U.S. Inflation, Labor's Share, and the Natural Rate of Unemployment

Robert J. Gordon

NBER Working Paper No. 2585 (Also Reprint No. r1441)
Issued in May 1988
NBER Program(s):Economic Fluctuations and Growth

The Phillips curve was init-ally formulated as a relationship between the rate of change and unemployment, yet what matters for stabilization policy is the rate of inflation, not the rate of wage change. This paper provides new estimates of Phillips curves for both prices and wages extending over the full 1954-87 period and several sub-periods. The most striking result in the paper is that wage changes do not contribute statistically to the explanation of inflation. Deviations in the growth of labor cost from the path of inflation cause changes in labor's income share, and changes in the profit share in the opposite direction, but do not feed back to the inflation rate. Additional findings are that the U.S. natural unemployment is still 6 percent, with no decline in the 1980s in response to the reversal of the demographic shifts that had raised the natural rate in the 1960s and 1970s. The U. S. inflation process is stable, with no evidence of structural shifts over the 1954-87 period. But the wage process is not stable: low rates of wage change in 1981-87 cannot be accurately predicted by wage equations estimated through 1980. Rather than representing a "new regime," wage behavior in the 1980s is the outcome of a longer-term process. The 1980s have witnessed a substantial decline in labor's income share that partly reverses the even larger increase in labor's share that occurred between 1965 and 1978.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w2585

Published: Economics of Wage Determination, edited by Heinz Konig, pp. 1-34. New York: Springer Verlag, 1990.

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