Why don't wages fall?

"Nominal wage rigidity" is one of the bigger gaps in theoretical economics.

One of the longstanding disconnects between empirical and theoretical economics is the fact of "nominal wage rigidity". This is the fact that, no matter what level inflation is, nominal pay cuts are incredibly rare. Most of the time, economics is concerned with "real" price levels – that is, prices taking inflation into account. That idea leads to the idea of "real" pay cuts – when your wage rises slower than inflation.

But while real pay cuts are relatively easy to force on employees, nominal ones – when the actual numerical value of their salary is reduced – are significantly harder.

In graphical form, that phenomenon looks like this, from the San Francisco Fed:


The dashed line represents the distribution on wage changes you would expect to see if the nominal value didn't matter – a lot of businesses cutting wages, and a lot increasing them, with a slight edge to those increasing them – hence the peak of the distribution is slightly to the right of the zero line.

The bars represent the actual wage changes – and that spike at zero is all the people piling up against downward nominal wage rigidity. (If inflation were higher, the peak of the distribution would be further to the right, and that spike would be smaller.)

But why does this happen? The Jacobin's Seth Ackerman, reporting on the downfall of US snack food manufacturer Hostess, quotes Truman Bewley's seminal 1999 book Why Wages Don’t Fall During a Recession. Bewley actually asked employers why they didn't cut wages:

All of the following are quotes from different interviewees: “I have never cut wages.” “I never froze or cut pay, and never will.” “[A pay cut] is out of the realm of consideration.” “Such a thing is just not done.” “I have never cut anyone’s pay.” “I know something real. Never cut wages.” Over and over, the employers talked about disastrous turnover, bad morale, little acts of sabotage that would sap profits and make their lives miserable.

“If I cut pay, people would leave out of rage, even though they have no place to go,” said the owner of a car dealership with 30 employees.

It took a lot of work for Bewley just to find any companies that had cut their workers’ pay. “At the end of most interviews, I asked whether the respondent knew of any firm that had recently cut pay, and few had heard of any,” he wrote. “All but a few accepted wage rigidity as a fact of life.” But after much searching, he did manage to track down 36 businesses that had cut pay in the past half-decade or so, and he was able to gather more detailed information for 16 of them. In 13 of the 16 cases, the pay cuts were 10% or less. Many of the cuts were explicitly temporary. Of the remaining three cases, at least one involved cuts in work hours to make up for the pay cut.

As Ackerman argues in his piece, nominal wage rigidity is a fact of economics, and one that nearly every employer learns to live with, even when times are hard. The argument – much expressed in the case of Hostess, which was forced to close after workers refused to accept a 30 per cent pay cut – that these pay cuts must occasionally be imposed to bring wages to a "competitive" level is thus absurd. The actual way to phrase it would be that the company was uncompetitive. A competitive company doesn't find itself in the position where it needs to push a hail-Mary attempt to desperately reclaim some extra value from its workers even as it knows they are unlikely to relinquish it.

Striking workers on the picket line outside a Hostess distribution centre. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.