A Tale of Two Countries and Labor

I struggled with whether to add this to Sandwichman’s post or start anew. This is along the lines of what he might talk about in preserving Labor by limiting hours when there is only so much work to be done. Take note on how Sweden handled it as compared to the US.

In the US, in particular, the ability of labor to protect its share of national income, and of lower and middle-income households to protect their share of the wage pool, eroded substantially. As a result, real growth in median disposable income slowed by nine percentage points from 1993 to 2005, and by another seven percentage points from 2005 to 2014.

Sweden, where median households received a larger share of the gains from output growth in the 2005-2014 period, has bucked this negative trend. In response to the growth slowdown of the last decade, Sweden’s government worked with employers and unions to reduce working hours and preserve jobs. Thanks to these interventions, market incomes fell or were flat for only 20% of households. And generous net transfers meant that disposable incomes increased for almost all households.

To be sure, the US also intervened after the crisis, implementing a fiscal stimulus package in 2009 that, along with other transfers, raised median disposable income growth by the equivalent of five percentage points. A four-point decline in median market income thus became a one-percentage-point gain in median disposable income. But that did not change the fact that, from 2005 to the end of 2013, market incomes declined for 81% of US households.

Similarly, recent research by Berkeley’s Emmanuel Saez shows that real market income for the bottom 99% in the US grew in both 2014 and 2015 at rates not seen since 1999. Nonetheless, by the end of 2015, real market incomes for that group had recovered only about two-thirds of the losses borne during the 2007-2009 recession. In other words, while disposable income did not fall in either Sweden or the US, the US approach was to compensate for a decline in market incomes, which Sweden had managed to head off.

The Great Income Stagnation Laura Tyson and Anu Madgavkar, Project Syndicate.