Equal pay for equal work

A recent speech by Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, sheds a good deal of light on the cost of living crisis and the union-led “Britain Needs a Payrise” campaign. Haldane points out how grim the recent situation has been for real wages in the UK economy:

Growth in real wages has been negative for all bar three of the past 74 months. The cumulative fall in real wages since their pre-recession peak is around 10%. As best we can tell, the length and depth of this fall is unprecedented since at least the mid-1800s.

But is this because employers have suddenly become selfish capitalists, whereas before they were paying workers out of the good of their heart? Or is something else at play?

Productivity – GDP per hour worked – was broadly unchanged in the year to 2014 Q2, leaving it around 15% below its pre-crisis trend level. The level of productivity is no higher than it was six years ago. This is the so-called “productivity puzzle”. Productivity has not flat-lined for that long in any period since the 1880s, other than following demobilisation after the World Wars.

We usually think that wages and productivity will be pretty closely related. Employers are unlikely to consistently pay above productivity, because they’d lose money. But equally, they’ll be unable to consistently pay far below productivity (less the share needed to rent the capital involved) because in a reasonably competitive market firms will compete their workers away with more attractive job offers.

We might think this is particularly true at the low wage end of the market, because much less of low-skilled workers productivity is job specific. An accountant makes a very poor lawyer, and a civil engineer is not qualified to write code, but a worker in McDonalds will be similarly good at Burger King, or for that matter Waterstones, JR Wetherspoon, Lidl or most other relatively low-skilled areas.

So basic economic models suggest pay will track productivity. And what do we see on the macro level?

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The deficit in pay tracks the deficit in productivity. Of course, the situation for public sector workers is a bit different—we actually measure their productivity mainly by inputs. If their pay goes up, their measured productivity goes up. It’s hard to see how else we would do it. But the overall picture suggests that the real pay decline is down to a real productivity decline. We haven’t moved away from equal pay for equal work—we’ve just had a big horrible recession and a sluggish recovery!

 

Unsurprising: Migrants give back to new communities (often more so than natives)

Migrants in high-income economies are more inclined to give to charity than native-born citizens, this Gallup poll finds.

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[High-income economies are referred to as "the North"/ middle- to low-income economies are referred to as "the South".]

 

From 2009-2011, 51% of migrants who moved to developed countries from other developed countries said they donated money to charity, whereas only 44% of native-born citizens claimed to donate. Even long-term immigrants (who had been in their country of residence for over five years) gave more money to charity than natives–an estimated 49%.

Even 34% of migrants moving from low-income countries to high-income countries said they gave money to charity in their new community – a lower percentage than long-term migrants and native-born citizens, but still a significant turn-out, given that most of these migrants will not have an immediate opportunity to earn large, disposable incomes. The poll also found that once migrants get settled, their giving only goes up.

Migrants seem to donate their time and money less when moving from one low-income country to another; though as Gallup points out, the traditional definitions of ‘charity’ cannot always be applied to developing countries, where aid and volunteerism often take place outside formal structures and appear as informal arrangements within communities instead.

It’s no surprise either that the Gallup concludes this:

Migrants’ proclivity toward giving back to their communities can benefit their adopted communities. Policymakers would be wise to find out ways to maintain this inclination to give as long as migrants remain in the country.

This is yet another piece of evidence that illustrates the benefits of immigration for society as a whole. (It also highlights the insanity of Cameron’s recent proposal to curb the number of Eurozone migrants coming to the UK). Not only does the UK need more immigrants “to avoid a massive debt crisis by 2050,” but apparently it needs them for a community morale boost as well.

How to fix the Eurozone

It’s rare that an economic question is clear cut. Nearly all issues are two sided, with substantial costs and benefits to all approaches. But the reason the Eurozone crisis has resumed is pretty obvious—’bad’ disinflation and deflation almost universally across the bloc, and a failure of the European Central Bank to provide even the most basic monetary stability. The solution is equally obvious: meet the inflation target and commit to a level target to prevent future cock-ups.

Household, firms and sovereigns take out (nearly all of) their debts in nominal terms, i.e. not adjusted for inflation. They are likely to build in expected inflation. However, if inflation is higher than expected, debtors incomes should rise faster than they expected, while their debt is still fixed, making the burden lighter. Of course, this means creditors receive less than they expected. It’s the same on the other side.

If the central bank promises 2% inflation per year over the next ten years, and the markets believe it, then the yield of a gilt that matures in 10 years will take this into account. This goes (approximately) for all other assets in the economy, like mortgages, consumer credit, business loans and so on. If inflation departs from target it enriches one side at the expense of the other, contrary to what they all could have reasonably expected when they signed these contracts.

