The low wages fallacy

14 Nov, 2014 at 12:13 | Posted in Economics | Comments Off on The low wages fallacy

A couple of years ago — in connection with being awarded The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel — 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. Still, it’s symptomatic that right-wing politicians and New Classical economists — like Robert Lucas and Thomas Sargent — again and again have been dragging this age-old panancea out of the closet. As their forerunners in the 1920s, they 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.

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