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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On the Folly of Wage Cuts in a Recession

Here are two "blasts from the past" addressing the notion that has surfaced yet again, that wage cuts will cure the unemployment problem:

First "On the Consequences of Nominal Wage Flexibility" from December, 2009:

Gary Becker and others have called for a cut in the minimum wage as part of the solution to the unemployment problem. This group believes that if markets are free to adjust, then they will clear, so any problem with involuntary unemployment must be due to some impediment to full market adjustment. What is the impediment? Becker and others assert that the failure of wages to fall sufficiently fast in recessions is due in part to the presence of the minimum wage, and the wage stickiness creates an excess supply of labor (and hence, unemployment). The recommendation to reduce downward rigidity by cutting the minimum wage follows from this reasoning.

Rajiv Sethi explains why a fall in wages may make things worse rather than better:  

On the Consequences of Nominal Wage Flexibility, by Rajiv Sethi: With the unemployment rate hovering above 10% and likely to stay in this range for some time, there has been a lot of discussion about what (if anything) the government should do to stimulate job creation. Following a link on Greg Mankiw's blog, I came across Gary Becker's view of the matter:
Keynes and many earlier economists emphasized that unemployment rises during recessions because nominal wage rates tend to be inflexible in the downward direction. The natural way that markets usually eliminate insufficient demand for a good or service, such as labor, is for the price of this good or service to fall. A fall in price stimulates demand and reduces supply until they are brought back to rough equality. Downward inflexible wages prevents that from happening quickly when there is insufficient demand for workers.
As one might expect given his diagnosis of the problem, Becker goes on to "fully endorse" a cut in the minimum wage, but does not see this as being politically feasible at present.
I found this post striking for three reasons. First, it expresses a view that is actually quite widely held among economists today, namely that if nominal wages were flexible in the downward direction, involuntary unemployment could not persist for very long. This view is held even by many who would strenuously object on fairness grounds to a cut in the minimum wage. Second, Becker attributes to Keynes an opinion that is precisely the opposite of that expressed in the General Theory. And third, there has been very little serious analysis of the consequences of nominal wage flexibility in an economy with involuntary unemployment. A notable exception is a 1975 paper by James Tobin that has been largely (and unjustly) forgotten. For reasons discussed below, Tobin's analysis does not support Becker's position.
Keynes did indeed assume for the most part that nominal wages were inflexible, but also maintained that wage flexibility would make matters worse rather than better: "it would be much better that wages should be rigidly fixed and deemed incapable of of material changes, than that depressions should be accompanied by a gradual downward tendency of money wages" (p. 265). This is the starting point for Tobin's analysis:
Keynes tried to make a double argument about wage reduction and employment. One was that wage rates were very slow to decline in the face of excess supply. The other was that, even if they declined faster, employment would not - in depression circumstances - increase. As to the second point, he was well aware of the dynamic argument that declining money wage rates are unfavorable to aggregate demand. But perhaps he did not insist upon it strongly enough, for the subsequent theoretical argument focused on the statics of alternative stable wage levels.
To drive this point home, Tobin builds a simple model with three dynamic equations: output adjusts in response to excess demand in the goods market, inflation (relative to expectations) adjusts in response to deviations of output from its full employment level, and expectations of inflation adjust adaptively in response to the difference between actual and expected inflation. So prices (and nominal wages) are fully flexible and there is no limit to how low these can fall if output remains persistently below its full employment level.
An equilibrium of this model is characterized by full employment, steady inflation, and correct expectations. But Tobin is less interested in the equilibrium behavior of the economy than in the dynamic adjustment process from an initial state of disequilibrium. He establishes that even if the equilibrium is locally stable, it need not be globally stable: if, for whatever reason, output drops far enough below its full employment level, then (as in Axel Leijonhufvud's corridor hypothesis) cumulative declines in employment and prices can result.  Instead of improving matters, the downward flexibility of money wages can prolong and deepen an economic contraction.

Tobin's analysis here is methodologically old-fashioned in the sense that no attempt is made to provide microfoundations for the postulated adjustment processes.  But the logic is compelling, and I am certain that with sufficient ingenuity, the argument could be expressed in more modern terms. In any case, it is no less convincing than the partial equilibrium Walrasian analysis of the labor market that has led some to prescribe lower nominal wages as a solution to our current woes.

Update: Paul Krugman follows up in "Wages and recovery."

Second, "Some Further Comments on Nominal Wage Flexibility":

Rajiv Sethi follows up on the post about the folly of reducing the minimum wage to generate jobs:

Some Further Comments on Nominal Wage Flexibiliy, by Rajiv Sethi: Tyler Cowan thinks that we should cut minimum wage, and links to Bryan Caplan for an explanation. And Caplan thinks that it's all quite elementary:
Cutting wages increases the quantity of labor demanded. If labor demand is elastic, total labor income rises as a result of wage cuts. 
Even if labor demand is inelastic, moreover, wage cuts reduce labor income by raising employers' income.  So unless employers are unusually likely to put cash under their mattresses, wage cuts still boost aggregate demand.
Let's take this step by step. First, consider the claim that cutting wages increases the quantity of labor demanded. Through what mechanism does this occur? Consider a firm (McDonald's, say) that can now pay its workers less. It will certainly do so. But will it increase the size of its workforce? Not unless it can sell more burgers and fries. Otherwise its newly expanded workforce will produce a surplus of happy meals that will (unhappily) remain unsold. And this will not only waste the expense of hiring and training new workers, it will also waste significant quantities of meat, potatoes and cooking oil. So the firm will make do with its existing workforce until it sees an uptick in demand. And no cut in the minimum wage will automatically provide such an increase in demand. As a result, the immediate effect of a cut in the minimum wage will be a decline in total labor income.
Employer income, of course, will rise. Some of this will be spent on consumption, but less than would have been spent if the same income had been received by low wage earners. The net effect here is lower aggregate demand. But wait, what will happen to the remainder of the increase in employer income? It will not be placed under mattresses, on this point I agree with Caplan. It will be used to accumulate assets. If these are bonds, then long rates will decline, and this might induce increases in private investment. Then again, it might not, unless firms believe that additions to productive capacity will be utilized. And right now they do not: private investment is not being held down by high rates of interest on long-term debt.
Finally, what if employers use the unspent portion of their augmented income to buy shares? We would have a run up in stock prices not unlike that we have seen in recent months. Note that this would not be a speculative bubble: the higher prices would be warranted given that firms have lower labor costs. But would this asset price appreciation stimulate private investment in capital goods? Again, not unless the additional capacity is expected to be utilized.
Mark Thoma has more on this, as does Paul Krugman. I discussed the opposing views of Becker and Tobin in an earlier post. What I cannot understand is why people of considerable intelligence persist in conducting a partial equilibrium Walrasian analysis of the labor market, as we were dealing with the market for oranges. Please stop it.

    Posted by on Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 11:18 AM in Economics, Unemployment | Permalink  Comments (51)


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