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Puzzle: Has real wages growth outstripped productivity growth or not? – Part 2

Inspector Commissionaire Bill is back on the case today for Part 2 and the solution of the puzzle we posed in – Puzzle: Has real wages growth outstripped productivity growth or not? – Part 1 (November 20, 2019). The puzzle was relatively easy to understand. The RBA (Australia’s central bank) published analysis in its most recent – Statement on Monetary Policy (November 2019), which showed that since the early 2000s, real earnings per hour have been above hourly labour productivity. Yet, National accounts data and earnings-productivity data trends that I regularly publish show the opposite. So the puzzle is: How can the RBA say that workers enjoyed real wage increases above labour productivity growth in the early 2000s up to around 2012, when we know the wage share has been falling more or less over the entire period? In Part 1, we laid out the conceptual framework to help us understand what I am writing about today. The resolution is that both sides of the puzzle are correct in their own way. The issue comes down to measurement and this two-part series demonstrates, very powerfully, how perceptions that are shaped by the presentation of data (graph, tables, etc) rarely come to grips with the underlying methods used to construct the presentations. We have all heard the phrase – There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. By becoming more educated about how to use statistics, we can all break that nexus and deploy data more reasonably to advance our cases. That is what this two-part blog series is about.

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Puzzle: Has real wages growth outstripped productivity growth or not? – Part 1

I am currently working through the entire Commissaire Maigret detective series written by Belgian author author Georges Simenon. I read a lot as I travel around and I have 74 (out of 75) Maigret novels to read. But don’t let that fool you, I am already becoming familiar with Maigret’s forensic way of thinking (-:. So for the next two blog posts we will be conducting a forensic examination of data to solve a puzzle that appears to be confusing people. This is the sort of puzzle that people (like me), who are interested in data and have a penchant for spy and detective novels like to investigate. For others though, while the nuances might appear to be rather obscure, the importance of this sort of puzzle cannot be understated. Community perceptions are influenced by what I am talking about today. Policy decisions are taken. Industrial relations strategies are designed, implemented, and, in some cases, fought out with significant consequences. The data I am analysing today and tomorrow can provide information about the state of the economy. It can inform us of the way in which the economic is changing in structure over time. It can provide guidance to fiscal and monetary authorities as to the likely impact of policy changes. So, as you will see, ambiguity is not going to be very helpful. The data I am dealing with in this blog post explores the relationships between nominal wages, prices and productivity in the Australian economy. The principles established, though, apply to all economies. What I will show you is that the choice of how we choose to measure key variables can fundamentally alter the way we think and act. This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Now, if only I had a pipe to light! (Maigret joke for insiders).

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Australia – wages growth continue at record low levels – further evidence of policy failure

Last Wednesday (November 13, 2019), the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released the latest- Wage Price Index, Australia – (September-quarter 2019). Both private and public sector wages growth was just 0.5 per cent in the September-quarter – keeping growth at record lows. Over the year to September 2019, overall wages growth was 2.2 per cent and in decline. With the annual inflation rate running at 1.7 per cent, workers were able to enjoy some real wages growth. However, over the longer period, real wages growth is still running well behind the growth in GDP per hour (productivity), which has allowed profits to secure a substantially increased share of national income. And, as the federal government continues to sabotage the economy as a consequence of its obsession with recording a fiscal surplus, the moderating wages growth will likely undermine it planning targets. In the last fiscal statement, the government was forecasting annual wages growth would be 2.75 per cent rising to 3.25 per cent. At the current rate, nominal wages will be lucky to top 2 per cent in 2019-20, which means the tax revenue estimates in the fiscal plans are likely to be over-stated. And, if the mainstream narrative was remotely correct, why is employment growth flatlining when wages growth is at record lows?

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The obesity epidemic – massive daily losses incurred while the policy response is insufficient

The Brexit issue in Britain has been marked by many different estimates of GDP (income) loss arising from different configurations of the Brexit. The media is flush with lurid headlines about the catastrophe awaiting Britain. As regular readers will appreciate, I am not convinced by any of those predictions. But as I said the day after the Referendum in this blog post – Why the Leave victory is a great outcome (June 27, 2016) – that when I tweeted it was a ‘great outcome’ I didn’t say that good would come out of it. I also didn’t suggest that it would be a short-term recovery of prosperity or that the workers would benefit. I was referring to the fact that class struggle now has a clearer focus within the British political debate. There is now a dynamic for a truly progressive leadership to emerge and bring the disenfranchised along with them and wipe out the neo-liberal hydra once and for all.” I think that is lost in this debate. When the British Labour Party claim the latest agreement will irrevocably damage workers’ rights or environmental protections they seem to be implying that they will never be in power again. No legislation or regulation is irrevocable in a democracy. But being part of the EU will always tie a nation to the EU’s rules which usurp any national interests. That is why I maintain strong support for the concept of Brexit. But amidst all these predictions of gloom and doom, I was listening to the radio last week and heard some statistics that are truly alarming. The on-going GDP losses from the obesity epidemic in the UK, which will increase over time rather significantly, are significant when compared to the estimates of GDP loss arising from Brexit. I wonder why that fact isn’t part of the daily narratives coming out from the Remain crowd to justify their view that the 2016 Referendum result should be disregarded so they can have another go at getting their own way!

