Better Measures of Worker Output, Increase Income Inequality

 

Many of us would say that income inequality is not bad, if it reflects differences in worker productivity.  One argument in the article excerpted below, is that information technology has allowed better measurement of worker productivity, and hence is partly responsible for the increase in income inequality.

 

. . . as companies and compensation consultants began using information technology to determine more accurately the contributions of individual employees, employers began to discriminate among employees based on performance. In a working paper, Professor MacLeod, along with Thomas Lemieux of the University of British Columbia and Daniel Parent of McGill University, mined census data and found that the proportion of jobs with a performance-pay component rose to 40 percent in the 1990s from 30 percent in the late 1970s.

”Since companies are better able to measure precisely what an employee contributes, we’ve seen a greater range of incomes among people doing roughly the same jobs,” Professor MacLeod said.

The fact that more Americans are paid less on the basis of a job title and more on their individual output inexorably leads to greater inequality. The authors’ conclusion is that the rise of performance-based pay has accounted for 25 percent of the growth in wage inequality among male workers from 1976 to 1993.

”All the bits of evidence we have tend to say that this trend is continuing,” Professor Lemieux said. In 2003, the authors note, 44.5 percent of workers at Fortune 1000 companies received some form of performance-based pay, up from 34.7 percent in 1996. And think of the growing legions of self-employed — people selling items on eBay, mortgage brokers and real estate brokers, freelance journalists and consultants of all types — for whom all pay is performance-based. Among these growing cadres, the dispersion of incomes is rather large.

”When you look at the self-employed and contractors,” Professor Lemieux said, ”inequality is much higher.”

 

For the full commentary, see: 

DANIEL GROSS.  "ECONOMIC VIEW; Income Inequality, Writ Larger."  The New York Times, Section 3  (Sun., June 10, 2007):  7.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 

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