Companies are slashing payrolls: 3.6 million people have lost their jobs since the recession started, with half of those getting laid off in just the past three months. Yet average hourly wages jumped almost four per cent in the past year. It’s harder and harder to find and keep a job, but if you’ve got one you may well be making more than you did twelve months ago.
It’s not because businesses are generous that wages are sticky; it’s because employers are worried. In part, bosses are afraid of what economists call “adverse selection”: if they cut wages, it’s the least productive workers who would be the most likely to stay, while the best workers would start looking elsewhere. (Even in a weak economy, businesses still compete for talent.) In a 1997 study of almost two hundred employers, the economists Carl Campbell and Kunal Kamlani found that the threat of losing their best employees was a major reason that bosses didn’t cut wages.
... even as the economy has cratered, American workers have become more productive, not less. Productivity—how much output workers produce per hour of work—is the key to a healthy economy. Historically, productivity has been “procyclical”: it rose during booms and fell during recessions. But not this time. Even as the economy did a cliff dive in the last quarter, productivity rose an impressive 3.1 per cent. And since, in theory, workers get paid more the more productive they are, their increased productivity has helped them avoid pay cuts.
But during the past two decades companies have got significantly better at responding quickly to changes in the marketplace. Retailers carry less inventory; manufacturers have shorter lead times on production. This made the system as a whole more efficient, and each individual worker more productive. But it has also made redundant workers more expendable, and labor hoarding a thing of the past.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
The Paradoxes of this Recession/Depression
James Surowiecki has written a very interesting article for the New Yorker magazine. It discusses some strange paradoxes created by the current economic downturn: