Is Productivity Being Translated Into Pay Increases?

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Wednesday, 17 July 2013 12:44

Jim Tankersley has a post in Wonkblog asking whether there has been a divergence between pay and productivity over the last three decades. The post notes a study from James Sherk at Heritage which makes several valid points. First, part of the gap between average pay and productivity is explained by a growing share of compensation going to health care benefits. Second part of the gap is the result of the fact that productivity is measured in gross output, whereas only net output is available for consumption. Third, we use different deflators to measure output than consumption. The consumer price index, which is used to measure real wages, shows a higher rate of inflation than the implicit price deflator. If we use the same deflator to measure real wages and output, then this also eliminates much of the seeming gap between productivity and pay.

I had made these points myself a few years back. My conclusion was that we were really looking at a story of upward redistribution from middle and lower income workers to those at the top, doctors, lawyers, and especially Wall Street types and CEOs. Distribution from wages to profits was not a big part of the picture.

But that was back in 2007. The picture looks a bit different today. The graph below shows the labor share of net income in the corporate sector. This is a bit simpler than constructing productivity and pay data, but it should get at the same issue. I have pulled out depreciation and also indirect taxes, so the division is simply between labor income and capital income. I also show the share of labor compensation in after-tax income in the corporate sector.

btp-2013-07-17

In the data in the graph it certainly looks like we are seeing a redistribution from labor to capital at least in the years since the crash. For the last three years the labor share of before-tax income was lower than at any point hit in the 1980s and 1990s. The labor share of after-tax income is more than two percentage points lower than at any point in the 1980s and 1990s. That looks like a fairly serious redistribution.

We can throw in the usual qualifications about the data being erratic and cyclical, but it's pretty hard to find a way to make this redistribution disappear. It may prove to be the case that if the unemployment rate falls back to more normal levels then workers will get increased bargaining power and will be able to recapture more of the gains from productivity growth, but that is not happening now.