Alchian on Money Illusion and the Wage-Price Lag During Inflation

At the end of my post a couple of days ago, I observed that the last two sentences of the footnote that I reproduced from Alchian’s “Information Costs, Pricing, and Resource Unemployment,” required a lot of unpacking. So let’s come back to it and try to figure out what Alchian meant. The point of the footnote was to say that Keynes’s opaque definition of involuntary unemployment rested on a distinction between the information conveyed to workers by an increase in the price level, their money wage held constant, and the information conveyed to them by a reduction in their money wage, with the price level held constant. An increase in the price level with constant money wages conveys no information to workers about any change in their alternatives. Employed workers are not induced by an increase in prices to quit their current jobs in the expectation of finding higher paying jobs, and unemployed workers are not induced to refuse an offer from a prospective employer, as they would be if the employer cut the money wages at which he was willing pay his current employees or to hire new ones. That subtle difference in the information conveyed by a cut in real wages effected by rising prices versus the information conveyed by a cut in real wages effected by a cut in money wages, Alchian explained, is the reason that Keynes made his definition of involuntary unemployment contingent on the differing responses of workers to a reduced real wage resulting from a rising price level and from a falling money wage.

Here is where the plot thickens, because Alchian adds the following comment.

And this is perfectly consistent with Keynes’s definition of [involuntary] unemployment, and it is also consistent with his entire theory of market adjustment processes . . . , since he believed wages lagged behind nonwage prices – an unproved and probably false belief (R. A. Kessel and A. A. Alchian, “The Meaning and Validity of the Inflation-Induced Lag of Wages Behind Prices,” Amer. Econ. Rev. 50 [March 1960]:43-66). Without this belief a general price-level rise is indeed general; it includes wages, and as such there is no reason to believe a price-level rise is equivalent in real terms to a money-wage cut in a particular job.

So, according to Alchian, Keynes’s assumption that the information extracted by workers from a price-level increase is not the same as the information extracted from a nominal wage cut depends on the existence of a lag in the adjustment of wages to an inflationary disturbance. Keynes believed that during periods of inflation, output prices rise before, and rise faster than, wages rise, at least in the early stages of inflation. But if prices and wages rise simultaneously and at the same rate during inflation, then there would be no basis for workers to draw different inferences about their employment opportunities from observing price increases as opposed to observing a nominal wage cut. Alchian believes that the assumption that there is a wage-lag during inflation is both theoretically problematic, and empirically suspect, relying on several important papers that he co-authored with Reuben Kessel that found little support for the existence of such a lag in the historical data on wages and prices.

I have two problems with Alchian’s caveat about the existence of a wage-price lag.

First, Alchian’s premise (with which I agree totally) in the article from which I am quoting is that lack of information about the characteristics of goods being sold and about the characteristics of sellers or buyers (when the transaction involves a continuing relationship between the transactors) and about the prices and characteristics of alternatives induces costly search activities, the holding of inventories, and even rationing or queuing, as alternatives to immediate price adjustments as a response to fluctuations in demand or supply. The speed of price adjustment is thus an economically determined phenomenon, the speed depending on, among other things, the particular characteristics of the good or service being sold and the ease of collecting information about the good and service. For example, highly standardized commodities about which information is readily available tend to have more rapidly adjusting prices than those of idiosyncratic goods and services requiring intensive information gathering by transactors before they can come to terms on a transaction. If employment transactions typically involve a more intensive information gathering process about the characteristics of workers and employers than most other goods and services, then Alchian’s own argument suggests that there should be a lag in wage adjustment relative to the prices of most other goods. An inflation, on Alchian’s reasoning, ought to induce an initial response in the prices of the more standardized commodities with price adjustments in less standardized, more informationally complex, markets, like labor markets, coming later. So I don’t understand Alchian’s theoretical basis for questioning the existence of a wage lag.

