General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, by Keynes

Chapter 19

Changes in Money-Wages

I

It would have been an advantage if the effects of a change in money-wages could have been discussed in an earlier chapter. For the classical theory has been accustomed to rest the supposedly self-adjusting character of the economic system on an assumed fluidity of money-wages; and, when there is rigidity, to lay on this rigidity the blame of maladjustment.

It was not possible, however, to discuss this matter fully until our own theory had been developed. For the consequences of a change in money-wages are complicated. A reduction in money-wages is quite capable in certain circumstances of affording a stimulus to output, as the classical theory supposes. My difference from this theory is primarily a difference of analysis; so that it could not be set forth clearly until the reader was acquainted with my own method.

The generally accepted explanation is, as I understand it, quite a simple one. It does not depend on roundabout repercussions, such as we shall discuss below. The argument simply is that a reduction in money-wages will cet. par. stimulate demand by diminishing the price of the finished product, and will therefore increase output and employment up to the point where the reduction which labour has agreed to accept in its money-wages is just offset by the diminishing marginal efficiency of labour as output (from a given equipment) is increased.

In its crudest form, this is tantamount to assuming that the reduction in money-wages will leave demand unaffected. There may be some economists who would maintain that there is no reason why demand should be affected, arguing that aggregate demand depends on the quantity of money multiplied by the income-velocity of money and that there is no obvious reason why a reduction in money-wages would reduce either the quantity of money or its income-velocity. Or they may even argue that profits will necessarily go up because wages have gone down. But it would, I think, be more usual to agree that the reduction in money-wages may have some effect on aggregate demand through its reducing the purchasing power of some of the workers, but that the real demand of other factors, whose money incomes have not been reduced, will be stimulated by the fall in prices, and that the aggregate demand of the workers themselves will be very likely increased as a result of the increased volume of employment, unless the elasticity of demand for labour in response to changes in money-wages is less than unity. Thus in the new equilibrium there will be more employment than there would have been otherwise except, perhaps, in some unusual limiting case which has no reality in practice.

It is from this type of analysis that I fundamentally differ; or rather from the analysis which seems to lie behind such observations as the above. For whilst the above fairly represents, I think, the way in which many economists talk and write, the underlying analysis has seldom been written down in detail.

It appears, however, that this way of thinking is probably reached as follows. In any given industry we have a demand schedule for the product relating the quantities which can be sold to the prices asked; we have a series of supply schedules relating the prices which will be asked for the sale of different quantities on various bases of cost; and these schedules between them lead up to a further schedule which, on the assumption that other costs are unchanged (except as a result of the change in output), gives us the demand schedule for labour in the industry relating the quantity of employment to different levels of wages, the shape of the curve at any point furnishing the elasticity of demand for labour. This conception is then transferred without substantial modification to industry as a whole; and it is supposed, by a parity of reasoning, that we have a demand schedule for labour in industry as a whole relating the quantity of employment to different levels of wages. It is held that it makes no material difference to this argument whether it is in terms of money-wages or of real wages. If we are thinking in terms of money-wages, we must, of course, correct for changes in the value of money; but this leaves the general tendency of the argument unchanged, since prices certainly do not change in exact proportion to changes in money-wages.

If this is the groundwork of the argument (and, if it is not, I do not know what the groundwork is), surely it is fallacious. For the demand schedules for particular industries can only be constructed on some fixed assumption as to the nature of the demand and supply schedules of other industries and as to the amount of the aggregate effective demand. It is invalid, therefore, to transfer the argument to industry as a whole unless we also transfer our assumption that the aggregate effective demand is fixed. Yet this assumption reduces the argument to an ignoratio elenchi. For, whilst no one would wish to deny the proposition that a reduction in money-wages accompanied by the same aggregate effective demand as before will be associated with an increase in employment, the precise question at issue is whether the reduction in money-wages will or will not be accompanied by the same aggregate effective demand as before measured in money, or, at any rate, by an aggregate effective demand which is not reduced in full proportion to the reduction in money-wages (i.e. which is somewhat greater measured in wage-units). But if the classical theory is not allowed to extend by analogy its conclusions in respect of a particular industry to industry as a whole, it is wholly unable to answer the question what effect on employment a reduction in money-wages will have. For it has no method of analysis wherewith to tackle the problem. Professor Pigou's Theory of Unemployment seems to me to get out of the classical theory all that can be got out of it; with the result that the book becomes a striking demonstration that this theory has nothing to offer, when it is applied to the problem of what determines the volume of actual employment as a whole.

