Dr. Russell is Director of the School of Political Economy of the Foundation for Economic Education.
You hear it everywhere: Wages must be kept high in order to increase the purchasing power of the wage earners, so that they can buy back the products they make in our factories, and thus keep everybody working and prevent depressions.
But in both theory and practice, that "high wage and spending" cliché confuses the issue in two ways. First, regardless of the division of industrial income between wage earners and dividend earners, that income will still be spent in one way or another for more goods and services. Thus, the issue is not "spending" as such, but rather who does the spending and for what. Second, it is capital investment (which is also "spending") that builds the factories and provides the jobs here under discussion.
Actually, when there is an increase in the percentage of total industrial income going for wages, there is also likely to be an increase in unemployment. Here is how it works: When a company has losses or earns comparatively small profits, a higher percentage of the income available for distribution obviously goes to employees rather than to owners. During such "red ink" recessions and depressions, the owners get little or nothing; the employees sometimes get it all. Yet it is precisely during these loss-and-low-profit periods that unemployment is highest.
The Department of Commerce (Survey of Current Business series) will confirm the following: When the percentage of national income going to capital is higher than usual (that is, when industrial profits are above average), jobs are plentiful and unemployment is comparatively low. That correlation between high profits and more jobs should be obvious to everyone, since you can easily deduce it from the fact that companies go broke and close down when there are losses or inadequate profits. But for some unknown reason, that direct and observable relationship between industrial jobs and profits is usually denied by union leaders and government officials.
Since 1930 and our government’s deliberate policy of maintaining wages above the free market level, peacetime unemployment has become our most persistent economic problem. And millions of American workers are still unemployed today, in spite of the highest consumer purchasing power (and spending) in our history. Yet, for the most part, union leaders and lawmakers claim they will correct the situation by raising wages at the expense of profits!
For the past 15 years in Germany (and several other nations), the percentage of national income going for wages has been much lower than in the United States. If the "high wage and consumer spending" theory of employment had any validity at all, it would necessarily follow that there would be more unemployment (percentage wise) in Germany today than in the United States. But the reverse is true. In fact, there has been (and still is) a serious labor shortage in Germany, in spite of the influx of millions of persons from the occupied territories. But the current and increasing demands of the again-powerful German labor unions for "higher wages and more purchasing power" will doubtless soon change that surplus of jobs into a shortage.
All the "consumer purchasing power" in the world cannot create even one permanent job in an economy where the return on capital is negligible or nothing. That is, if every person in the world had twice as much money as he now has to spend, not one job would thereby be created unless the owners of the factories believed they could earn adequate profits. It is the actual and anticipated return on capital, not consumer purchasing power as such, that causes investment in new buildings and machines, and the resulting creation of more production and more jobs. Thus, laws and coercive union policies that increase wages at the expense of profits do not create jobs; they destroy them.
Reprints of this article are available of 2 cents each, this being No. 37 in a series of 39 suggested answers to various "Cliches of Socialism." Complete list available on request.