The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, by John Maynard Keynes:
From Chapter 19: Changes in Money-Wages: Thus the reduction in money-wages will have no lasting tendency to increase employment except by virtue of its repercussions 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, %u2014 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 than 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 three 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 expediency, 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...