II

Let us, then, apply our own method of analysis to answering the problem. It falls into two parts. (i) Does a reduction in money-wages have a direct tendency, cet. par., to increase employment, 'cet. par.' being taken to mean that the propensity to consume, the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital and the rate of interest are the same as before for the community as a whole? And (2) does a reduction in money-wages have a certain or probable.tendency to affect employment in a particular direction through its certain or probable repercussions on these three factors?

The first question we have already answered in the negative in the preceding chapters. For we have shown that the volume of employment is uniquely correlated with the volume ofeffective demand measured in wage-units, and that the effective demand, being the sum of the expected consumption and the expected investment, cannot change, if the propensity to consume, the schedule of marginal efficiency of capital and the rate of interest are all unchanged. If, without any change in these factors, the entrepreneurs were to increase employment as a whole, their proceeds will necessarily fall short of their supply-price.

Perhaps it will help to rebut the crude conclusion that a reduction in money-wages will increase employment 'because it reduces the cost of production', if we follow up the course of events on the hypothesis most favourable to this view, namely that at the outset entrepreneurs expect the reduction in money-wages to have this effect. It is indeed not unlikely that the individual entrepreneur, seeing his own costs reduced, will overlook at the outset the repercussions on the demand for his product and will act on the assumption that he will be able to sell at a profit a larger output than before. If, then, entrepreneurs generally act on this expectation, will they in fact succeed in increasing their profits? Only if the community's marginal propensity to consume is equal to unity, so that there is no gap between the increment of income and the increment of consumption; or if there is an increase in investment, corresponding to the gap between the increment of income and the increment of consumption, which will only occur if the schedule of marginal efficiencies of capital has increased relatively to the rate of interest. Thus the proceeds realised from the increased output will disappoint the entrepreneurs and employment will fall back again to its previous figure, unless the marginal propensity to consume is equal to unity or the reduction in money-wages has had the effect of increasing the schedule of marginal efficiencies of capital relatively to the rate of interest and hence the amount of investment. For if entrepreneurs offer employment on a scale which, if they could sell their output at the expected price, would provide the public with incomes out of which they would save more than the amount of current investment, entrepreneurs are bound to make a loss equal to the difference; and this will be the case absolutely irrespective of the level of money-wages. At the best, the date of their disappointment can only be delayed for the interval during which their own investment in increased working capital is filling the gap.

Thus the reduction in money-wages will have no lasting tendency to increase employment except by virtue of its repercussion either on the propensity to consume for the community as a whole, or on the schedule of marginal efficiencies of capital, or on the rate of interest. There is no method of analysing the effect of a reduction in money-wages, except by following up its possible effects on these three factors.

The most important repercussions on these factors are likely, in practice, to be the following:

(1) A reduction of money-wages will somewhat reduce prices. It will, therefore, involve some redistribution of real income (a) from wage-earners to other factors entering into marginal prime cost whose remuneration has not been reduced, and (b) from entrepreneurs to rentiers to whom a certain income fixed in terms of money has been guaranteed.

What will be the effect of this redistribution on the propensity to consume for the community as a whole? The transfer from wage-earners to other factors is likely to diminish the propensity to consume. The effect of the transfer from entrepreneurs to rentiers is more open to doubt. But if rentiers represent on the whole the richer section of the community and those whose standard of life is least flexible, then the effect of this also will be unfavourable. What the net result will be on a balance of considerations, we can only guess. Probably it is more likely to be adverse than favourable.

(2) If we are dealing with an unclosed system, and the reduction of money-wages is a reduction relatively to money-wages abroad when both are reduced to a common unit, it is evident that the change will be favourable to investment, since it will tend to increase the balance of trade. This assumes, of course, that the advantage is not offset by a change in tariffs, quotas, etc. The greater strength of the traditional belief in the efficacy of a reduction in money-wages as a means of increasing employment in Great Britain, as compared with the United States, is probably attributable to the latter being, comparatively with ourselves, a closed system.

