Has the Labor Share Declined? Maybe, maybe not.

In a 2017 post Asher Schechter correctly noted:

Of the various ills that currently plague the American economy, one that has economists particularly worried is the decline in the labor share—that is, the part of national income that’s allocated to wages.

Lots of theories have been proposed to explain the decline in labor share including automation, globalization and increased markups. In a big if true paper, Koh, Santaeulalia-Llopis and Zheng argue that all of these theories are wrong because there has been no decline in labor share once we take into account that the BEA changed how intellectual property was treated in the national accounts.

The lack of attention to measurement can severely misguide economic theory. We demonstrated that the change in the accounting treatment of IPP—from expensed to capitalized—gradually implemented by the BEA since 1999 is the sole driver of the decline of the accounting LS. Furthermore, our examination of the accounting assumptions behind the capitalization of IPP—mainly that all IPP investment rents are attributed to capital—indicates that less arbitrary and extreme assumptions on the factor distribution of IPP rents yield a trendless accounting LS. In other words, the LS decline is an artifact of the change in the accounting treatment of IPP in national accounts, and this is at odds with current macroeconomic theory that considers the accounting decline as an economic phenomenon at face value.

Labor share appears to have declined globally. Have most countries changed their accounting practices? Quite possibly, but more investigation is needed. Many of the theories are also quite plausible which perhaps explains the reluctance of theorists to give up on the “fact”. The Koh et al. paper has been circulating for a few years but most seem to brush it off. Autor, Dorn, Katz, Patterson and Van Reenen, for example, say:

Although there is controversy over the degree to which the fall in the labor share of GDP is due to measurement issues such as the treatment of capital depreciation (Bridgman, 2014), housing (Rognlie, 2015), self-employment and proprietor’s income (Elsby, Hobjin, and Sahin, 2013; Gollin, 2002) and intangible capital (Koh, Santaeulalia-Lopis and Zheng, 2016), there is a general consensus that the fall is real and significant.

Wait and see is probably rational at this stage. If the paper makes it through peer-review at the JPE, it will be more difficult to ignore.

It is arresting how many facts are in fact open to question. Maybe.

Hat tip: David Andalfatto somewhere on twitter.


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