, but (1) wouldn't work unless (2) were exerting a powerful downward force on wages. (2) has many causes--a relatively high value of the dollar that switches demand from home to abroad is one of them.

I expect things to turn around as employment expands and as (2) loses its force--unless the Federal Reserve decides that it needs to fight inflation now.

Why hasn't (2) lost its force already? Why, with rapid productivity growth and stagnant wages and cheap money that is easy for firms to borrow, isn't firm demand for workers already through the roof? Well, how much would you like to expand capacity if you knew the country had a large budget deficit, and that either big tax increases or a burst of inflation were likely in the future? When Paul Volcker and Bob Rubin say that a serious financial crisis may well be on the horizon? Wages and productivity can't become de-linked because today's businessmen are greedy or because WalMart is cunning, the link between wages and productivity depends on the fact that businessmen are greedy and cunning. You don't raise wages out of altruism, instead you expand your workforce out of greed, and the expanding workforce pushes wages up.

Posted by DeLong at April 13, 2005 11:46 AM