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Why U.S. Wage and Employment Behavior Differs from That in Britain and Japan

  • Robert J. Gordon

This paper argues that rigid wages cannot provide the underpinnings of a universally valid theory of the business cycle, simply because wages are not universally rigid. Several different statistical techniques suggest that wage rates in the U.K. and Japan are between three and 15 times more flexible than in the U.S. during the postwar period. Corresponding to greater flexibility in wages, these two countries also exhibit more stable employment behavior over the business cycle. In historical data covering the period between the late-nineteenth-century and 1940, U.S. wage behavior appears to be much more similar to that in Britain and Japan. The contrast between the prewar data and the postwar data, where the U.S. is a definite outlier, suggests that the 1948 invention of the three-year staggered U.S. wage contract may be the crucial factor underlying sluggish U.S. postwar wage dynamics. A theoretical section attempts to distill from recent literature those features of labor market institutions that are regarded as optimal by economic theory. Japanese institutions exhibit more similarity to this theoretical paradigm than those in the U.S. or U.K. Economic theory predicts that long-duration contracts, like those in the postwar U.S., are more likely to emerge when the perceived cost of renegotiation is high, but we must appeal to history and cultural differences to explain why conflict avoidance plays a more prominent role in the development of Japanese labor market institutions than in the American case. In this comparison Britain is the odd-man-out, with well-publicized industrial strife, together with short contract durations. I appeal to history, the different legal tradition, and the nature of the British unions themselves to explain why the three-year contract became established in America but not in Britain.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 0809.

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Date of creation: Nov 1981
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Publication status: published as Gordon, Robert J. "Why U.S. Wage and Employment behavior Differs from Thatin Britain and Japan." The Economic Journal, Vol. 92, No. 365, (March 1982) , pp. 13-44.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:0809
Note: EFG
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  1. William H. Branson & Julio J. Rotemberg, 1981. "International adjustment with wage rigidity," NBER Chapters, in: International Seminar on Macroeconomics, pages 309-332 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. George A. Akerlof, 1978. "A theory of social custom, of which unemployment may be one consequence," Special Studies Papers 118, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  3. Jon Frye & Robert J. Gordon, 1980. "Government Intervention in the Inflation Process: The Econometrics of "Self-Inflicted Wounds"," NBER Working Papers 0550, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. George L. Perry, 1975. "Determinants of Wage Inflation Around the World," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 6(2), pages 403-448.
  5. Gordon, Donald F, 1974. "A Neo-Classical Theory of Keynesian Unemployment," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 12(4), pages 431-59, December.
  6. Brunner, Karl & Meltzer, Allan H., 1977. "Stabilization of the domestic and international economy," Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy, Elsevier, vol. 5(1), pages 1-6, January.
  7. Robert E. Cole, 1972. "Permanent employment in Japan: Facts and fantasies," Industrial and Labor Relations Review, ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 26(1), pages 615-630, October.
  8. Barro, Robert J., 1977. "Long-term contracting, sticky prices, and monetary policy," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 3(3), pages 305-316, July.
  9. Hashimoto, Masanori, 1979. "Bonus Payments, on-the-Job Training, and Lifetime Employment in Japan," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 87(5), pages 1086-1104, October.
  10. Medoff, James L & Abraham, Katharine G, 1980. "Experience, Performance, and Earnings," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 95(4), pages 703-36, December.
  11. Dale T. Mortensen, 1982. "The Matching Process as a Noncooperative Bargaining Game," NBER Chapters, in: The Economics of Information and Uncertainty, pages 233-258 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. Baily, Martin Neil, 1974. "Wages and Employment under Uncertain Demand," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 41(1), pages 37-50, January.
  13. repec:cup:cbooks:9780521068659 is not listed on IDEAS
  14. Lazear, Edward P, 1979. "Why Is There Mandatory Retirement?," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 87(6), pages 1261-84, December.
  15. Gray, Jo Anna, 1978. "On Indexation and Contract Length," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 86(1), pages 1-18, February.
  16. William D. Nordhaus, 1972. "The Worldwide Wage Explosion," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 3(2), pages 431-466.
  17. Azariadis, Costas, 1975. "Implicit Contracts and Underemployment Equilibria," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 83(6), pages 1183-1202, December.
  18. Grossman, Herschel I, 1977. " Risk Shifting and Reliability in Labor Markets," Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 79(2), pages 187-209.
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