The UK’s pay squeeze – no end in sight?

workersSince the Great Recession, and among the world’s richest economies, pay growth in the UK has been historically weak. The Economist magazine reported on 20th April that the pay squeeze in the UK has eased during the last year or two, but is by no means over.

Nominal wages are now growing at around 3.5% year, while real wages (adjusted for inflation) are growing at 1.5%. In a way, this slight improvement is to be expected, with employment at a high level and unemployment relatively low, creating a tightening labour market, and shifting bargaining power from employers towards workers.

Another piece of good news is that more of the jobs now being created have higher pay. To put it another way, the composition of the workforce is changing. As The Economist put it, “strawberry-pickers have made way for stock-pickers”. Continue reading

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Modern Monetary Theory and disguised unemployment

Thomas Palley, a post-Keynesian economist, here provides a critique of recent policy proposals by US Democratic politicians employing some ideas from Modern Monetary Theory. They variously want to fund programmes such as universal healthcare and a ‘Green New Deal’, financed to a large degree by increased government borrowing.

MMT, as a set of ideas, is an offshoot of post-Keynesianism, but is perhaps more straightforward to grasp when it comes to budget deficits and its opposition to austerity; hence its current popular appeal. Continue reading

Inequality in the OECD: causes and policy responses

Inequality has become a ‘big’ topic in recent years, of concern both to economists and the public at large. This is exemplified by the popularity of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and many other works. I have written on some of these studies here.

They continue to be churned out: in the July issue of the heterodox Cambridge Journal of Economics, Pasquale Tridico of Roma Tre University analyses the determinants of income inequality in 25 OECD countries between 1990 and 2013. He finds that ‘financialisation’, increased labour market flexibility, the declining influence of trade unions and welfare state retrenchment have been key to its rise.

When other factors such as economic growth, technological change, globalization and unemployment are taken into account, the above four causes remain important, and, to the extent that they can be changed as a matter of policy, they can mitigate inequality without harming economic growth. They are therefore not the full story but, for example, the negative effects of rising unemployment on inequality can be reduced if there is a strong social safety net in place. Continue reading

The need for the mixed economy

“The mixed economy is a social institution, a human solution to human problems. Private capitalism and public coercion each predated modern prosperity. Governments were involved in the market long before the mixed economy. What made the difference was the marriage of large-scale profit-seeking activity, active democratic governance, and a deepened understanding of how markets work (and where they work poorly). As in any marriage, the exact terms of the relationship changed over time. In an evolving world, social institutions need to adapt if they are to continue to serve their basic functions. Money, for example, is still doing what it has always done: provide a common metric, store value, facilitate exchange. But it’s now paper or plastic rather than metal, and more likely to pass from computer to computer than hand to hand. Similarly, the mixed economy is defined not by the specific forms it has taken but by the specific functions it has served: to overcome the failures of the market and to translate economic growth into broad advances in human well-being – from better health and education to greater knowledge and opportunity.”

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (2016), American Amnesia: How the War on Government led us to Forget What Made America Prosper, p.7

Wages and technological progress – a walk on the demand-side

What is the link, if any, between wages and technological progress in a capitalist economy? An article in this week’s The Economist magazine sheds some light on the issue. In particular, it considers the apparently lesser-studied effect that wages might have on productivity growth.

The reverse relationship, that productivity growth allows growth in wages, is studied more often. This has certain implications for economic policy. Boosting the supply-side determinants of innovation, such as education, and research and development, become important.

But what of the demand-side? The article mentioned above describes how some economic historians are engaged in a debate over the “high-wage hypothesis” put forward by Robert Allen, which he suggests helped drive industrialisation in Britain. Continue reading

Perspectives on the UK’s productivity problem: the end of the puzzle?

workersThe UK’s productivity problem continues. Output per worker has barely grown since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008. Why is this a problem? Because if we want rising living standards, we must have rising productivity over time.

In theory, rising productivity in our economy gives us choices between increased income and increased leisure time. We can choose on a spectrum between more income for the same hours worked and the same income for fewer hours worked, in other words, more leisure time. Depending on how we in society value work and leisure, increased productivity should make possible increases in human welfare.

Today, output per hour worked in the US is at a similar level to that in France and Germany. However, total hours worked per head in the US have tended to outstrip those in the latter two countries, meaning that output per head remains higher there.

Americans are on average richer (although greater inequality means that many of them are not), but they achieve these greater riches by working longer, while their French and German counterparts have more leisure time, including a shorter working day and longer holidays. This is down to collective economic and social choices, although these are also necessarily political in nature, and far away from simple choices freely made by individuals, as some might choose to believe. Continue reading

Adam Smith, profits and civilisation – a brief intro

Another brief video from the School of Life Political Theory series, this time on Adam Smith, widely thought of as the founder of modern economics. Smith is included in the school of classical political economy, employing an interdisciplinary analysis, and focusing on class and the role of government among other elements of the emerging industrial economy.

Nowadays he is often co-opted by the right in order to make the case for free markets and individualism as the source of wealth creation.

Interestingly, the video does not mention either. It does focus on another important idea, that of specialisation in production, also known as the increasing division of labour. On the one hand, this is a source of growth in productivity and wealth, but also leads to reduced meaning in the lives of ordinary workers.

Smith’s two most famous works are The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The latter is often neglected in discussions of Smith, but it made the case for man as a complex social being as much as one interested in personal gain. A clear idea of both sides of humanity are required in considerations of how to achieve the greater good.

The video seems to leave a great deal out, particularly in terms of economics, but also includes political and philosophical ideas that I had not really considered, so it is worth taking a few minutes to watch.