(3) In the case of an unclosed system, a reduction of money-wages, though it increases the favourable balance of trade, is likely to worsen the terms of trade. Thus there will be a reduction in real incomes, except in the case of the newly employed, which may tend to increase the propensity to consume.

(4) If the reduction of money-wages is expected to be a reduction relatively to money-wages in the future, the change will be favourable to investment, because as we have seen above, it will increase the marginal efficiency of capital; whilst for the same reason it may be favourable to consumption. If, on the other hand, the reduction leads to the expectation, or even to the serious possibility, of a further wage-reduction in prospect, it will have precisely the opposite effect. For it will diminish the marginal efficiency of capital and will lead to the postponement both of investment and of consumption.

(5) The reduction in the wages-bill, accompanied by some reduction in prices and in money-incomes generally, will diminish the need for cash for income and business purposes; and it will therefore reduce pro tanto the schedule of liquidity-preference for the community as a whole. Cet. par. this will reduce the rate of interest and thus prove favourable to investment. In this case, however, the effect of expectation concerning the future will be of an opposite tendency to those just considered under (4). For, if wages and prices are expected to rise again later on, the favourable reaction will be much less pronounced in the case of long-term loans than in that of short-term loans. If, moreover, the reduction in wages disturbs political confidence by causing popular discontent, the increase in liquidity-preference due to this cause may more than offset the release of cash from the active circulation.

(6) Since a special reduction of money-wages is always advantageous to an individual entrepreneur or industry, a general reduction (though its actual effects are different) may also produce an optimistic tone in the minds of entrepreneurs, which may break through a vicious circle of unduly pessimistic estimates of the marginal efficiency of capital and set things moving again on a more normal basis of expectation. On the other hand, if the workers make the same mistake as their employers about the effects of a general reduction, labour troubles may offset this favourable factor; apart from which, since there is, as a rule, no means of securing a simultaneous and equal reduction of money-wages in all industries, it is in the interest of all workers to resist a reduction in their own particular case. In fact, a movement by employers to revise money-wage bargains downward will be much more strongly resisted than a gradual and automatic lowering of real wages as a result of rising prices.

(7) On the other hand, the depressing influence on entrepreneurs of their greater burden of debt may partly offset any cheerful reactions from the reduction of wages. Indeed if the fall of wages and prices goes far, the embarrassment of those entrepreneurs who are heavily indebted may soon reach the point of insolvency — with severely adverse effects on investment. Moreover the effect of the lower price-level on the real burden of the national debt and hence on taxation is likely to prove very adverse to business confidence.

This is not a complete catalogue of all the possible reactions of wage reductions in the complex real world. But the above cover, I think, those which are usually the most important.

If, therefore, we restrict our argument to the case of a closed system, and assume that there is nothing to be hoped, but if anything the contrary, from the repercussions of the new distribution of real incomes on the community's propensity to spend, it follows that we must base any hopes of favourable results to employment from a reduction in money-wages mainly on an improvement in investment due either to an increased marginal efficiency of capital under (4) or a decreased rate of interest under (5). Let us consider these two possibilities in further detail.

The contingency, which is favourable to an increase in the marginal efficiency of capital, is that in which money-wages are believed to have touched bottom, so that further changes are expected to be in the upward direction. The most unfavourable contingency is that in which money-wages are slowly sagging downwards and each reduction in wages serves to diminish confidence in the prospective maintenance of wages. When we enter on a period of weakening effective demand, a sudden large reduction of money-wages to a level so low that no one believes in its indefinite continuance would be the event most favourable to a strengthening of effective demand. But this could only be accomplished by administrative decree and is scarcely practical politics under a system of free wage-bargaining. On the other hand, it would be much better that wages should be rigidly fixed and deemed incapable of material changes, than that depressions should be accompanied by a gradual downward tendency of money-wages, a further moderate wage reduction being expected to signalise each increase of; say, 1 per cent in the amount of unemployment. For example, the effect of an expectation that wages are going to sag by, say, 2 per cent in the coming year will be roughly equivalent to the effect of a rise of 2 per cent in the amount of interest payable for the same period. The same observations apply mutatis mutandis to the case of a boom.

