Labor Wedge

Some words or phrases latch onto you like thistles while walking through blooming prairie grasses. They tag onto your pant leg until you notice them and pluck them off for a closer look. Labor wedge has such a nice visual, a separation between what a model is predicting and the empirical data, I think that’s how it wedged its way into my thoughts.

It seems to be a fairly new macroeconomic term, defined at the start of a paper by Loukas Karabarbounis, University of Chicago, as:

Do fluctuations of the labor wedge, defined as the gap between the firm’s marginal product of labor (MPN) and the household’s marginal rate of substitution (MRS), reflect fluctuations of the gap between the MPN and the real wage or fluctuations of the gap between the real wage and the MRS? For many countries and most forcefully for the United States, fluctuations of the labor wedge predominantly reflect fluctuations of the gap between the real wage and the MRS.

At different time periods, American households have found it advantageous to substitute out paid work for something else. They preferred to spend their time, perhaps at home, performing valued activities for their families. Or perhaps the value was found in associational life of another nature. De Tocqueville said years ago that Americans are apt at associational life.

More interesting are the measuring questions. How do we categorize where people have the opportunity to perform duties which build capital for themselves and, most probably, their communities? Where are they exerting energies in lieu of showing up for a paycheck?

Sorting by their economic benefit seems sensible. If the ambitions fall under health related activities (staying out of the workforce to care for an aging parent) then the credit goes to pubic health. If education (during these Covid times people are staying out the workforce to supervise their children’s education) is the goal then shuffle those hours to the public education column of the ledger. If governance (people are choosing to spend their time on park boards or citizen commissions instead of working) is where the hours are spent, then register the tally under civics, and so on.

A better understanding of these motives and ventures will smooth out the prickly problem of labor wedges.