Contributed by Joe Montero
Wages are not a major cause of rising business costs. This is a bold statement in the face of all the rhetoric claiming the opposite to be true. This does not make it less true.
One qualification must be made. Wages do figure highly in small business. But this diminishes as the size of the operation increases. What follows concerns big business. The focus is important because big business is the most decisive part of the Australian economy.
Note that this is not an exhaustive examination, but a brief sketch of what goes on.
Looking back over history shows that real wages tend around what it costs to raise an average family. This constant, was recognised by the landmark Harvester case in 1907, and regardless of whether it admitted or not, the truth of it shown the need of the average household to use all of its income to maintain its accustomed position. If real labour costs remain relatively constant, they are not likely to be the cause of rising real costs over the economy as a whole.
From time to time there is some departure from this rule, depending on the relative strength of the unions and employers and the short-term labour demand and supply factors. But over time, the norm asserts itself.
From the view-point of a business, operations are based on the overall costs of production. This does involve labour costs. It also contains the costs of providing the premises and equipment and materials needed to operate the business, plus taxes and other impositions placed by society. Only the first two are going to be considered here, because they are the most important.
Labour differs from the others in that the bigger the volume, in terms of units over a specified time period, the less the labour cost in each. Put another way. If one wage produces 1 unit in an hour is made and if this is changed to produce 10 in the same hour, the cost of labour has dropped to one tenth of what it was. It is the reason why the cost of labour is called variable capital.
Conversely, the cost of the premises and the equipment (other less important inputs are left out for ease of explanation) used, cannot be spread out over a larger volume in the same way. The cost remains the same for each unit, regardless of the quantity. This is why economists call this fixed or constant capital, depending on the school of thought. Increasing the volume of business increases the cost of this capital proportionally.
Fixed or constant capital has another property that differentiates it from variable capital. Investment in variable capital can be changed easily. The other capital cannot. The premises and equipment used come in precise units and at a certain point reach full capacity. Shifting to a new place to do business, redesigning it, or buying a new machine is expensive. Further expansion requires major new investment, which adds considerably to the costs of running the business. Times of rapid technological change add further to this problem.
The pressure to contain costs is the major driver for business expansion. More so, when the market is tight, because it is the smaller players that are most likely to fall off the perch. It is this that pushes forward the imperative for increased productivity. Increased productivity simply means spreading a given quantity of labour used over more units.
In an economy that is in truth shrinking and business opportunities with it, the tendency is to exploit labour to cover the rising cost of fixed or constant capital. Hence the drive to remake the labour market through the creation of flexible casualised work, cut wages growth and attack penalty rates. The real wage is falling in the present period. The degree to which this falls below the natural rate, marks the extent of a falling standard of living.
While some individual businesses may gain from this, in the aggregate it is another story. Putting wages below their natural real level contracts the economy further. This will translate into fewer business opportunities and a fall in the aggregate rate of profit. How this occurs is another story.
The final word is that rising costs is what is driving the call for assistance through less tax on business.