Growth in material living standards, which is just one measure of overall (average) prosperity and contestable at that, depends on productivity growth. How national income is distributed, real wages growth in relation to productivity growth, and the employment rates also impact on how this average is reflected in the fortunes of individuals. Strong productivity growth is only a necessary condition for improved material living standards. In this period of fiscal austerity with suppressed overall growth rates and labour market deregulation that undermines working conditions and reduces the incentives to invest in best-practice technology labour productivity is falling – as will living standards in the coming years. The world is locked into an idiotic race-to-the-bottom. It is a curious period really. The hypocrisy of governments, aided and abetted by the right-wing think tanks, who claim they are cutting into public spending to reduce the drain on living standards of our children and grandchildren, is clear to see. What they are really doing is undermining the future prosperity of the next several generations at the same time that they push millions into unemployment and poverty now. Why are we so stupid that we tolerate this nonsense?
Its my Friday lay day but today is going to be anything but. I am in Helsinki at present and it has been a busy few days so far. The concept of Unit Labour Costs (ULCs) is being used by the right-wing government in Finland to bash the population into submission so they can impose the nonsensical austerity. The Finnish government is trying to get rid of some public holidays and reducing wages for sick leave, overtime and working on Sundays. This is the starting point for a broader austerity attack on the public sector and the prosperity of the people. They are calling for a decline in ULCs of at least 5 per cent. The rationale is that with growth flat to negative for five years or so and the massive export surplus they had disappeared the only way to stop unemployment going through the roof is to cut labour costs relative to productivity – that is, cut ULCs. They have been caught up in the ‘dangerous obsession’ that prosperity can only be gained through ‘export competitiveness’ (whatever that actually is) and the domestic economy has to be sacrificed at the net exports altar. International competitiveness is a slippery concept at best but so-called internal devaluation is rarely a successful strategy.
Its my Friday lay day and I am trying to finish one paper that is due and also prepare the presentations that I will be giving in Finland next week. But I was reading a Briefing Paper (No 406) from the US Economic Policy Institute (published September 2, 2015) – Understanding the Historic Divergence Between Productivity and a Typical Worker’s Pay – that resonated with me today. One of the defining characteristics of the neo-liberal era has been the divergence between real wages growth and productivity growth. It has been a deliberately engineered divergence as policy makers have shifted from mediating the distributional struggle between labour and capital to being ‘pro-business’ and introducing a range of initiatives that have allowed capital to gain greater shares of national income and build a booty that has then been pumped into the increasingly deregulated financial markets. Oh, and to allow the bosses and their managers to take out obscenely high salaries and swan around in private jets. The dynamics unleashed by these distributional shifts helped cause the Global Financial Crisis. A sustainable recovery with progressive outcomes (reductions in income inequality etc) will only be possible if Governments abandon the ‘pro-business’ bias and instead introduce policies that ensure real wages grow in line with productivity (along with other changes).
There was a wonderful article – The Origin of Job Structures in the Steel Industry – written by Katherine Stone and published in 1973. It was part of an overall research program that several economists and related disciplines were pursuing as part of the radical economics that was being developed at Harvard and Amherst in the early 1970s. One of the major strands of this research was to understand labour market segmentation and how labour market structure, job hierarchies, wage incentive systems and more are used by the employers (as agents of capital) to maintain control over the workforce and extract as much surplus value (and hopefully profits) as they can. It challenged much of the extant literature which had claimed that factory production and later organisational changes within firms were technology-driven and therefore more efficient. The Harvard radicals found that to be unsustainable given the evidence. They also eschewed the progressive idea that solving poverty was just about eliminating bad, low pay jobs, an idea which had currency in that era. They showed that the bad jobs were functional in terms of the class struggle within capitalism and gave the firms a buffer which allowed them to cope with fluctuating demand for their products. It also allowed them to maintain a relatively stable, high paid segment (primary labour market) which served management and was kept docile via hierarchical incentives etc. I was reminded of this literature when I read a recent paper from Dutch-based researchers on the way firms have evolved in the neo-liberal era of precarious work. Much is made of the supposed efficiency gains of a more flexible labour market. How it spurs innovation and productivity through increased competition and allows firms to be more nimble. The entire ‘structural reforms’ agenda of the IMF, the OECD, the European Commission and many national governments is predicated on these myths. The Dutch research shows the irony of these manic neo-liberals.
With the Chinese yuan now falling and the Australian dollar going with it, domestic inflation pressures will rise in Australia in the coming months. This doesn’t augur well for Australian workers who were told today that wages growth in the last quarter (June) was at the lowest on record. The Australian Bureau of Statistics published the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the June-quarter today and annual private sector wages growth fell to 2.2 per cent (0.5 per cent for the quarter). This is the third consecutive month that the annual growth in wages has recorded its lowest level since the data series began in the December-quarter 1997. In the 2015-16 fiscal statement, the Government assumed wages growth for 2014-15 would be 2.5 per cent rising to 2.75 by 2017. On current trends, that is highly unlikely to occur, which means the forward estimates for taxation revenue are already falling short and the fiscal deficit will be larger than assumed. Depending on how we measure inflation, the annual wages growth translates into a small real wage rise or fall. Either way, real wages are growing well below trend productivity growth and Real Unit Labour Costs (RULC) continue to fall. This means that the gap between real wages growth and productivity growth continues to widen as the wage share in national income falls (and the profit share rises). The flat wages trend is intensifying the pre-crisis dynamics, which saw private sector credit rather than real wages drive growth in consumption spending. The lessons have not been learned.
