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

Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.