The Treasury has a point on living standards — but it ignores the role of inequality

Inequality is a more important explanation than rising employer costs for why the wages of the typical worker have fallen behind GDP.

One of the big surprises in today’s Autumn Statement lies in the new OBR projections. Growth has been revised up as expected—at least in the short-term. But wage forecasts are down. Amazingly, after today’s largely positive economic news, the squeeze on wages is now going to be even longer than the OBR thought in March. The updates reflect the OBR’s revised view that the crisis has caused a larger and more permanent hit to productivity than previously thought. They will also add momentum to a debate that was already gaining pace before today’s announcement: is the link between economic growth and wage growth weakening? And how soon will a recovery bring an end to the squeeze?

Earlier this week, the Treasury entered this debate by briefing its own new analysis of how the link between economic growth and living standards has changed over the longer term. Their top-line message was clear: there’s been no fundamental shift in the relationship between growth and pay. Instead, wages have simply been squeezed by rising employer costs — both pension contributions and, more pointedly, the increases in employer National Insurance introduced under Labour. But how adequate an explanation do employer costs really provide for the changing link between GDP and pay?

We can answer this by looking at a report written for the Resolution Foundation by Professor John van Reenen and Joao Paulo Pessoa. Although the paper is referenced in HMT’s briefing, they have not gone as far as replicating the wider analysis the paper covered.

In the fuller analysis we see that there are three potential culprits for why the link between GDP growth and wage growth has weakened over time. First there’s the question of whether the share of national income going into workers’ compensation has been falling, and the share going to profits rising. If so, the compensation workers receive will have lagged growth in GDP. Second, there’s the fact that not all compensation goes into wages—some goes into pension contributions and some goes into employer National Insurance. This is HMT’s focus. Third, there’s the fact that wages are not distributed evenly across the economy. If those at the top get a growing share of wages over time, wages for typical workers in the middle— at the median —are likely to lag behind.

So here, in three simple charts, is the story of how much each of these things have mattered in the last 30 years.Chart 1 shows how trends in GDP compare to trends in average worker compensation since 1972. If the share of national income going to labour was falling, we’d see a growing gap between the two. We don’t see much of this. At the start of the crisis in 2008, overall compensation had only fallen slightly behind GDP. This suggests that changes in the share of GDP going to labour don’t account for much of what’s going on.

Chart 1: The role of a falling labour share—GDP and average total compensation

What about the non-wage costs that the Treasury focuses on? Chart 2 shows that a gap has indeed opened up between a measure of average compensation, which includes these costs, and average wages, which doesn’t. This confirms HMT's basic claim that non-wage employer costs have risen, squeezing the amount left over for pay. Not all of this change is about employer NICs —rising pension contributions have played a bigger role. This is of course no bad thing in itself, although its generational implications are harsh for the young people taking a hit to their pay to fill historic pension fund deficits. Either way, the trade-off between these costs and wages is clear.

Chart 2: The role of employer costs — average total compensation and average wages

That leaves the question of how wages are distributed by the labour market. Chart 3 shows how trends in median wages—the pay of the worker in the middle of the distribution—compare to trends in average (mean) wages, which also capture growth in wages at the very top. The gap between the two shows the extent to which inequality accounts for the typical worker falling behind economic growth. As we can see, this gap is the biggest of the three. Inequality is a more important explanation than rising employer costs for why the wages of the typical worker have fallen behind GDP.

Chart 3: The role of inequality—mean wages and median wages

What should we make of all this? There’s no disguising the fact that it makes for a lousy whodunit; no single factor is to blame. And of course today’s new OBR forecasts for wages owe as much to the unusual dynamics of our post-crisis labour market as they do to the longer-term story we see in these charts.

But the findings also show how much we need a more serious, less partisan debate about these fundamental changes in how our economy works. There will be those on both sides of the political aisle that don’t much like the implication of these findings. For some on the left, it is appealing to turn to a falling labour share as an explanation for wages falling behind. They see the owners of capital hoarding ever more profits, squeezing out workers. But in 2008, such changes only accounted for around a fifth of the gap that had opened up between GDP and median pay since 1972. On the other hand, non-wage costs accounted for more than a quarter (27 per cent). That means accepting the basic truth in the Treasury account: rising employer costs put pressure on pay.

But we also need to challenge the temptation, more common on the right, to say that high or rising employer costs are a simple cause of the weakening link between growth and wages. This is inexcusably partial. Inequality accounted more than half (53 per cent) of the gap that had opened up between GDP growth and median wage growth from 1972 to 2008. Yet inequality has so far been missing entirely from government briefing on this issue. If there are still those who think high levels of inequality aren’t relevant to the living standards of ordinary workers, they too need to wake up.

