Ryan Avent had a nice piece in the NYT this morning pushing the argument that Jared Bernstein, Josh Bivens, and I (among others) have been making for years, that higher wages can be a force driving more rapid productivity growth. The basic point is straightforward, when labor is expensive, employers have more incentive to find ways to use less of it. In this story, anything we can do to push up wages, like promoting unionization or raising minimum wages, is likely to lead to higher productivity.
The one important point that Ryan misses in this piece is that we may already be seeing a turning point. The tightening of the labor market over the last two years has led to upward pressure on wages, especially for those at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution. As Jared and I noted:
"The real weekly earnings for full-time, low-wage workers are up by more than 3 percent over the past two years. Real weekly earnings for the median African American worker have risen by more than 5 percent over the past two years, while the increase for Hispanics has been more than 4 percent."
This rise in wages is the result of the fact that the Fed allowed the unemployment rate to keep falling to its current 4.1 percent rate rather than hiking interest rates enough to keep it near the 5.0 percent level that most economists considered the best we could do without triggering spiraling inflation.
It also looks as though higher wages may be producing the productivity dividend that we predicted. Productivity grew at a 3.0 percent annual rate in the third quarter, after growing 1.5 percent in the second quarter. With the latest projections showing GDP growth in the fourth quarter at 3.3 percent, productivity growth is likely to come in over 2.0 percent in the fourth quarter. This follows five years in which productivity growth averaged less than 0.7 percent annually.
Productivity data are notoriously erratic, so it is too early to declare the trend of weak growth over, but these are promising signs. And, there is no doubt that workers at the middle and bottom have seen decent wage growth over the last two years. These are important points to add to Ryan's piece.