One of the least-convincing tropes of financial journalism is the article explaining how business firms can increase profits and at the same time engage in some conventional, culturally-approved, do-good activity such as improving the environment, saving energy, or helping the poor. The latest version is how to increase profits by increasing wages.
Here is James Surowiecki writing in the New Yorker:
A substantial body of research suggests that it can make sense to pay above-market wages—economists call them “efficiency wages.” If you pay people better, they are more likely to stay, which saves money; job turnover was costing Aetna a hundred and twenty million dollars a year. Better-paid employees tend to work harder, too. The most famous example in business history is Henry Ford’s decision, in 1914, to start paying his workers the then handsome sum of five dollars a day. Working on the Model T assembly line was an unpleasant job. Workers had been quitting in huge numbers or simply not showing up for work. Once Ford started paying better, job turnover and absenteeism plummeted, and productivity and profits rose.
Walter Frick writing in the Harvard Business Review agrees:
The theory of efficiency wages…suggests that firms sometimes have an incentive to pay workers more than the going rate because doing so attracts better candidates, motivates them to work harder, and encourages them to stay at the company longer.
There are two problems with this story, one obvious and one not-so obvious. The not so-obvious problem is that the economists who developed the theory of efficiency wages (including Shapiro and Stiglitz, Akerlof and Yellen and Yellen) had no illusions that they were helping business firms to discover a new way to increase profits. The economists who developed efficiency wage theory were trying to explain persistent unemployment. Hence the title of Janet Yellen’s famous survey, Efficiency Wage Models of Unemployment.
The question that motivated efficiency wage theory was not why firms should raise wages but why firms don’t cut wages when they should. The answer they gave was that firms don’t cut wages despite unemployment because they fear that workers will respond to lower wages with reduced productivity. Thus, here is Akerlof and Yellen explaining that when workers demand “fair” wages they create unemployment.
…according to the fair wage-effort hypothesis, workers proportionately withdraw effort as their actual wage falls short of their fair wage. Such behavior causes unemployment…
In the original efficiency wage literature there is no wishful thinking–no idea that we can have more of everything that we want without tradeoffs. Instead of being desirable, the efficiency wage is a problem because lower wages would reduce unemployment and be better for the economy as a whole.
Instead of letting us bask in wishful thinking the real efficiency wage theory suggests unpleasant tradeoffs. Yellen, for example, suggests that if it were cheap, greater monitoring of workers would lower unemployment as would allowing workers to take low-pay or no-pay internships for trial periods. In our paper on asymmetric information, Tyler and I make such unpleasant tradeoffs clear:
When employers do not easily observe workers, for example, employers may pay workers unusually high wages, generating a rent. Workers will then work at high levels despite infrequent employer observation, to maintain their future rents (Shapiro and Stiglitz 1984). But those higher wages involved a cost, namely that fewer workers were hired, and the hires that were made often were directed to people who were already known to the firm. Better monitoring of workers will mean that employers will hire more people and furthermore they may be more willing to take chances on risky outsiders, rather than those applicants who come with impeccable pedigree. If the outsider does not work out and produce at an acceptable level, it is easy enough to figure this out and fire them later on.
Notice that the efficiency wage theorists took it for granted that to the extent that firms can increase profits by raising wages they have already done so (hence the persistent unemployment). Firms don’t typically leave $100 bills lying on the ground so the Stiglitz, Akerlof, Yellen assumption makes perfect sense. Thus the more obvious problem with the journalistic account of efficiency wages is that it makes it sound as if the idea that productivity might increase with wages is a revelation that firms have never considered. (See Frick for some implausible stories of why firms might not raise wages even when it is profitable to do so.) In fact, firms routinely track turnover and productivity and they are well aware that higher wages are a possible means to reduce turnover and increase productivity although, as it turns out, not necessarily the most effective means. Indeed, the whole field of workforce science deals with retention, turnover and job satisfaction and the relationship of these to productivity and it does so with more nuance than do most economists. Thus, it’s simply not plausible that large numbers of firms on the existing margin can increase wages, profits and productivity. TANSTAAFL.
In summary, the real theory of efficiency wages is an important and useful theory of persistent unemployment–one that helped earn Stiglitz and Aklerof Nobel prizes and Yellen a plum government job–but the journalistic proponents of “efficiency wages” are false prophets peddling false profits.