A Tract on Monetary Reform: Chapter I - No. 3 The Earner by@jmkeynes

A Tract on Monetary Reform: Chapter I - No. 3 The Earner

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It has been a commonplace of economic text-books that wages tend to lag behind prices, with the result that the real earnings of the wage-earner are diminished during a period of rising prices. This has often been true in the past, and may be true even now of certain classes of labour which are ill-placed or ill-organised for improving their position. But in Great Britain, at any rate, and in the United States also, some important sections of labour were able to take advantage of the situation not only to obtain money wages equivalent in purchasing power to what they had before, but to secure a real improvement, to combine this with a diminution in their hours of work (and, so far, of the work done), and to accomplish this (in the case of Great Britain) at a time when the total wealth of the community as a whole had suffered a decrease. This reversal of the usual course has not been due to an accident and is traceable to definite causes.
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@jmkeynes
John Maynard Keynes

Creator of Keynesian. English economist whose ideas fundamentally changed the theory and practice of macroeconomics

A Tract on Monetary Reform, by John Maynard Keynes is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. Chapter I: No. 3: The Earner

3. The Earner

It has been a commonplace of economic text-books that wages tend to lag behind prices, with the result that the real earnings of the wage-earner are diminished during a period of rising prices. This has often been true in the past, and may be true even now of certain classes of labour which are ill-placed or ill-organised for improving their position. But in Great Britain, at any rate, and in the United States also, some important sections of labour were able to take advantage of the situation not only to obtain money wages equivalent in purchasing power to what they had before, but to secure a real improvement, to combine this with a diminution in their hours of work (and, so far, of the work done), and to accomplish this (in the case of Great Britain) at a time when the total wealth of the community as a whole had suffered a decrease. This reversal of the usual course has not been due to an accident and is traceable to definite causes.

The organisation of certain classes of labour—railwaymen, miners, dockers, and others—for the purpose of securing wage increases is better than it was. Life in the army, perhaps for the first time in the history of wars, raised in many respects the conventional standard of requirements,—the soldier was better clothed, better shod, and often better fed than the labourer, and his wife, adding in war time a separation allowance to new opportunities to earn, had also enlarged her ideas.

But these influences, while they would have supplied the motive, might have lacked the means to the result if it had not been for another factor—the windfalls of the profiteer. The fact that the business man had been gaining, and gaining notoriously, considerable windfall profits in excess of the normal profits of trade, laid him open to pressure, not only from his employees but from public opinion generally; and enabled him to meet this pressure without financial difficulty. In fact, it was worth his while to pay ransom, and to share with his workmen the good fortune of the day.

Thus the working classes improved their relative position in the years following the war, as against all other classes except that of the “profiteers.” In some important cases they improved their absolute position—that is to say, account being taken of shorter hours, increased money wages, and higher prices, some sections of the working classes secured for themselves a higher real remuneration for each unit of effort or work done. But we cannot estimate the stability of this state of affairs, as contrasted with its desirability, unless we know the source from which the increased reward of the working classes was drawn. Was it due to a permanent modification of the economic factors which determine the distribution of the national product between different classes? Or was it due to some temporary and exhaustible influence connected with inflation and with the resulting disturbance in the standard of value?

A violent disturbance of the standard of value obscures the true situation, and for a time one class can benefit at the expense of another surreptitiously and without producing immediately the inevitable reaction. In such conditions a country can without knowing it expend in current consumption those savings which it thinks it is investing for the future; and it can even trench on existing capital or fail to make good its current depreciation. When the value of money is greatly fluctuating, the distinction between capital and income becomes confused. It is one of the evils of a depreciating currency that it enables a community to live on its capital unawares. The increasing money value of the community’s capital goods obscures temporarily a diminution in the real quantity of the stock.

The period of depression has exacted its penalty from the working classes more in the form of unemployment than by a lowering of real wages, and State assistance to the unemployed has greatly30 moderated even this penalty. Money wages have followed prices downwards. But the depression of 1921–22 did not reverse or even greatly diminish the relative advantage gained by the working classes over the middle class during the previous years. In 1923 British wage rates stood at an appreciably higher level above the pre-war rates than did the cost of living, if allowance is made for the shorter hours worked.

In Germany and Austria also, but in a far greater degree than in England or in France, the change in the value of money has thrown the burden of hard circumstances on the middle class, and hitherto the labouring class have by no means supported their full proportionate share. If it be true that university professors in Germany have some responsibility for the atmosphere which bred war, their class has paid the penalty. The effects of the impoverishment, throughout Europe, of the middle class, out of which most good things have sprung, must slowly accumulate in a decay of Science and Art.

* * * * *

We conclude that Inflation redistributes wealth in a manner very injurious to the investor, very beneficial to the business man, and probably, in modern industrial conditions, beneficial on the whole to the earner. Its most striking consequence is its injustice to those who in good faith have committed31 their savings to titles to money rather than to things. But injustice on such a scale has further consequences. The above discussion suggests that the diminution in the production of wealth which has taken place in Europe since the war has been, to a certain extent, at the expense, not of the consumption of any class, but of the accumulation of capital. Moreover, Inflation has not only diminished the capacity of the investing class to save but has destroyed the atmosphere of confidence which is a condition of the willingness to save. Yet a growing population requires, for the maintenance of the same standard of life, a proportionate growth of capital. In Great Britain for many years to come, regardless of what the birth-rate may be from now onwards (and at the present time the number of births per day is nearly double the number of deaths), upwards of 250,000 new labourers will enter the labour market annually in excess of those going out of it. To maintain this growing body of labour at the same standard of life as before, we require not merely growing markets but a growing capital equipment. In order to keep our standards from deterioration, the national capital must grow as fast as the national labour supply, which means new savings of at least £250,000,0007 per annum at present.The favourable conditions for saving which existed in the nineteenth century, even though we smile at them, provided a proportionate growth between capital and population. The disturbance of the pre-existing balance between classes, which in its origins is largely traceable to the changes in the value of money, may have destroyed these favourable conditions.

7 That is to say, it costs not less than £1000 in new capital outlay to equip a working man with organisation and appliances, which will render his labour efficient, and to house and supply himself and his family. Indeed this is probably an underestimate.

On the other hand Deflation, as we shall see in the second section of the next chapter, is liable, in these days of huge national debts expressed in legal-tender money, to overturn the balance so far the other way in the interests of the rentier, that the burden of taxation becomes intolerable on the productive classes of the community.

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Keynes, John Maynard. 2021. A Tract on Monetary Reform. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/65278/65278-h/65278-h.htm#sec_4

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org, located at https://www.gutenberg.org/policy/license.html.

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by John Maynard Keynes @jmkeynes.Creator of Keynesian. English economist whose ideas fundamentally changed the theory and practice of macroeconomics
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