Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Wages and productivity

The relationship between productivity and wages has come alive on Twitter. For some strange reason @smalltorquer asked,
But the New Zealand Productivity Commission noted:
When it comes to wages and productivity even Paul Krugman has managed to realise,
Economic history offers no example of a country that experienced long-term productivity growth without a roughly equal rise in real wages. In the 1950s, when European productivity was typically less than half of U.S. productivity, so were European wages; today average compensation measured in dollars is about the same. As Japan climbed the productivity ladder over the past 30 years, its wages also rose, from 10% to 110% of the U.S. level. South Korea's wages have also risen dramatically over time. ("Does Third World Growth Hurt First World Prosperity?" Harvard Business Review 72 n4, July-August 1994: 113-21.)
and Krugman and Obstfeld have written,
As it happens, the past 40 years offer considerable evidence on what happens to the wages of a country whose productivity gains on that of higher-wage nations. Four decades ago, productivity in Europe was well below U.S. levels in most industries, and Japan lagged even further; since then, productivity levels in the advanced world have converged, although most measures still suggest that the United States retains some edge. More recently, a group of "newly industrializing economies" in Asia has achieved spectacular productivity increases starting from a very low base. Given these dramatic changes in relative productivity, what has happened to relative wages?

The answer is that wages have risen in each country, more or less in line with productivity. Table 2-3 shows data on long-run increases in productivity and real wages in several representative countries. Bearing in mind that there are some slippages in the data (for example, there are a number of technical problems in the way that both productivity and real wages are calculated), the basic picture is one in which converging productivity has produced a convergence in wages, just as the theoretical analysis would predict.

Notice that we do not have good data on South Korean wages over the full sample. However, the United States government has been collecting hourly compensation (wages plus benefits) data for the industrial sector of several newly industrializing countries since the mid 1970s. According to these data, South Korean compensation rose from only 5 percent of the U.S. level in 1975 to 46 percent in 1996. An index of compensation in several newly industrializing Asian economies rose from 8 percent of the U.S. level in 1975 to 32 percent by 1996. In short, the experience to date is that wages always do move more or less in line with productivity. (Paul Krugman and Maurice Obstfeld, "International Economics: Theory and Policy", Prentice Hall.)
Following up this, the information below comes from a paper by Martin Feldstein, Professor of Economics, Harvard University and President and CEO of the National Bureau of Economic Research [he has since retied from the NBER post], given to the American Economic Association on January 5, 2008. The paper is entitled "Did Wages Reflect Growth in Productivity?" Feldstein writes,
The level of productivity doubled in the U.S. nonfarm business sector between 1970 and 2006. Wages, or more accurately total compensation per hour, increased at approximately the same annual rate during that period if nominal compensation is adjusted for inflation in the same way as the nominal output measure that is used to calculate productivity.

More specifically, the doubling of productivity represented a 1.9 percent annual rate of increase. Real compensation per hour rose at 1.7 percent per year when nominal compensation is deflated using the same nonfarm business sector output price index.

In the period since 2000, productivity rose much more rapidly (2.9 percent a year) and compensation per hour rose nearly as fast (2.5 percent a year).
and later he says
The relation between wages and productivity is important because it is a key determinant of the standard of living of the employed population as well as of the distribution of income between labor and capital. If wages rise at the same pace as productivity, labor’s share of national income remains essentially unchanged. This paper presents specific evidence that this has happened: the share of national income going to employees is at approximately the same level now as it was in 1970.


John Dickson said...

interesting take:


Paul Walker said...

Chris Dillow always has an interesting Marxist view on things. In this case however Dillow is talking about something different from what I am considering. I'm talking about the effects of productivity on wages on average rather than about a particular individual.

John Small said...

Did you read Ryan Avent's piece in the economist Paul? The one I linked to?

John Small said...

Seriously though Paul, my original question was about the direction of causality. You might like to try arguing that

(a) its impossible for low wages to cause low productivity, or
(b) that might happen but won't in NZ now because...

But quoting other people discussing correlations and NOT causality? So what?