Its my Friday lay day and I end this week feeling infinitely better (how would I measure that?) than this time last week. The human capacity is pretty phenomenal. This week the Productivity Commission of Australia released its draft report on how to reform the Australian industrial relations system – Workplace Relations Framework (11.7 mbs). The Productivity Commission grew out of the old Tariff Board (then Industries Assistance Commission) and so administered the trade protection policy of the Federal government in the C20th. As ideological preferences changed, it morphed into its current guise, which is to give advice to government on how to deregulate, privatise, outsource and other trash the conditions of workers. As we awaited this current report, the only interesting question was not what they would recommend but what spurious route and flaky evidence they would call upon to attempt to justify their inevitable embrace of more deregulation and wage cutting in the labour market. As it turned out, the Commission disappointed. They couldn’t even find enough flaky evidence to support their conclusions so in the best traditions of the right wing they just offered up the tripe without any coherent argument and then managed to fit all that into a 1001-page tome. I imagine there is low job satisfaction in that part of government having to come up with this sort of nonsense and pretend you do serious work.
Its my Friday lay day blog but no rest for the wicked today. The Fair Work Commission, the Federal body entrusted with the task of determining Australia’s minimum wage handed down its – 2014-15 decision – on June 2, 2014. Here is my annual review of that decision plus some. The decision meant that more than 1.86 million of our lowest paid workers (out of some 11.6 million) received an extra $16.00 per week from July 1. This amounted to an increase of 2.5 per cent (down from last year’s rise of 3 per cent). The Federal Minimum Wage (FMW) is now $656.90 per week or $17.29 per hour. For the low-paid workers in the retail sector, personal care services, hospitality, cleaning services and unskilled labouring sectors there was no cause for celebration. They already earn a pittance and endure poor working conditions. The pay rise will at best maintain the current real minimum wage but denies this cohort access to the fairly robust national productivity growth that has occurred over the last two years. The decision also maintains the gap between the low paid workers and other wage and salary recipients, who themselves are suffering a major wages squeeze as corporate profits rise. The real story though is that today’s minimum wage outcome is another casualty of the fiscal austerity that the Federal Government has imposed on the nation which is destroying jobs and impacting disproportionately on low-paid workers.
One of the on-going themes that emerges from the neo-liberal commentariat is that fiscal deficits undermine the future of our children and their children because of the alleged higher implied tax burdens. The theme is without foundation given that each generation can choose its own tax structure, deficits are never paid back, and public spending can build essential long-lived infrastructure, which provides benefits that span many generations. The provision of a first-class public education system feeding into stable, skilled job structures is the best thing that a government can do for the future generations. Sadly, government policy is undermining the future generations but not in the way the neo-liberals would have us believe. One of my on-going themes is the the impact of entrenched youth unemployment, precarious work and degraded public infrastructure on the well-being and future prospects of society as neo-liberal austerity becomes the norm. This theme was reflected (if unintentionally) in a new report, release last week by the OECD – In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All. The Report brings together a number of research findings and empirical facts that we all knew about but are stark when presented in one document.
The day after the Australian government published their fiscal strategy for 2015-16, which assumes (unrealistically) a significant upstep in economic growth and hence taxation receipts, the Australian Bureau of Statistics published the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the March-quarter today and we learn that the annual growth in wages is now at the lowest level since the data series began in the December-quarter 1997. Last quarter, we learned the same thing. In other words, consecutive quarterly lows have now been set in the Wage Price time series measure. The annual hourly wage inflation is now down to 2.3 per cent overall down from 2.5 per cent in the December-quarter. Private sector wages growth was a miserable 2.2 per cent. In the 2015-16 fiscal statement, the Government had assumed wages growth for 2014-15 would be 2.5 per cent rising to 2.75 by 2017. On current trends, that is highly unlikely to occur, which means the arithmetic surrounding its fiscal outcomes is awry already and the fiscal deficit will be larger than assumed. Overall productivity growth is running around 1.8 to 2.1 per cent (depending how one measures it) and despite the decline in the annual inflation rate in recent quarters as the overall economy slows down (and oil prices fall), Real Unit Labour Costs (RULC) continue to fall. This means that the gap between real wages growth and productivity growth continues to widen as more the wage share in national income falls (and the profit share rises). The flat wages trend will not only blast the forward estimates in the fiscal statement out of the water but the on-going redistribution of national income to profits is intensifying the pre-crisis dynamics, which saw private sector credit rather than real wages drive growth. The lessons have not been learned.
There was an interesting article in the UK Guardian last weekend (March 29, 2015) – Why falling inflation is a false pretext for keeping wages low – which examined wage trends in the UK and the validity of the argument that “Falling inflation now provides employers with a pretext for keeping wage settlements low”. Employer groups never support wage increases and are continually trying to suppress real wages growth below productivity growth so that they can enjoy a greater share of national income. As part of my research to discover the nature of the ideological shift accompanying the emergence of Monetarism as the dominant policy paradigm I have been examining wage distributions. This is part of a book I will complete next year (fingers crossed) on the demise of the political left. In this blog we examine the shifting relationship between labour productivity growth and real wages growth since 1960. The results are illuminating and open up a broad research front about which I will write more as time passes.