Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Public Policy and Wages in the US and UK

Copyright, The New York Times Company

Between 2009 and 2011, the value-added tax in Britain increased to 20 percent from 15 percent. (The value-added tax is essentially a national sales tax.) Because the tax is part of the overall price of essentially anything bought in the country, it was no surprise that the rate of inflation of prices on consumer goods was elevated during those years as businesses passed on the cost of the taxes they paid to their customers.

In many circumstances, wages roughly keep up with consumer price inflation as the sellers of consumer goods use their extra revenue to compete for workers. But wage inflation is not guaranteed when consumer price inflation comes from sales tax increases, because the extra revenue goes to the public treasury in the form of sales tax receipts rather than going to the sellers of consumer goods.

In this way, increasing the sales tax rate to 20 percent from 15 percent should reduce real wages by 4 or 5 percent. (By real wages, I mean the resources that a person has as a consequence of working after taxes, subsidies and inflation. Because of taxes and subsidies, those resources are less than the aggregate economic value created by working and less than the cost to employers of having employees on the payroll.)

A recent study of wages in Britain confirmed this: inflation-adjusted wages fell 4 or 5 percent in Britain between 2009 and 2011.

While British workers saw their purchasing power eroded by the sales tax increase, the unemployed did not, because unemployment benefits in Britain are automatically indexed to inflation. Additional inflation of 5 percent meant a 5 percent rise in unemployment benefits. By giving a raise to the unemployed without giving a raise to workers, the added sales tax in Britain reduced the reward of working.

The United States does not have a national sales tax. A few states did increase their state sales tax rates between 2011 and this year (others decreased it), but the national average increase since 2007 has been only a couple of tenths of a percentage point.

Nevertheless, adjusted for taxes, subsidies and inflation, wages are lower in the United States, too. As I showed in a post last year (see especially the second chart), public policies in the United States reduced real wages by increasing the incomes of unemployed people through new unemployment benefits, food stamp expansions and other increases in benefits of the social safety net.

As long as the United States and Britain retain their wage-depressing public policies, neither country should expect its labor markets to return to what they used to be.

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