James Knight

Guest Writer –  Philosophical Muser

Sonia Sadha does a brilliant job of getting her argument about pensions and risk completely the wrong way round. She tells us that:

“We need to ask hard questions about why young people are being expected to bear increasing amounts of individual risk. The obvious example is pensions. Gone are the days when companies pledged to pay retired workers a guaranteed income for the rest of their lives; today’s workers must, instead, save into an individual pot that must last.”


I’m sure the irony will be lost on most people associated with The Guardian – but this, of course, from a paper whose columnists continually bleat on about the plight of falling wages. To understand why this view is wrong you need to understand why falling wages are not always the bad sign that most think they are.

But before we get to that, it’s a shame Sonia Sadha doesn’t seem to grasp that pensions have an impact on the price of labour – they are merely deferred labour costs. Whether the pay to pension ratio is 90:10, 80:20 or 70:30, they must still be factored into a businesses running costs.

We are living in a time where firms are forced to pay a minimum wage  (which puts the value of labour out of whack with the price of labour, increasing both unemployment and consumer prices*) and where people are living longer, making pensions prohibitively expensive. The reality is, that more and more employees are unable to produce the work that is required to cover the combined costs to their employer of both their pay and lengthy pension payment plan.

Your pension is delayed pay, which basically means it’s pay that you’re saving away for when you retire. So the only way for many employers to keep up the kind of pension commitments that were common when we didn’t live so long, would be to increase the pension to pay ratio, which would mean cutting pay to increase pension length. And that’s a policy you will never see a Guardian columnist endorse.

What Sonia Sadha sees as the ignominy of apparently “forcing individuals to bear more risk” is really just a simple case of arithmetic.

Why falling wages are a good thing

Now, about falling wages. Falling wages are, in net terms, a good thing for an economy overall. Obviously, they are bad for the people whose wages have fallen – but falling wages are a transfer from workers to employers (and indirectly, to consumers) – there is no net negative externality, it is merely a distributional effect.

But there are several additional positive elements to lower wages. People tend to confuse economic growth and job creation, but most of the real benefits of economic progress come from saving labour, not increasing its cost. Lower wages means it costs less to produce something, which is a similar benefit to finding a new efficiency or a new technological innovation.

On top of technology improving living standards, and consumers having goods and services more cheaply, there is a third positive to falling wages in places like the UK and USA – a boost to our domestic economy (not to mention poorer people in the developing world having more money when homegrown inefficiencies are outsourced). This is connected with the ratio of total labour costs to real output, and how the decreasing wage you need to pay employees to produce one unit of output increases the likelihood of keeping it in this country – another thing that Guardian writers have always claimed to like.

* This is Basic Economics 101 that politicians love to ignore. The supply and demand curves of labour are factors that mustn’t be overlooked because employment and wages are always in a trade-off tension. Price floors, like a state-imposed minimum wage, artificially hold wages higher than their marginal value, which means when economic supply and demand forces are trying to push wages down, something has got to give with a minimum wage law, and it’s usually unemployment and increased prices for consumers.

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Last Update: May 28, 2018