Maybe Keynes was right after all?


It has to be said that we're not great fans of macroeconomics around here. Not enough good data from enough different places to definitively answer most questions: and that's before we get onto Hayek's point about simply not being able to calculate the economy without using the economy itself to do so. However, this makes us think that Keynes might well have been right on one point: It took far too long but Britain’s traumatic national pay cut is coming to an end. Even on the somewhat crude median earnings measure, pay is finally going up again, even after accounting for the effects of price rises. Wages are rising a little faster and inflation has collapsed, a golden combination for employees across the country.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution and the spread of capitalism, gradually rising wages have been the norm, apart from in wartime and during brief periods of extreme economic dislocation. The fact that this process went into partial reverse over the past few years despite the recovery came as a shock and helped to explain why so many people began to fall out of love with capitalism. It is therefore excellent news that normality is finally re-establishing itself.

One view of unemployment is simply that it happens when labour is more expensive than people are willing to pay for it. That's obvious in that one sense of course. The question becomes then well, how quickly will the repricing happen if we do ever get to that stage? There are those who insist that it happens immediately and thus unemployment and recessions cannot happen. Not an entirely convincing view. There are also those who insist that it can take forever and this justifies all sorts of interventions. And then we've got the evidence of the past few years.

It could be argued that labour in the UK did become too expensive. We had just had the largest and longest peacetime expansion of the economy after all. So, a repricing was necessary. And this is where Keynes could be said to be correct. It takes time because nominal wages are sticky downwards. People really, really, don't like lower numbers on their paycheques. They'll grumble about their real wages falling if it's disguised with a little bit of inflation but they'll riot if the equivalent fall were at a steady price level.

We don't say that the past few years prove it: only that what evidence we have is consistent with this explanation. And, given the paucity of our evidence base, that's probably the best we can do.