Debt repayment does not rule out tax cuts

The case for a tax cut is a distinct issue from repaying the recent large budget deficits and balancing the budget over the business cycle.

Ministers of Finance should pay more attention to the concept of tax smoothing. Unless something special is happening, income tax rates should be similar from one year to another. We should keep tax rates fairly smooth by borrowing during recessions and emergencies.

Instead, the Government not indexing the income tax thresholds for inflation collected $2.1 billion in extra revenue since 2008 according to Parliamentary Library calculations. Raising the income tax rate thresholds is becoming more pressing. Income growth is starting to push many ordinary taxpayers uncomfortably close to the next threshold and a much higher marginal tax rate. For example, 30% rather than the 17.5% income tax rate many taxpayers face.

New Zealand is already left behind on company tax rates; ours is currently 28%. The Australian company tax rate may drop to 25%; the British company tax rate is going down to 17% by 2020.

Large public deficits have their place

Prudent public debt management dictates that governments run temporary budget deficits in recessions and other emergencies such as the Canterbury earthquake and repay that debt as better times return. Recessions and natural disasters are infrequent so this extra debt should be paid down at a measured speed, not a frantic pace at the expense of other tax policy goals.

An increase in the budget deficit smooths over these bad times and avoids taxes going up and down like a Jack-in-the-Box over the business cycle. Who raises taxes in a recession?

Beware of foul-weather fiscal conservatives

After the start of the recession in 2009, foul weather fiscal conservatives wanted to do just that. The same usual suspects who always advocate bigger government argued for higher taxes rather than running a larger budget deficit, which New Zealand did. Imagine the massive income tax rises required every recession and in the last recession in particular if the large budget deficits were not run?

The large public debt from the temporary budget deficits that smoothed over the last recession is no special or additional reason to postpone income tax cuts. A sound long-term fiscal strategy has tax rates at levels that make up on the deficits in bad times with surpluses in the good times. Slowly repaying debts accumulated in a recession is a routine part of prudent public debt management.

There is room for tax cuts

Every budget allocates about $1.5 billion for new policy proposals that can be adopted without the Treasury thinking that they might harm long-term fiscal stability.

New Zealand budget allows for up to $1.5 billion on new policies every year. If this new spending was justified despite the large public debt from the recent recession, some tax cuts are too. They could start with raising the income tax rate thresholds to make up for past inflation.

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The fair-wage effort hypothesis is a theory of mass low-skilled unemployment

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Living wage advocates make much of the demoralising effects of pay inequality on workplace productivity. In common with the efficiency wage hypothesis, this is another example of what Nozick (1974) called normative sociology; the study of what the causes of social problems ought to be. Again, living wage activists misconstrue what the fair-wage effort hypothesis was seeking to explain.

The fair-wage effort hypothesis aimed to fill gaps in the efficiency wage hypothesis by explaining why unemployment is so much higher among the lower skilled (Akerlof and Yellen 1988, 1990). Under the fair-wage effort hypothesis, workers slack off if paid less than they think they deserve:

The motivation for the fair wage-effort hypothesis is a simple observation concerning human behavior: when people do not get what they deserve, they try to get even (Akerlof and Yellen 1990, p. 256).

Lazear (1989, 1991) contends that employers too may want greater pay equity to temper over-competitiveness in teams. If pay and promotions in a team are linked to the relative performance of its members, large pay differentials may undermine co-operation and might encourage sabotage:

Very large pay spreads induce high effort, but they also create a work environment in the firm that is not very pleasant… individuals who are competing with one another can either seek to outperform others, or they can contribute to the failure of others. Such incentives can result in collusion (Dye, 1984) or in sabotage (Lazear, 1989). Thus, pay structure must strike a balance between providing incentives for effort and reducing the adverse consequences associated with this kind of industrial politics (Lazear and Shaw 2007, p. 95).

Lazear’s (1989, 1991) theory about the industrial politics arising from pay inequality stressed how sizable rewards to individual members of a team could lead to a lack of team play and lower team output. If the prizes were smaller for superior relative performance, the pay rise after a promotion or the annual performance bonus, there may be more teamwork (Lazear 1989, 1991). Akerlof and Yellen (1990) were correct in their insight that their hypothesis about fair-wage effort applies more to workers on lower wages with fewer chances of moving up promotion ladders and pay scales.

The fair-wage effort hypothesis is but another Keynesian macroeconomic theory of unemployment:

The hypothesis explains the existence of unemployment. Unemployment occurs when the fair wage w* exceeds the market-clearing wage. With natural specifications of the determination of w*, this hypothesis may explain why skill and unemployment are negatively correlated. In addition, it potentially explains wage differentials and labor market segmentation (Akerlof and Yellen 1990, p. 256).

The fair-wage effort hypothesis was developed as a descendant of the efficiency wage hypothesis because the latter cannot explain why wages are high for everyone working in high-paid industries:

All workers in better-paid industries tend to receive positive wage premia. That is, the wages of secretaries and engineers are highly correlated across industries. Ease of supervision and the magnitude of turnover costs might well be correlated across industries for a given occupation explaining, for example, why, say, skilled machinery operators receive positive wage premia in most industries. But there is no obvious reason why, say, secretaries, should be harder to supervise in the chemical industry where pay is high, than in the apparel industry where pay is low (Akerlof and Yellen 1988, p. 44).

