There have been some good posts on this lately, for instance asking why the wage simply doesn’t clear the market, why don’t firms train more workers, and so on (my apologies as I have lost track of those posts, so no links). The excellent Isaac Sorkin emails me with a link to this paper, Superstars and Mediocrities: Market Failures in the Discovery of Talent (pdf), by Marko Terviö, here is the abstract:
A basic problem facing most labor markets is that workers can neither commit to long-term wage contracts nor can they self fi nance the costs of production. I study the effects of these imperfections when talent is industry-specifi c, it can only be revealed on the job, and once learned becomes public information. I show that fi rms bid excessively for the pool of incumbent workers at the expense of trying out new talent. The workforce is then plagued with an unfavorable selection of individuals: there are too many mediocre workers, whose talent is not high enough to justify them crowding out novice workers with lower expected talent but with more upside potential. The result is an inefficiently low level of output coupled with higher wages for known high talents. This problem is most severe where information about talent is initially very imprecise and the complementary costs of production are high. I argue that high incomes in professions such as entertainment, management, and entrepreneurship, may be explained by the nature of the talent revelation process, rather than by an underlying scarcity of talent.
This result relates also to J.C.’s query about talent sorting, the signaling model of education, CEO pay, and many other results under recent discussion. If it matters to you, this paper was published in the Review of Economic Studies. I’m not sure that a theorist would consider this a “theory paper” but to me it is, and it is one of the most interesting theory papers I have seen in years.