Second, my memory is a bit hazy, and I will need to check his article on the wage lag, but I do believe that Alchian pointed out that there is a problem of interpretation in evaluating evidence on the wage lag, because inflation may occur concurrently, but independently, with another change that reduces the demand for labor and causes the real wage to fall. So if one starts, as did Keynes in his discussion of involuntary unemployment, from the premise that a recession is associated with a fall in the real demand for labor that requires a reduction in the real wage to restore full employment, then it is not clear to me why it would be rational for a worker to increase his reservation wage immediately upon observing that output prices are increasing. Workers will typically have some expectation about how rapidly the wage at which they can find employment will rise; this expectation is clearly related to their expectation of how fast prices will rise. If workers observe that prices are rising faster than they expected prices to rise, while their wage is not rising any faster than expected, there is uncertainty about whether their wage opportunities in general have fallen or whether the wage from their current employer has fallen relative to other opportunities. Saturos, in a comment on Tuesday’s post, argued that the two scenarios are indeed symmetrical and that to suggest otherwise is indeed an instance of money illusion. The argument is well taken, but I think that at least in transitional situations (when it seems to me theory supports the existence of a wage lag) and in which workers have some evidence of deteriorating macroeconomic conditions, there is a basis, independent of money illusion, for the Keynesian distinction about the informational content of a real wage cut resulting from a price level increase versus a real wage cut resulting from a cut in money wages.  But I am not sure that this is the last word on the subject.

10 Responses to “Alchian on Money Illusion and the Wage-Price Lag During Inflation”

  1. 1 bill woolsey June 15, 2012 at 11:53 am

    With a supply shock, some prices rise, and there is no particular reason to believe that you can find a better paying job that will maintain real wages.

  2. 2 fabooks June 16, 2012 at 2:33 am

    seems to me that all commentariat and players are united in a struggle to find an acceptable ideological path to bringing about a crude solution to the problem – inflating the debt away – but can’t quite bring themselves to say it…..the contest is between the financial establishement who feed from the transmission of credit, and credit junkies (e.g those with huge mortgages) versus the ungeared (e.g savers and pensionistas)

    my money is on inflation

  3. 3 Tas von Gleichen June 16, 2012 at 4:36 am

    Understood the real consequences from inflation is price level increases. This is really the dilemma everything is going up in prices around us. At the same time, or salaries stay the same. I would call this punishing the low and middle income families.

  4. 4 David Glasner June 16, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Bill, Is your point, that a worker should not infer anything about his the wage at which he can expect to be employed from observing that prices are rising without knowing what has caused the prices to rise? If so, I agree.

    fabooks, We should be so lucky. Part of the problem is that there is a kind of prisoner’s dilemma at work. All creditors will be better off if debts are written down or eroded somehow. But every creditor has an incentive to insist that his debt be paid in full and that other creditors renegotiate their loans to ease the burden on their creditors. In that scenario, there is no adjustment of an unsustainable (and hence uncollectible) debt obligation, and everyone loses. Inflation is a way of getting creditors to accept the partial repayment of their obligations that will make them all better off in the aggregate than they would be if debt obligations are not renegotiated or otherwise reduced.

    Tas, The question is whether wages and salaries are going down because of inflation or whether wages and salaries are actually going to be higher (in real terms) with inflation than they would have been otherwise. No one really knows. But my position is that, given the situation that we are in, inflation will make everyone better off than they would be without inflation.

  5. 5 Olivier Braun June 23, 2012 at 2:17 am

    Dr Glasner,

    I am the happy owner – but still have to read it (your post encourages me to – of Alchian & Allen’s Exchange and Production (2nd ed, 1977). Is that book the same as University Economics, under a diffrent title, or a different textbook ? I couldn’t find out, but guess you know.

    Thank you.

  6. 6 David Glasner June 28, 2012 at 9:10 am

    Olivier, You are fortunate to own that volume and you will be repaid handsomely for the time and effort that you expend in reading it. Exchange and Production is essentially the same book as University Economics, except that it is a paperback and excludes the macroeconomic chapters in University Economics. But the greatness of the book is primarily in the microeconomic part, so you will get most of what is important from Exchange and Production.

  7. 7 Olivier Braun July 5, 2012 at 12:46 am

    Thank you.

  1. 1 Money Wages and Money Illusion « Uneasy Money Trackback on June 27, 2012 at 2:35 pm
  2. 2 My Paper (co-authored with Paul Zimmerman) on Hayek and Sraffa « Uneasy Money Trackback on February 20, 2013 at 9:17 pm
  3. 3 Is unemployment voluntary or involuntary? | Utopia - you are standing in it! Trackback on June 26, 2014 at 2:16 pm

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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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