Monday, June 22, 2020

Wage tribunal saves employers (and us) from their own folly

Sometimes if you really want to help somebody, you do them a favour and don’t do what they ask you to. The employer groups begged the Fair Work Commission not to increase minimum award wages during the recession, but it broke with convention and decided on a rise intended to preserve the real value of award wages.

The unions wanted a 4 per cent rise, the employers wanted none, and the Morrison government didn’t have the courage to say what it wanted (that is, it wanted whatever the employers wanted, but didn’t want to lose workers’ votes by saying so).

So the spin-doctor-renamed industrial relations commission did what came naturally and split the difference at 1.75 per cent (which will amount to a lot more than $13 a week for many of the 2.2 million workers on award wages).

In recessions past, the commission has almost always “deferred” the annual increase – without any catch-up the following year. That is, an unspoken cut in real wages. This time the quarter of award workers in (mainly public-sector) industries whose job numbers have been least affected by the lockdown will get their rise as usual on July 1.

The 40 per cent of award workers in only moderately affected industries (including construction and manufacturing) will have to wait four months until November 1, with award workers in badly affected service industries (accommodation, arts and recreation, aviation, retail and tourism) waiting seven months until February 1.

In other words, a carefully calibrated compromise that – despite the anguished posturing with which industrial relations abounds – won’t annoy any of the parties. Both the unions and the employer groups will assure their members they’ve had a qualified win.

Even so, any kind of pay rise during what will be the deepest contraction since the 1930s is something for the history books. It’s happened partly because of the unique circumstances surrounding this recession and partly because the economics profession is in the middle of slowly turning its conventional wisdom on minimum wage rates on its head.

You can see that in the results of the Economic Society of Australia’s recent poll of 42 academic and business economists, asking whether they agreed that “a freeze in the minimum wage will support Australia’s economic recovery”.

On past performance, you could have expected overwhelming support for that statement of economic orthodoxy. Instead, two respondents were undecided and, of the rest, only 21 agreed while 19 disagreed.

This question has a long history in economics. After the severe recession of the mid-1970s and the steady rise in unemployment that followed, there was a long debate between economists over the rival theories of the causes of – and thus cures for – unemployment.

Neo-classical economists argued that real wage increases far in excess of the improvement in the productivity of labour had raised the price of labour to the point where employers preferred to invest in labour-saving machines rather than hire all the people wishing to work.

By contrast, Keynesian economists argued that high unemployment was explained by “deficient demand” – employers weren’t hiring enough workers because consumers weren’t buying enough of their products to make it necessary.

It wasn’t until 1988 that two Reserve Bank economists, Bill Russell and Warren Tease, published a seminal article resolving the debate: the rise in unemployment could be explained by both theories, in roughly equal measure.

But that was when we were still working to overcome the extraordinary rises in real wages under the Whitlam government. Even by the end of 1985, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ index of real labour costs per unit of output – a measure of how real wages are growing relative to labour productivity - stood at 116. That is, real wages were running 16 per cent ahead of productivity.

Nowadays, the index has been a bit below 100 since the end of 2017. There’s no way wage rates can be said to be excessive. More to the point, there’s no visible evidence that moderate increases in minimum award wages have discouraged growth in employment.

No, the real problem is that employers and their Canberra lobbyists are caught in a “fallacy of composition” that does much to make recessions worse: it may make sense for individual employers to keep wage rises to a minimum, but when all employers do it, all employers suffer. Why? Because what’s a cost to one employer is income to another employer’s customers.

Our economic growth was weak even before the coronacession, primarily because real wage growth was weak. Using the recession as an excuse to actually cut real wages just gets us in deeper, making demand even more deficient. Most employers and half our economists don’t understand that. Fortunately for them, the Fair Work Commission does.