Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Economic Consequences of Mr. Torre

The market for New York Yankee mangers was once a notoriously flexible labor market, but now it provides an example of the rigidity known as "sticky wages."

Joe Torre recently turned down a $5 million contract to return to the team. That's lots of money - more than any other baseball manager - but a cut from the $7.5 million he received this year. Torre explained his decision:
If your salary is such and it’s reduced, yeah, $5 million is a lot of money; I’m not going to sneeze at that. I’m not going to make that this year. So it’s nothing I take for granted. The fact that someone is reducing your salary is telling me they’re not satisfied with what you’re doing.
Sports Illustrated columnist Tom Verducci described it as a de facto firing of Torre. The Yankees made "a contract offer they thought would strike just the right balance: just good enough for public relations purposes, but insulting enough that no man of Torre's pride and accomplishments would ever accept."

The psychological response to interpret a nominal wage reduction as an insult - preferring to withdraw labor rather than accept a cut - means that wages cannot effectively adjust in a downward direction.

This type of behavior has implications for the macroeconomic aggregate supply curve. One standard version of Keynesian* aggregate supply is based on sticky wages: a nominal wage is set in advance, and the quantity of labor demanded increases with the price level, leading to an upward sloping AS curve. In a recession, the adjustment of nominal wages necessary to return to the full-employment (classical) equilibrium is downward, while in a boom when output is above potential (i.e. the economy is "overheating") wages should adjust upward. If the upward adjustment can be accomplished easily, while the downward adjustment is resisted - i.e. wages are more sticky downward than upward - the resulting aggregate supply curve is flatter below potential output (full employment) and becomes vertical when potential output is reached. This is described by Keynes in chapter 20 of the General Theory:
There is, perhaps, something a little perplexing in the apparent asymmetry between Inflation and Deflation. For whilst a deflation of effective demand below the level required for full employment will diminish employment as well as prices, an inflation of it above this level will merely affect prices. This asymmetry is, however, merely a reflection of the fact that, whilst labour is always in a position to refuse to work on a scale involving a real wage which is less than the marginal disutility of that amount of employment, it is not in a position to insist on being offered work on a scale involving a real wage which is not greater than the marginal disutility of that amount of employment.
In addition to the implications for aggregate supply, The Economist suggests Torre's behavior illustrates a problem with efforts to improve corporate governance and reduce obscene CEO compensation:
In theory, if executive pay rose too high because it was set in a market dominated by cronyism (ie, a board of directors who are chums of the boss, who appointed them), then shouldn’t a move to a system in which the board actually tries to get value for the shareholders’ money result in lower pay?

Mr Torre’s fate shows why the answer is probably no. Once a pay level has been reached, it becomes a minimum. Mr Torre may still have been the best paid manager in baseball under the new contract, but he would not have been as well paid as before. He is already wealthy and successful. He needs the extra money less than he needs respect—much like the typical boss of a big company after a few years in the job.

Or, as Keynes wrote in chapter 3 of the General Theory:

Though the struggle over money-wages between individuals and groups is often believed to determine the general level of real-wages, it is, in fact, concerned with a different object. Since there is imperfect mobility of labour, and wages do not tend to an exact equality of net advantage in different occupations, any individual or group of individuals, who consent to a reduction of money-wages relatively to others, will suffer a relative reduction in real wages, which is a sufficient justification for them to resist it...
Of course, the alternative interpretation of his decision is that Torre places an extremely high value on leisure time activities, like watching the Red Sox play in the World Series on TV.

* There is some dispute regarding whether this is an accurate interpretation of what Keynes really meant.

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