The efficiency wage hypothesis also offered “no natural explanation” for why unemployment rates [JC1] are much higher among the lower-skilled (Akerlof and Yellen 1990). Skilled workers are probably more difficult to monitor than the unskilled so their unemployment rates should be higher than for the low-skilled as a worker discipline device but the contrary is the case (Akerlof and Yellen 1990).

The fair-wage effort hypothesis aimed to fill gaps in the efficiency wage theory of unemployment by explaining why low skilled unemployment is much higher both in recessions and in better times. Living wage activists must accept that their demands for workplace pay equity increase low-skilled unemployment under a Keynesian theory which they embrace with considerable enthusiasm.

If high wages are paid to the more skilled to attract the best applicants, demands for pay equity by their less skilled co-workers could price some of them out of the market leading to unemployment (Akerlof and Yellen 1988, 1990). In addition, pay equity norms are unlikely to respond quickly enough to fluctuations in aggregate demand so wages can be too high in recessions causing mass unemployment of the low skilled (Akerlof and Yellen 1988, 1990; Summers 1988). The unemployed cannot successfully offer to work for less than existing workers do in a recession because they cannot make a credible commitment to eschew fairness considerations once hired (Akerlof 2002).

An important premise of New Keynesian macroeconomics is demands for pay equity come at a price. At a price that is high enough for the efficiency wage and fair-wage effort hypotheses to be put as a comprehensive New Keynesian explanations of involuntary mass unemployment (Gordon 1990).

Both the efficiency wage hypothesis and the fair-wage effort hypothesis are attempts to flesh out a theory of extensive labour market dysfunction leading to mass unemployment. Living wage activists are using Keynesian theories of why wages are too high to argue for even higher wages.

An efficiency wage is a theory of persistent mass unemployment

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Shapiro and Stiglitz (1984) first put forward their theory of an efficiency wage to explain large-scale involuntary unemployment. It was the very real threat of a prolonged spell of unemployment (rather than a morale boosting pay rise) that motivated employees to put in more effort to keep their jobs:

To induce the worker not too shirk, the firm attempts to pay more the “going rate”; then, if the worker is caught shirking and is fired, he will pay a penalty. If it pays one firm to raise its wage, it pays all firms to raise their wages. When they all raise their wages, the incentive to shirk again disappears. But as all firms raise their wages, the demand for labour decreases, and unemployment results. With unemployment, even if all firms pay the same wage, a worker has an incentive not to shirk. For, if he is fired, an individual will not immediately obtain another job. The equilibrium unemployment rate must be sufficiently large that it pays the workers to work rather than take the risk of being caught shirking (Shapiro and Stiglitz 1984, p. 435).

The unemployed offer to work for less pay than existing employees but they are not hired because their labour productivity is not assured at this lower pay (Akerlof 1982, 1984; Katz 1986, 1988; Yellen 1984). There is involuntary mass unemployment because of the prevalence of efficiency wages:

If there is involuntary unemployment in an equilibrium situation, it must be that firms, for some reason or other, wish to pay more than the market-clearing wage. And that is the heart of any efficiency-wage theory (Akerlof 1984, p. 79).

Direct parallels were quickly drawn between the efficiency wage hypothesis as a worker discipline device eliciting greater effort and the old Marxist concept of the reserve army of the unemployed:

… it pays each firm to increase its wage to eliminate shirking. When all firms do this, the average wage rises and employment is reduced. In equilibrium, all firms pay a wage above the market clearing level, creating unemployment. Since jobs are scarce and rationed, the loss of a job can involve a lengthy spell of unemployment. The reserve army of the unemployed acts as a discipline device making shirking costly (Katz 1986, pp. 240-41).

It is misconceived for living wage activists to use a theory of lengthy unemployment to justify a large living wage rise but argue that there will be little unemployment because of the efficiency wage effects. This is the exact opposite of what the efficiency wage hypothesis is about. The leading Keynesian macroeconomists of their generation were striving to explain mass unemployment:

… 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 …

In the original efficiency wage literature, there is no wishful thinking–no idea that we can have more of everything that we want without trade-offs. Instead of being desirable, the efficiency wage is a problem because lower wages would reduce unemployment and be better for the economy … 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) (Tabarrok 2015).

Gordon was blunt about why efficiency wage arguments were popular and with whom

If any development in the microeconomics of labor markets could be called the “rage of the 80s,” it is efficiency wage theory, based on the hypothesis that worker productivity depends on the level of the real wage. When there is such a link between the wage rate and worker efficiency, firms may rationally pay a real wage rate that exceeds the market-clearing level. Firms may refuse to reduce the wage to hire members of a pool of unemployed workers who may be available at a lower wage, fearful that a reduction in real wages for existing workers may reduce productivity by more than the gain in lower wages (Gordon 1990, p. 1157).

Living wage activists have it the wrong way around about the social benefits of paying an efficiency wage. The efficiency wage hypothesis is a theory of why wages are too high and employment is too low (Akerlof 1982, 1984, 2002; Yellen 1984; Katz 1986, 1988; Stiglitz 2002). Living wage activists are using a well-respected theory of why wages are too high to argue that wages are too low.