William Galston’s Not-So-Great Decoupling of Pay, Productivity, and Common Sense

Wall Street Journal columnist William A. Galston says “the Great Decoupling of wages and benefits from productivity [is] the biggest economic story of the past 40 years.”  Wow!  The Biggest Economic Story of the past 40 years!  Imagine that!  I have been researching such data longer than 40 years yet this particular story is so old (and so wrong) I had almost forgotten about it.   

The alleged decoupling of growth of pay from productivity, as Robert Gordon explained in 2009, “compares apples with oranges, and then oranges with bananas.” Median wages for the whole economy were deflated by the consumer price index, which exaggerated inflation and understated real income growth. Rapidly growing health and retirement benefits were often excluded. These muddled measures of real pay, which also failed to adjust for changing household size or hours, were compared to productivity of the nonfarm business sector, not the whole economy. And real output was calculated using GDP deflators that showed much less inflation than the CPI. With those errors, one estimate for the income-productivity gap from 1979-2007 was 1.46 percentage points, but Gordon’s adjustments shrunk that to a negligible 0.16. He also noted that mean and median incomes grew at remarkably similar rates, suggesting inequality did not explain much.

A 2013 study from the London School of Economics likewise found no significant gap between growth of compensation and productivity in the United States or UK (unlike the EU and Japan) if both measures are properly calculated with the same price index. The LSE study concluded that, “the debate around net decoupling in the UK and US is rather a distraction (it is actually more important in Continental Europe and Japan). Obtaining faster productivity growth is a highly desirable policy goal in the current climate of near recession as it will ultimately lead to faster wage growth and consumption.”

Galston tells other stories, such as “mobility has stalled” – which is indefensible nonsense. His allusion to the “past 40 years,” appears based on a Pew Research paper’s pointless claim that the “middle class” constituted a smaller share of adults in 2011 than in the idyllic year of 1971. As Pew Research hesitantly revealed, that is mainly because millions of people moved up – “the upper-income tier [earning more than double median income] rose to 20% of adults in 2011, up from 14% in 1971.”

All this statistical fog is thin camouflage for Galston’s invitation to grant authoritarian politicians and bureaucrats the discretion to somehow “link the tax rates individual firms have to the compensation practices they adopt.” That may well be the worst economic policy idea of the past 40 years, trailing barely behind Nixon’s dictatorial price controls.