Policymakers fear a labor shortage is pushing up wages and prices. Wrong. Real wages are down and workers are struggling
The January jobs report from the US labor department is heightening fears that a so-called “tight” labor market is fueling inflation, and therefore the Fed must put on the brakes by raising interest rates.
This line of reasoning is totally wrong.
Among the biggest job gains in January were workers who are normally temporary and paid low wages: leisure and hospitality, retail, transport and warehousing. In January, employers cut fewer of these workers than in most years because of rising customer demand combined with Omicron’s negative effect on the supply of workers. Due to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “seasonal adjustment”, cutting fewer workers than usual for this time of year appears as “adding lots of jobs”.
Fed policymakers are poised to raise interest rates at their March meeting and then continue raising them, in order to slow the economy. They fear that a labor shortage is pushing up wages, which in turn are pushing up prices – and that this wage-price spiral could get out of control.
It’s a huge mistake. Higher interest rates will harm millions of workers who will be involuntarily drafted into the inflation fight by losing jobs or long-overdue pay raises. There’s no “labor shortage” pushing up wages. There’s a shortage of good jobs paying adequate wages to support working families. Raising interest rates will worsen this shortage.
There’s no “wage-price spiral” either, even though Fed chief Jerome Powell has expressed concern about wage hikes pushing up prices. To the contrary, workers’ real wages have dropped because of inflation. Even though overall wages have climbed, they’ve failed to keep up with price increases – making most workers worse off in terms of the purchasing power of their dollars.
Wage-price spirals used to be a problem. Remember when John F Kennedy “jawboned” steel executives and the United Steel Workers to keep a lid on wages and prices? But such spirals are no longer a problem. That’s because the typical worker today has little or no bargaining power.
Only 6% of private-sector workers are unionized. A half-century ago, more than a third were. Today, corporations can increase output by outsourcing just about anything anywhere because capital is global. A half-century ago, corporations needing more output had to bargain with their own workers to get it.
These changes have shifted power from labor to capital – increasing the share of the economic pie going to profits and shrinking the share going to wages. This power shift ended wage-price spirals.
Slowing the economy won’t remedy either of the two real causes of today’s inflation – continuing worldwide bottlenecks in the supply of goods and the ease with which big corporations (with record profits) pass these costs to customers in higher prices.