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Governments can always create jobs if they choose

Last week, I posted a graph in this blog post – RBA cuts rates as a futile exercise as Dr Schwarze Null demands fiscal action (October 2, 2019) that showed that over the 12 months to August 2019, 312 thousand jobs have been created (net) in Australia. The stunning result is that 301 thousand (96.5 per cent) of those net jobs have been in the public sector. The private labour market is thus stagnating. I was interested to delve further into that result to see if I could bring more detail to bear. That is what this blog post is about. A data exercise to enrich our understanding and knowledge.

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The Green New Deal must wipe out precarious work and underemployment

I was coming through the streets of inner Melbourne the other night after playing in my band. I couldn’t believe how many little scooters with those big boxes on the back were buzzing around, in and out of traffic, turning here and there, presumably, delivering food to people who preferred to stay in from the cold weather. I had sort of noticed these ad hoc cavalcades of cheap scooters before but never really assessed the extent of the proliferation. It represents an amazing and highly disturbing trend in our labour market. Okay, that sounds like something someone from another (older) generation might say. He who grew up when there was secure employment and wages and conditions were more tightly regulated. And I have seen Tweets from young people telling us ‘oldies’ to step aside. But what the scooter riders don’t realise is that they will get old themselves one day. And secure, well-paid work coupled with a broad spectrum of high quality public services is what makes that transformation liveable. In mapping out what I think are the essential aspects of a social transformation that we might call a Green New Deal, eliminating precarious work is one of the priorities – it is intrinsic to creating a more equitable society in harmony with nature. This aspect also calls in question the role of a Job Guarantee. Note the capitals – there is only one Job Guarantee but many jobs guarantees. I will explain today why the Job Guarantee will be an intrinsic part of the Green New Deal but by far a minor player in terms of the job opportunities that will be created by the socio-economic shift. Many commentators seem to think the Job Guarantee is sufficient for a Green New Deal. It is not and we need to understand its role in a monetary system to understand why.

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Trade unions have a blueprint from Treasury to increase their industrial disputation

It is Wednesday and I have only a short blog post today as I have had a lot of commitments that stop me from writing. But I did read a recent Australian Treasury paper – Wage Growth in Australia: Lessons from Longitudinal Microdata (July 2019) – which purports to model the reasons why there is wage stagnation in Australia. The results were presented at the Australian Economists Conference earlier this week and set off a storm because it appeared, at first blush, to blame workers lassitude and excessive risk averse attitudes for the lack of wages growth. I read it slightly differently. It tells me that, first, the Treasury is reluctant to acknowledge the legislative attacks on unions’ capacities to gain wage increases that have been characteristic of the neoliberal era; and, second, that the unions might take the message as a call to arms – take the employers on more often through costly industrial action within the tight legal environment that is left to them.

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We are all entrepreneurs now marching towards a precarious and impoverished future

Some years ago, I was a panel speaker at an event in Sydney covering the topic of wage developments. I shared the podium with a young woman who was something like NSW Youth of the Year. It was at a time that employer groups were lobbying the conservative government to abandon penalty rates for workers in low-wage industries (hospitality, tourism, etc) and strip powers from trade unions. I spoke about how that agenda was designed to advance their class interests and fitted squarely with the neoliberal intent to redistribute real income away from workers towards profits. The young woman followed and announced that class was dead and that there was no such thing as a worker anymore – she said “we are all entrepreneurs now!”. Prior to that, as our national government was privatising our public companies such as Qantas and Telstra, our prime minister announced “we are all capitalists now” referring to the idiocy of people buying shares in the companies that we collectively ‘owned’ anyway while they were in public hands. The more recent manifestation of this delusion that class is dead and we are all entrepreneurs is the so-called ‘gig economy’. It seems that we now have millions of people (first young but increasingly older) who think that entrepreneurship is about buying a cheap scooter and tearing around streets delivering pizzas in all weather to earn a few dollars while the companies that ’employ’ them (or rather contract them) walk away with millions. These workers, sorry, entrepreneurs, face a bleak future. When there are no pizzas being ordered they have no shifts. When they are sick they have no pay. When they go on holidays they have no pay. And when they get old they will have no superannuation. Sounds like a plan to make someone rich.

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Australia’s low wage workers lose ground on gaining a ‘living wage’

On Thursday (May 30, 2019), Australia’s wage setting tribunal, the Fair Work Commission handed down its – Decision: Annual wage review – which saw the minimum wage rise by 3 per cent from July 1, 2019. The new minimum wage will be $740.80 per week or $19.49 per hour. Given that the annual inflation rate is running around 1.3 per cent (or thereabouts), the decision means that the real minimum wage is now higher than it was a year ago, which is a good sign. But over the last year, low-paid workers have had to endure cuts in pay rates for work during non-standard hours (so-called penalty rates), which Fair Work Australia made operational on July 1, 2017 and being phased in over a few years, with more pain to come. Given the conservatives won the federal election a few weeks ago, those penalty rate losses will not be restored. So the 3 per cent increase should be seen in that light. Our wage setting tribunal is giving with one hand and taking it back (and then some) with the other. The most sordid aspect of all this is that many employers demanded Fair Work Commission deliver real wage cuts in the annual review.

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Australian workers enjoy modest real wage rises

Last Wednesday (May 15, 2019), the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released the latest- Wage Price Index, Australia – (March-quarter 2019). Private sector wages growth was 0.5 per cent in the March-quarter which remains a very low rate of growth. Over the year to March 2019, overall wages growth was 2.3 per cent and with the annual inflation rate running at 1.3 per cent, workers were able to enjoy some real wages growth. However, over the longer period, real wages growth is still running well behind the growth in labour productivity, which has allowed profits to secure a substantially increased share of national income.

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