22 Jul 2011

A Global Minimum Wage System

By Thomas Palley
July 21, 2011

The global economy is suffering from severe shortage of demand. In developed economies that shortfall is explicit in high unemployment rates and large output gaps. In emerging market economies it is implicit in their reliance on export-led growth. In part this shortfall reflects the lingering disruptive effects of the financial crisis and Great Recession, but it also reflects globalization's undermining of the income generation process.

One mechanism that can help rebuild this process is a global minimum wage system. That does not mean imposing U.S. or European minimum wages in developing countries. It does mean establishing a global set of rules for setting country minimum wages.

The minimum wage is a vital policy tool that provides a floor to wages. This floor reduces downward pressure on wages, and it also creates a rebound ripple effect that raises all wages in the bottom two deciles of the wage spectrum. Furthermore, it compresses wages at the bottom of the wage spectrum, thereby helping reduce inequality. Most importantly, an appropriately designed minimum wage can help connect wages and productivity growth, which is critical for building a sustainable demand generation process.

Traditionally, minimum wage systems have operated by setting a fixed wage that is periodically adjusted to take account of inflation and other changing circumstances. Such an approach is fundamentally flawed and inappropriate for the global economy. It is flawed because the minimum wage is always playing catch-up, and it is inappropriate because the system is difficult to generalize across countries.

Instead, countries should set a minimum wage that is a fixed percent (say 50 percent) of their median wage—which is the wage at which half of workers are paid more and half are paid less. This design has several advantages. First, the minimum wage will automatically rise with the median wage, creating a true floor that moves with the economy. If the median wage rises with productivity growth, the minimum wage will also rise with productivity growth.

Second, since the minimum wage is set by reference to the local median wage, it is set by reference to local economic conditions and reflects what a country can bear. Moreover, since all countries are bound by the same rule, all are treated equally.

Third, if countries want a higher minimum wage they are free to set one. The global minimum wage system would only set a floor; it would not set a ceiling.

Fourth, countries would also be free to set regional minimum wages within each country. Thus, a country like Germany that has higher unemployment in the former East Germany and lower unemployment in the former West Germany could set two minimum wages: one for former East Germany, and one for former West Germany. The only requirement would be that the regional minimum wage be greater than or equal to 50 percent of the regional median wage.

Such a system of regional minimum wages would introduce additional flexibility that recognizes wages and living costs vary within countries as well as across countries. This enables the minimum wage system to avoid the danger of over-pricing labor, while still retaining the demand side benefits a minimum wage confers by improving income distribution and helping tie wages to productivity growth.

Finally, a global minimum wage system would also confer significant political benefits by cementing understanding of the need for global labor market rules and showing they are feasible. Just as globalization demands global trade rules for goods and services and global financial rules for financial markets, so too labor markets need global rules.

In sum, globalization has increased international labor competition, which has contributed to rupturing the link between wages and productivity growth. That rupture has undermined the old wage-based system of demand growth, forcing a turn to reliance on debt and asset price inflation to drive growth. It has also increased income inequality.

Restoring the wage–productivity growth link is therefore vital for both economic and political stability. A global minimum wage system can help accomplish this.

© 2011 Thomas Palley. Republished with the author's kind permission.

This article is drawn from Chapter 12, "The Challenge of Globalization," of Thomas Palley's forthcoming book: From Financial Crisis to Stagnation: The Destruction of Shared Prosperity and the Role of Economic Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

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