There is a complication: there is a difference between the inflation and deflation caused by supply shocks and that caused by demand shocks. When prices rise because everything really has become more costly to produce (a supply shock like an OPEC oil price hike) then this makes debts harder to pay, but worth no more. When prices fall because everything has become cheaper to produce (a supply shock like Chinese labour coming onto the world market) this makes debts easier to pay, but worth no less. But central bank expansions and contractions are demand shocks, not supply shocks.

This means that the national debt will be harder to pay if inflation comes in lower than target for monetary reasons. Inflation has been below the European Central Bank’s target for nearly two years, and is falling further below it. Twelve countries have either zero inflation or deflation. Unless there were massive supply-side improvements across the Eurozone—which we would see in the form of impressive real GDP growth or productivity improvements—this would usually mean that firms will find it hard to make good on their investments, and governments will find their national debts increasingly hard to manage. This is exactly what we are seeing.

As I said above the weird thing about this situation is we actually have an easy-ish solution. Commit to meeting the inflation target, making up the deficit of the past few years and targeting a level path of inflation (or total income) in the future. That means that if the ECB makes a mistake and ‘undershoots’ its target, it doesn’t allow this to distort the economy but does a little extra inflation in the next few months; if the ECB ‘overshoots’ it does a little less. This is not baleful central bank ‘intervention’ or ‘disortion’—the distortion was letting the rules of the game depart so far from those they signed all of their contracts expecting.

The alternative is a ‘lost quarter century’ of stagnation while everyone slowly adjusts to the new monetary arrangements they have been hit with.

George Monbiot doesn’t quite get this competition thing

We’ve George Monbiot telling us all that this market thing, this rampant individualism, means that we all no longer cooperate with each other. Sadly, this shows a terrible misunderstanding of what markets actually are. They are, of course, a method by which humans cooperate with other humans. Competition is simply the method by which we decide who to cooperate with:

Yes, factories have closed, people travel by car instead of buses, use YouTube rather than the cinema. But these shifts alone fail to explain the speed of our social collapse. These structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.

If I grow the pears, you grow the apples, then Bob and Jim make the cider and perry from them, then we sell some and drink the rest, are we competing against each other here? Or are we cooperating over the specialisation and division of labour and then trading in the resultant production? It is the latter of course: competition only comes in when we’re deciding whether it’s you growing the apples for this enterprise or Charlie in the next orchard over. The same with Bob and Jim: there might be competition to see whether it should be Bill and Johnny making that alcoholic nectar, but the end result is still that competition is how we decide who to cooperate with, the actual activities in the market, in the production cycle, being cooperation.

This same is true if it’s Danny in Taiwan making the chips, Yue in China assembling them and Rupert in Cambridge writing the operating system that makes the smartphone work. The market is still the method by which we coordinate cooperation among human beings.

Over and above that misunderstanding there is also this from George:

This is the Age of Loneliness.

Well, yes, intellectual who lives in the depths of rural Wales thinks loneliness is an important phenomenon. There is a reason why the intelligentsia of every society tends to cluster in the cities. We might even identify a little bit of excessive projection from the personal to the general in this screed.

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble

It’s what you know for sure than ain’t so that does. And Mark Twain’s observation has a great deal to tell us about how and why economic policy is so often so bad. For it’s not just the politicians who are deeply misguided as to what the facts of the situation are: we the citizenry can be alarmingly inaccurate in the things we believe about the economy. As Tim Taylor points out:

There’s an old saying often attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan that “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.” In public opinion surveys, of course, people are offered a chance to assert facts that reflect their own frame of mind. For example, Social Security is popular, while foreign aid is not, and therefore people (wishfully) hold the opinion that we must not be spending too much on Social Security, but are spending a lot on foreign aid that could cut with little domestic pain. But it’s obviously tricky to have a productive social discussion about economic issues when there is little agreement on central facts.

Very much the same holds true in the UK: people overestimate the unemployment rate, how much is spent on overseas aid, underestimate how much pensions cost and so on. And then of course there’s the very slightly more tricky things that we should be able to agree upon but generally don’t: a higher minimum wage reduces the number of jobs, rent control is the best way of destroying urban housing short of aerial bombardment and so on. We even have our own version of that Moynihan quote, comment is free but facts are sacred.

Would that public discourse, the setting of public policy, took place within the boundaries of those facts rather than being misinformed by what people are sure is true but just ain’t so.