Sticky wages and unemployment

In my post ZMP vs. sticky wages I argued:

By the way, the problem of sticky wages is often misunderstood. The big problem is not that the wages of unemployed workers are sticky, the big problem is that the wages of employed workers are sticky. This is why stories of the unemployed being reemployed at far lower wages are entirely compatible with the macroeconomics of sticky wages.

At lunch with Tyler today discussing his recent post I expanded on this point arguing that since a large fraction of GDP is wages that a 5% cut in the wage bill is a very big number and that even a large cut in the wages of the unemployed just isn’t enough. Scott Sumner wasn’t at lunch but nails it with a simple example:

Nominal wages are fixed for the employed. NGDP falls 5%, and 5% of workers are laid off. Now the unemployed workers lower their wage demands by 20%. Why not by even more? Because of minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, fear of loss of prestige, etc.

Suppose companies are not worried about workers making invidious comparisons (a big if, but I’ll grant this point to my opponents.) In the best case scenario firms lay off 4% percent of their workers and hire back the 5% who are unemployed at the same total wage bill. The excess unemployment is now 4% instead of 5%. The total unemployment rate falls from 10% to 9% (assuming 5% is the natural rate.) No big deal, we are still deep in recession. Thus wage flexibility among the unemployed doesn’t really help very much. If all employed workers accepted a 5% pay cut (or if the government ordered such a cut) and the Fed kept targeting inflation, we’d experience rapid economic growth.

See Scott’s post for more.

Note that this doesn’t mean that I think sticky wages are necessarily “the answer” or even the most important problem (sticky debt is an issue as well etc.) but the evidence for sticky wages for the employed is very strong and it certainly is a problem.


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