Is employment all a question of incentives?

9 Mar, 2013 at 09:56 | Posted in Economics | 3 Comments

Yours truly recently had a discussion with a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences that yearly presents the winners of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. What started the discussion was the allegation that the level of employment in the long run is a result of people’s own rational intertemporal choices and that how much people work basically is a question of incentives.

Somehow the argument sounded familiar.

A couple of years ago – in connection with being awarded The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for 2011 – Thomas Sargent, in an interview with Swedish Television, declared that workers ought to be prepared for having low unemployment compensations in order to get the right incentives to search for jobs.

This old mercantilist idea has very little support in research, since it has turned out to be exceedingly difficult to really get clear cut results of causality on the issue. However, the Swedish right-wing finance minister – Anders Borg – appreciated Sargent’s statement and declared it to be a “healthy warning” for those who wanted to increase compensation levels.

Sargent’s and Borg’s view is symptomatic. As in the 1920s, more and more right-wing politicians – and some economists – now suggest that lowering wages is the right medicine to strengthen the competitiveness of their faltering economies, get the economy going, increase employment and create growth that will get rid of the towering debts and create balance in the state budgets.

But, intimating that one could solve economic problems by impairing unemployment compensations and wage cuts, in these dire times, should really be taken more as a sign of how low the confidence in our economic system has sunk. Wage cuts and lower unemployment compensation levels – of course – do not save neither competitiveness, nor jobs.

What is needed more than anything else in these times is stimulus and economic policies that increase effective demand.

On a societal level wage cuts only increase the risk of more people getting unemployed. To think that that one can solve economic crisis in this way is a turning back to those faulty economic theories and policies that John Maynard Keynes conlusively showed to be wrong already in the 1930s. It was theories and policies that made millions of people all over the world unemployed.

It’s an atomistic fallacy to think that a policy of general wage cuts would strengthen the economy. On the contrary. The aggregate effects of wage cuts would, as shown by Keynes, be catastrophical. They would start a cumulative spiral of lower prices that would make the real debts of individuals and firms increase since the nominal debts wouldn’t be affected by the general price and wage decrease. In an economy that more and more has come to rest on increased debt and borrowing this would be the entrance-gate to a debt deflation crises with decreasing investments and higher unemployment. In short, it would make depression knock on the door.

The impending danger for today’s economies is that they won’t get consumption and investments going. Confidence and effective demand have to be reestablished. The problem of our economies is not on the supply side. Overwhelming evidence shows that the problem today is on the demand side. Demand is – to put it bluntly – simply not sufficient to keep the wheels of the economies turning. To suggest that the solution is lower wages and unemployment compensations is just to write out a prescription for even worse catastrophes.

3 Comments

  1. I suggest Lars has omitted the most fundamental flaw in the idea that wage cuts get us out of recessions: the idea is plain, straightforward mathematical absurdity, and for the following reasons.

    Taking the simple case of a closed economy, citizens’ incomes or wages must in total be equal to what they produce. (I’m including the incomes of entrepreneurs.) The only exception to that “must be equal” rule would occur if citizens voluntarily destroyed what they’d produced, e.g. threw newly produced cars into the sea. A second exception would occur if citizens managed to produce wealth from thin air by magic: e.g. waved magic wands and produced new cars from thin air. (Incidentally, I’m also assuming “all else equal”: in particular that investment as proportion of GDP remains constant. That is, real wages can decline short term relative to GDP if a larger than normal proportion of GDP is allocated to investment.)

    Abandoning the closed economy assumption, the situation for an uncompetitive EZ country is different. Those countries DO NEED to improve their competitiveness, and one way is to cut real wages (and profits).

    As to what unemployment benefits are, relative to the average wage, that again is an entirely different subject.

  2. An essential component of the Keynesian “cure” is to surreptitiously lower real wages without the victims know what hit them. Then there is the problem that the market does not tend toward mass unemployment which is, in fact, caused by the Keynesian “cures” which distort relative prices, among other bad effects.

    Mr. Buckley: Well, how would you account for the almost unanimous opinion of liberal Democrats that in order to reduce unemployment it is necessary for the government to pursue vast spending projects? Since you speak of this as being almost manifestly ill-advised, the question arises why such superstitions should survive?

    Mr. Hayek: Well, it’s almost entirely the work of one man – in a way a genius, Lord Keynes – who is much more concerned about influencing current policies than about advancing the right sort of theories and he was operating then in a very peculiar situation. Now in Great Britain, a successful attempt was made after World War I – which brought a good deal of inflation – to bring prices down to the pre-war level. Prices came down but wages did not, so you had in the 1920s a position in Great Britain where wages were internationally too high and Britain had become noncompetitive on the world market. The problem in Great Britain was to make Britain competitive again and it was clear that this required a reduction of real wages. Notice these real wages had been artificially increased by increasing the value of the pound. So because the pound was par to its former level, people receiving the same wartime salary and wages, or inflated wages, could buy much more. Wages had not come down.

    Now, his first argument was wages must come down. Then he found that was politically impossible, so he must find another way. Instead of getting money wages down, we must depreciate the pound so that given money wages should correspond to a lower level of real wages and then by a curious intellectual somersault I would almost say he led himself to believe that even bringing down money wages was not of any use. It involves a complex economic argument and all he concluded was that – well, we must inflate, in short.

    Now notice several things. Keynes was a genius, but a genius who spent only a fraction of his time on economics – one of the busiest men I ever knew. But he knew very little economics except particularly the Cambridge tradition, and he was much more concerned to influence policy at a particular moment than develop a true theory. In fact, the last time I talked to him was after the war. I knew him very well. When I asked him wasn’t he getting alarmed about what his pupils who swallowed all this theory were doing after the war when the danger was clearly inflation, his answer was:

    “Oh, don’t mind. My theory was frightfully important in the 1930s. Then, we needed an expansion to correct a situation. Do trust me. If this theory becomes dangerous, I’m going to turn public opinion around like this”.

    Six month later, he was dead. And as usual, what happened is that the very doctrine – pupils of this man did apply to completely different situation a theory which was designed to influence policy in a particular situation. The only thing I blamed Keynes for is to making his theory more attractive and effective, he called it THE general theory. In fact, he knew precisely that it was not a general theory, but it was an argument to persuade government in the 1930s to do particular things.

    Mr. Buckley: It was an ad hoc?

    Mr. Hayek: It was entirely ad hoc. He was one of the most fascinating men I knew, but the personal magnetism of this man not only persuaded the younger generation of economists. And if I had been a much younger man and a student, I probably would have been swept off my feet as were most of the people.

    Mr. Buckley: Like Nixon.

    Mr. Hayek: No, no. (laughter).

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