A block of flats is seen on January 2, 2012 in Bath, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Plunkett is director of policy and development at the Resolution Foundation

Getty
Show Hide image

Gender pay gap: women do not choose to be paid less than men

Care work isn’t going anywhere – and it’s about time we recognised which half of the population is doing it, unpaid.

Is it just me, or does Mansplain The Pay Gap Day get earlier every year? It’s not even November and already men up and down the land are hard at work responding to the latest so-called “research” suggesting that women suffer discrimination when it comes to promotions and pay. 

Poor men. It must be a thankless task, having to do this year in, year out, while women continue to feel hard done to on the basis of entirely misleading statistics. Yes, women may earn an average of 18 per cent less than men. Yes, male managers may be 40 per cent more likely than female managers to be promoted. Yes, the difference in earnings between men and women may balloon once children are born. But let’s be honest, this isn’t about discrimination. It’s all about choice.

Listen, for instance, to Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs:

“When people make the decision to go part time, either for familial reasons or to gain a better work-life balance, this can impact further career opportunities but it is a choice made by the individual - men and women alike.”

Women can hardly expect to be earning the same as men if we’re not putting in the same number of hours, can we? As Tory MP Philip Davies has said: “feminist zealots really do want women to have their cake and eat it.” Since we’re far more likely than men to work part-time and/or to take time off to care for others, it makes perfect sense for us to be earning less.

After all, it’s not as though the decisions we make are influenced by anything other than innate individual preferences, arising from deep within our pink, fluffy brains. And it’s not as though the tasks we are doing outside of the traditional workplace have any broader social, cultural or economic value whatsoever.

To listen to the likes of Littlewood and Davies, you’d think that the feminist argument regarding equal pay started and ended with “horrible men are paying us less to do the same jobs because they’re mean”. I mean, I think it’s clear that many of them are doing exactly that, but as others have been saying, repeatedly, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The thing our poor mansplainers tend to miss is that there is a problem in how we are defining work that is economically valuable in the first place. Women will never gain equal pay as long as value is ascribed in accordance with a view of the world which sees men as the default humans.

As Katrine Marçal puts it in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, “in the same way that there is a ‘second sex’, there is a ‘second economy’”:

“The work that is traditionally carried out by men is what counts. It defines the economic world view. Women’s work is ‘the other’. Everything that he doesn’t do but that he is dependent on so he can do what he does.”

By which Marçal means cooking, cleaning, nursing, caring – the domestic tasks which used to be referred to as “housework” before we decided that was sexist. Terms such as “housework” belong to an era when women were forced to do all the domestic tasks by evil men who told them it was their principal role in life. It’s not like that now, at least not as far as our mansplaining economists are concerned. Nowadays when women do all the domestic tasks it’s because they’ve chosen “to gain a better work-life balance.” Honestly. We can’t get enough of those unpaid hours spent in immaculate homes with smiling, clean, obedient children and healthy, Werther’s Original-style elderly relatives. It’s not as though we’re up to our elbows in the same old shit as before. Thanks to the great gods Empowerment and Choice, those turds have been polished out of existence. And it’s not as though reproductive coercion, male violence, class, geographic location, social conditioning or cultural pressures continue to influence our empowered choices in any way whatsoever. We make all our decisions in a vacuum (a Dyson, naturally).

Sadly, I think this is what many men genuinely believe. It’s what they must tell themselves, after all, in order to avoid feeling horribly ashamed at the way in which half the world’s population continues to exploit the bodies and labour of the other half. The gender pay gap is seen as something which has evolved naturally because – as Marçal writes – “the job market is still largely defined by the idea that humans are bodiless, sexless, profit-seeking individuals without family or context”. If women “choose” to behave as though this is not the case, well, that’s their look-out (that the economy as a whole benefits from such behaviour since it means workers/consumers continue to be born and kept alive is just a happy coincidence).

I am not for one moment suggesting that women should therefore be “liberated” to make the same choices as men do. Rather, men should face the same restrictions and be expected to meet the same obligations as women. Care work isn’t going anywhere. There will always be people who are too young, too old or too sick to take care of themselves. Rebranding  this work the “life” side of the great “work-life balance” isn’t fooling anyone.

So I’m sorry, men. Your valiant efforts in mansplaining the gender pay gap have been noted. What a tough job it must be. But next time, why not change a few nappies, wash a few dishes and mop up a few pools of vomit instead? Go on, live a little. You’ve earned it. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.