The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which has been at the forefront of studying the recent trends of inequality and economic stagnation, has dedicated another paper to assessing why and how wages have stagnated despite rising productivity — and what can be done about it. (You can download the PDF version here)
A careful analysis of this gap between pay and productivity provides several important insights for the ongoing debate about how to address wage stagnation and rising inequality. First, wages did not stagnate for the vast majority because growth in productivity (or income and wealth creation) collapsed. Yes, the policy shifts that led to rising inequality were also associated with a slowdown in productivity growth, but even with this slowdown, productivity still managed to rise substantially in recent decades. But essentially none of this productivity growth flowed into the paychecks of typical American workers. Second, pay failed to track productivity primarily due to two key dynamics representing rising inequality: the rising inequality of compensation (more wage and salary income accumulating at the very top of the pay scale) and the shift in the share of overall national income going to owners of capital and away from the pay of employees. Third, although boosting productivity growth is an important long-run goal, this will not lead to broad-based wage gains unless we pursue policies that reconnect productivity growth and the pay of the vast majority.
The report is a long read (albeit worth the time if you can spare it), but it provides a helpful rundown of the key findings.
- For decades following the end of World War II, inflation-adjusted hourly compensation (including employer-provided benefits as well as wages) for the vast majority of American workers rose in line with increases in economy-wide productivity. Thus hourly pay became the primary mechanism that transmitted economy-wide productivity growth into broad-based increases in living standards.
- Since 1973, hourly compensation of the vast majority of American workers has not risen in line with economy-wide productivity. In fact, hourly compensation has almost stopped rising at all. Net productivity grew 72.2 percent between 1973 and 2014. Yet inflation-adjusted hourly compensation of the median worker rose just 8.7 percent, or 0.20 percent annually, over this same period, with essentially all of the growth occurring between 1995 and 2002. Another measure of the pay of the typical worker, real hourly compensation of production, nonsupervisory workers, who make up 80 percent of the workforce, also shows pay stagnation for most of the period since 1973, rising 9.2 percent between 1973 and 2014. Again, the lion’s share of this growth occurred between 1995 and 2002.
- Net productivity grew 1.33 percent each year between 1973 and 2014, faster than the meager 0.20 percent annual rise in median hourly compensation. In essence, about 15 percent of productivity growth between 1973 and 2014 translated into higher hourly wages and benefits for the typical American worker. Since 2000, the gap between productivity and pay has risen even faster. The net productivity growth of 21.6 percent from 2000 to 2014 translated into just a 1.8 percent rise in inflation-adjusted compensation for the median worker (just 8 percent of net productivity growth).
- Since 2000, more than 80 percent of the divergence between a typical (median) worker’s pay growth and overall net productivity growth has been driven by rising inequality (specifically, greater inequality of compensation and a falling share of income going to workers relative to capital owners). Over the entire 1973–2014 period, rising inequality explains over two-thirds of the productivity–pay divergence.
- If the hourly pay of typical American workers had kept pace with productivity growth since the 1970s, then there would have been no rise in income inequality during that period. Instead, productivity growth that did not accrue to typical workers’ pay concentrated at the very top of the pay scale (in inflated CEO pay, for example) and boosted incomes accruing to owners of capital.
- These trends indicate that while rising productivity in recent decades provided thepotential for a substantial growth in the pay for the vast majority of workers, this potential was squandered due to rising inequality putting a wedge between potential and actual pay growth for these workers.
- Policies to spur widespread wage growth, therefore, must not only encourage productivity growth (via full employment, education, innovation, and public investment) but also restore the link between growing productivity and the typical worker’s pay.
- Finally, the economic evidence indicates that the rising gap between productivity and pay for the vast majority likely has nothing to do with any stagnation in the typical worker’s individual productivity. For example, even the lowest-paid American workers have made considerable gains in educational attainment and experience in recent decades, which should have raised their productivity.
The visualization of this data certainly speaks for itself.
Moreover, the study actually warns that its methodology may actually understate the extent of divergence between owners, executives, and shareholders on the one hand, and laborers of all sorts on the other. As I am pressed for time, and the caveats are too long to produce here, I invite you to read the paper in its entirety for yourself.
Ultimately, I shared this as a starting point for a very simple question (one I know I have rehashed here many times before): why does not the same logic used to justify CEO bonuses (and for that matter shareholder dividends) apply to average workers? Why is it not standard practice that every worker gets a cut of the profits they also helped contribute to? It could be divyded out proportionally each quarter.
If such pay allegedly motivates executives to perform better, or helps to attract the best and brightest — neither of which has been true in many cases — why would it not have the same effect on workers? Are we to believe that executives need millions of dollars to incentivize the hard work expected of everyone else without such perks? (The fact they have more responsibility is irrelevant, since incentives would be proportional.)
What are your thoughts and reactions?