It follows that with the actual practices and institutions of the contemporary world it is more expedient to aim at a rigid money-wage policy than at a flexible policy responding by easy stages to changes in the amount of unemployment; — so far, that is to say, as the marginal efficiency of capital is concerned. But is this conclusion upset when we turn to the rate of interest?

It is, therefore, on the effect of a falling wage- and price-level on the demand for money that those who believe in the self-adjusting quality of the economic system must rest the weight of their argument; though I am not aware that they have done so. If the quantity of money is itself a function of the wage- and price-level, there is indeed, nothing to hope in this direction. But if the quantity of money is virtually fixed, it is evident that its quantity in terms of wage-units can be indefinitely increased by a sufficient reduction in money-wages; and that its quantity in proportion to incomes generally can be largely increased, the limit to this increase depending on the proportion of wage-cost to marginal prime cost and on the response of other elements of marginal prime cost to the falling wage-unit.

We can, therefore, theoretically at least, produce precisely the same effects on the rate of interest by reducing wages, whilst leaving the quantity of money unchanged, that we can produce by increasing the quantity of money whilst leaving the level of wages unchanged. It follows that wage reductions, as a method of securing full employment, are also subject to the same limitations as the method of increasing the quantity of money. The same reasons as those mentioned above, which limit the efficacy of increases in the quantity of money as a means of increasing investment to the optimum figure, apply mutatis mutandis to wage reductions. Just as a moderate increase in the quantity of money may exert an inadequate influence over the long-term rate of interest, whilst an immoderate increase may offset its other advantages by its disturbing effect on confidence; so a moderate reduction in money-wages may prove inadequate, whilst an immoderate reduction might shatter confidence even if it were practicable.

There is, therefore, no ground for the belief that a flexible wage policy is capable of maintaining a state of continuous full employment; — any more than for the belief that an open-market monetary policy is capable, unaided, of achieving this result. The economic system cannot be made self-adjusting along these lines.

If, indeed, labour were always in a position to take action (and were to do so), whenever there was less than full employment, to reduce its money demands by concerted action to whatever point was required to make money so abundant relatively to the wage-unit that the rate of interest would fall to a level compatible with full employment, we should, in effect, have monetary management by the trade unions, aimed at full employment, instead of by the banking system.

Nevertheless while a flexible wage policy and a flexible money policy come, analytically, to the same thing, inasmuch as they are alternative means of changing the quantity of money in terms of wage-units, in other respects there is, of course, a world of difference between them. Let me briefly recall to the reader's mind the four outstanding considerations.

(i) Except in a socialised community where wage-policy is settled by decree, there is no means of securing uniform wage reductions for every class of labour. The result can only be brought about by a series of gradual, irregular changes, justifiable on no criterion of social justice or economic expedience, and probably completed only after wasteful and disastrous struggles, where those in the weakest bargaining position will suffer relatively to the rest. A change in the quantity of money, on the other hand, is already within the power of most governments by open-market policy or analogous measures. Having regard to human nature and our institutions, it can only be a foolish person who would prefer a flexible wage policy to a flexible money policy, unless he can point to advantages from the former which are not obtainable from the latter. Moreover, other things being equal, a method which it is comparatively easy to apply should be deemed preferable to a method which is probably so difficult as to be impracticable.

(ii) If money-wages are inflexible, such changes in prices as occur (i.e. apart from 'administered' or monopoly prices which are determined by other considerations besides marginal cost) will mainly correspond to the diminishing marginal productivity of the existing equipment as the output from it is increased. Thus the greatest practicable fairness will be maintained between labour and the factors whose remuneration is contractually fixed in terms of money, in particular the rentier class and persons with fixed salaries on the permanent establishment of a firm, an institution or the State. If important classes are to have their remuneration fixed in terms of money in any case, social justice and social expediency are best served if the remunerations of all factors are somewhat inflexible in terms of money. Having regard to the large groups of incomes which are comparatively inflexible in terms of money, it can only be an unjust person who would prefer a flexible wage policy to a flexible money policy, unless he can point to advantages from the former which are not obtainable from the latter.

