A couple of weeks ago, in the first of three posts about Armen Alchian’s discussion of the microeconomic underpinnings for Keynesian involuntary unemployment, I quoted the following passage from a footnote in Alchian’s classic paper, “Information Costs, Pricing, and Resource Unemployment.”
[C]onsider the following question: Why would a cut in money wages provoke a different response than if the price level rose relative to wages – when both would amount to the same change in relative prices, but differ only in the money price level? Almost everyone thought Keynes presumed a money wage illusion. However, an answer more respectful of Keynes is available. The price level rise conveys different information: Money wages everywhere have fallen relative to prices. On the other hand, a cut in one’s own wage money wage does not imply options elsewhere have fallen. A cut only in one’s present job is revealed. The money versus real wage distinction is not the relevant comparison; the wage in the present job versus the wage in all other jobs is the relevant comparison. This rationalizes Keynes’ definition of involuntary unemployment in terms of price-level changes. If wages were cut everywhere else, and if employees knew it, they would not choose unemployment – but they would if they believed wages were cut just in their current job. When one employer cuts wages, this does not signify cuts elsewhere. His employees rightly think wages are not reduced elsewhere. On the other hand, with a rise in the price level, employees have less reason to think their current real wages are lower than they are elsewhere. So they do not immediately refuse a lower real wage induced by a higher price level, whereas they would refuse an equal money wage cut in their present job. It is the revelation of information about prospects elsewhere that makes the difference.
Saturos made the following comment on that post:
“The price level rise conveys different information: Money wages everywhere have fallen relative to prices. On the other hand, a cut in one’s own wage money wage does not imply options elsewhere have fallen.”
But that is money illusion. If my money wage rises by less than inflation, that says nothing about whether other money wages have risen by less than inflation. There is no explanation for a separate behavioral response to a cut in one’s observed real wage through nominal wages or prices – unless workers are observing their nominal wages instead of their real wages, i.e. money illusion.
I gave only a cursory response to Saturos’s comment, though I did come back to it in the third of my series of posts on Alchian’s discussion of Keynesian unemployment. But my focus was primarily on Alchian’s discussion of the validity of the inflation-induced-wage-lag hypothesis, a hypothesis disputed by Alchian and attributed by him to Keynes. I discussed my own reservations about Alchian’s position on the wage lag in that post, but here I want to go back and discuss Saturos’s objection directly. My claim is that there is a difference between the assumption that workers observe only nominal, not real, wages, in the process of making decisions about whether to accept or reject wage offers and the assumption of money illusion.
Here is how to think about the difference. In any period, some workers are searching for employment, and presumably they (or at least some of them) can search more efficiently (i.e., collect more wage offers) while unemployed than employed. In obtaining wage offers, workers can only observe a nominal wage offer for their services; they can’t observe a real wage, because it is too costly and time-consuming for any individual to collect observations for all the goods and services that enter into a reasonably comprehensive price index, and then compute a price level from those price observations. However, based on experience and other sources of information, workers, like other economic agents, form expectations about what prices they will observe (i.e., the prices that will clear markets). In any period, workers’ wage expectations are determined, in part, by their expectations of movements in the general price level. The higher the expected rate of inflation, the higher the expected wage. The absence of money illusion means that workers change their expectations of wage offers (given expectations about changes in real wages) in line with their expectations of inflation. However, within any period, workers’ expectations are fixed. (Actually, the period can be defined as the length of time during which expectations are held fixed.) This is simply the temporary-equilibrium construct introduced by Hicks in Value and Capital and again in Capital and Growth.
With expectations fixed during a given period, workers, observing wage offers, either accept or reject those offers by comparing a given nominal nominal wage offer with the nominal reservation wage settled upon at the beginning of the period, a reservation wage conditional on the expectation of inflation for that period formed at the beginning of the period. Thus, the distinction made by Alchian between the information conveyed by a nominal-wage cut at a constant price level versus the information conveyed by a constant money wage at an unexpectedly high price level is perfectly valid, and entails no money illusion. The only assumption is that, over some finite period of time, inflation or price-level expectations are held constant instead of being revised continuously and instantaneously. Another way of saying this is that the actual rate of inflation does not always equal the expected rate of inflation. But to repeat, there is no assumption of money illusion. I am pretty sure that I heard Earl Thompson explain this in his graduate macrotheory class at UCLA around 1972-73, but I had to work through the argument again for myself before remembering that I had heard it all from Earl about 40 years earlier.