The High Wage Economy: the Stephenson critic

A recent trend has emerged in economics. The claim is that high wages can have a dynamic positive effect on market economies.  The intuition is that high wages increase productivity because they incite management to find new techniques of production. In essence, its an argument about efficiency wages: efficiency wages increase incentives to innovate on the part of managers, they can also incite workers to acquire more human capital and work harder and more diligently.

In economic history, this claim has been taken up by scholars like Robert Allen (see his work here for the general public) who argues that the Industrial Revolution took place in England because of high wages. The high-wages of England in the 17th and 18th centuries (relative to all other areas in Europe), together with cheap energy, created an incentive for capital-intensive methods of production (i.e. the industrial revolution). In fact, a great share of the literature on the desirability of high wages for economic development has emanated from the field of economic history.

I have always been skeptical of this argument for two reasons. The first is that efficiency wages is a strange theory that relies on debatable assumptions about labor (strangely, I have been convinced of this point by Austrian scholars like Don Bellante and Pavel Ryksa). The second is that numerous scholars have advanced large criticisms of the underlying data. Robert Allen – the figurehead proponent of the high wage argument – has been constantly criticized by historians like Jane Humphries (see here) for the quality of the data and assumptions used. Allen defends himself on numerous occasions and many of his replies (mainly those on the role of family size in living standards) show that his initial case might have been too conservative (i.e. he is more “correct” than he claims).

Until a year or two ago, I was agnostic on the issue even though I was skeptical. That was until I met Judy Stephenson – a colleague at the London School of Economics. Judy did what I really like to do – dig for data (yes, I am weird like that). She went to the original sources of data used by Allen and others and she looked at what any Law-and-Economics buffs like me like to look at – transaction costs and contracting models.

She recently published her work as a working paper at the LSE and what she found is crucial! Labor was not hired directly, it was hired through contractors who charged costs on the basis of days worked. But this did not translate into wages actually paid to workers. The costs included risks and overheads for contractors. Somewhere between 20% and 30% of the daily costs were not given to workers as wages. Thus, the wage series used to claim that England (Stephenson concentrates on London though) had high wages are actually 20% to 30% below the level often reported. They are also substantially close to those in western Europe.

Thus, the high wage story for England seems weaker. This little piece of historical evidence brought about by Judy is something to think about carefully when one makes the argument that high wages are conducive to growth. Since most of the argument brought to the public was informed largely by this argument in economic history, it makes sense to be cautious when thinking about it in the future.