(iii) The method of increasing the quantity of money in terms of wage-units by decreasing the wage-unit increases proportionately the burden of debt; whereas the method of producing the same result by increasing the quantity of money whilst leaving the wage-unit unchanged has the opposite effect. Having regard to the excessive burden of many types of debt, it can only be an inexperienced person who would prefer the former.

(iv) If a sagging rate of interest has to be brought about by a sagging wage-level, there is, for the reasons given above, a double drag on the marginal efficiency of capital and a double reason for putting off investment and thus postponing recovery.

III

It follows, therefore, that if labour were to respond to conditions of gradually diminishing employment by offering its services at a gradually diminishing money-wage, this would not, as a rule, have the effect of reducing real wages and might even have the effect of increasing them, through its adverse influence on the volume of output. The chief result of this policy would be to cause a great instability of prices, so violent perhaps as to make business calculations futile in an economic society functioning after the manner of that in which we live. To suppose that a flexible wage policy is a right and proper adjunct of a system which on the whole is one of laissez-faire, is the opposite of the truth. It is only in a highly authoritarian society, where sudden, substantial, all-round changes could be decreed that a flexible wage policy could function with success. One can imagine it in operation in Italy, Germany or Russia, but not in France, the United States or Great Britain.

If, as in Australia, an attempt were made to fix real wages by legislation, then there would be a certain level of employment corresponding to that level of real wages; and the actual level of employment would, in a closed system, oscillate violently between that level and no employment at all, according as the rate of investment was or was not below the rate compatible with that level; whilst prices would be in unstable equilibrium when investment was at the critical level, racing to zero whenever investment was below it, and to infinity whenever it was above it. The element of stability would have to be found, if at all, in the factors controlling the quantity of money being so determined that there always existed some level of money-wages at which the quantity of money would be such as to establish a relation between the rate of interest and the marginal efficiency of capital which would maintain investment at the critical level. In this event employment would be constant (at the level appropriate to the legal real wage) with money-wages and prices fluctuating rapidly in the degree just necessary to maintain this rate of investment at the appropriate figure. In the actual case of Australia, the escape was found, partly of course in the inevitable inefficacy of the legislation to achieve its object, and partly in Australia not being a closed system, so that the level of money-wages was itself a determinant of the level of foreign investment and hence of total investment, whilst the terms of trade were an important influence on real wages.

In the light of these considerations I am now of the opinion that the maintenance of a stable general level of money-wages is, on a balance of considerations, the most advisable policy for a closed system; whilst the same conclusion will hold good for an open system, provided that equilibrium with the rest of the world can be secured by means of fluctuating exchanges. There are advantages in some degree of flexibility in the wages of particular industries so as to expedite transfers from those which are relatively declining to those which are relatively expanding. But the money-wage level as a whole should be maintained as stable as possible, at any rate in the short period.

This policy will result in a fair degree of stability in the price-level; — greater stability, at least, than with a flexible wage policy. Apart from 'administered' or monopoly prices, the price-level will only change in the short period in response to the extent that changes in the volume of employment affect marginal prime costs; whilst in the long period they will only change in response to changes in the cost of production due to new techniques and new or increased equipment.

It is true that, if there are, nevertheless, large fluctuations in employment, substantial fluctuations in the price-level will accompany them. But the fluctuations will be less, as I have said above, than with a flexible wage policy.

Thus with a rigid wage policy the stability of prices will be bound up in the short period with the avoidance of fluctuations in employment. In the long period, on the other hand, we are still left with the choice between a policy of allowing prices to fall slowly with the progress of technique and equipment whilst keeping wages stable, or of allowing wages to rise slowly whilst keeping prices stable. On the whole my preference is for the latter alternative, on account of the fact that it is easier with an expectation of higher wages in future to keep the actual level of employment within a given range of full employment than with an expectation of lower wages in future, and on account also of the social advantages of gradually diminishing the burden of debt, the greater ease of adjustment from decaying to growing industries, and the psychological encouragement likely to be felt from a moderate tendency for money-wages to increase. But no essential point of principle is involved, and it would lead me beyond the scope of my present purpose to develop in detail the arguments on either side.

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