What’s the one thing Pope Francis, Barack Obama, Marco Rubio, and Warren Buffett all agree on? America needs to change the way it sets wages to overcome its economically and politically unsustainable levels of income inequality.
The question is how? Let’s start with some lessons from history and see how we can apply them to today’s economy and society.
For 30 years after World War II, wages and productivity in the U.S. moved up in tandem, creating a growing middle class and ensuring baby boomers could realize their American Dream. We called that the “post-war Social Contract.” Then in the 1980s, the social contract fell apart, starting 30 years of stagnant wages, growing inequality, and political polarization.
The post-war Social Contract was possible because the New Deal established a floor on minimum wages and protected workers’ rights to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Then in the mid-1940s as the domestic economy grew on the basis of purchasing power pent up during the war, United Auto Workers’ President Walter Reuther and General Motors (GM) CEO Charles Wilson negotiated what was called the “Treaty of Detroit,” specifying that wage increases would be set to match growth in the cost of living and productivity. The strength of unions then helped spread this “pattern” bargain across American industry.
Benchmarks are heavily wired into modern financial markets. For example, trillions of dollars in bank loans and several hundred trillion dollars (notional) of derivatives transactions depend on daily announcements of LIBOR. The WM/Reuters foreign exchange fixings dominate the currency markets, in which there are over $5 trillion of transactions per day. Benchmarks are the basis for trade of a wide range of commodities such as gold, silver, oil, and natural gas. They have also been the focus of scandals (Brousseau et al. 2013).
In November, we began distributing $100 in Bitcoin to every undergraduate student at MIT. A large share of the 4,500 eligible students participated in the project.
Bitcoin is an innovative payment network that allows for instant peer-to-peer transactions with zero or very low processing fees on a worldwide scale. The objective of the study is to observe the diffusion of Bitcoin, a software-based, open-source, peer-to-peer payment system on the MIT campus.
The initiative began in April 2014 when students Jeremy Rubin and Dan Elitzer organized the idea, raised the funds from donors, and launched the MIT Bitcoin Project. I started working with these students when it quickly became clear that the project had to become a full research study and had to meet the rigorous requirements of academic research at MIT.
Observing the ways students will innovate because of their newfound Bitcoin cash should be fascinating: MIT students are tech savvy, not set in their ways, generally a bit cash strapped anyway, and often open to new innovations. In the same way that MIT gave students early access to computing resources through the Athena project in 1983, this project intends to give participants early access to a digital currency.
Christian Catalini is the Fred Kayne (1960) Career Development Professor of Entrepreneurship and Assistant Professor of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer and Visiting Scientist Barbara Dyer
Last week, Aetna, Inc., one of the largest healthcare insurers in America, made news when it announced it would boost its minimum wage base to $16 an hour for its lowest-earning employees. Aetna AET 0.35% also pledged to cover more of its employee’s health costs. In a Wall Street Journal interview, CEO Mark Bertolini said the company hopes to reduce its $120 million annual turnover costs and will monitor how this investment plays out.
While a firm’s decision to increase pay for lower-wage workers should certainly be applauded, it also begs the question: Why is the decision to pay workers $16 per hour breaking news?
My answer: because of the message it sends to investors and shareholders.
We usually think of ethnic diversity as a matter of social policy, not a factor that could impede market bubbles. But new research by me and a team of colleagues suggests a surprising new reason to consider diversity as a hedge against speculative bubbles: in two studies, we find that markets comprised of ethnically diverse traders are more accurate in pricing assets than ethnically homogeneous ones. Our paper, which came out Nov. 17 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), finds that ethnic diversity leads all traders, whether of majority or minority ethnicity, to price more accurately and thwart bubbles. The reason isn’t because minority traders had special information or differential skills; rather, their mere presence changed how everyone approached decision-making. Traders were more apt to carefully scrutinize others’ transactions and less likely to copy others’ errors in diverse markets, and this reduced the incidence of bubbles.
To conduct our research, we constructed experimental markets in the United States and Singapore in which participants traded stocks to earn real money. We randomly assigned participants to ethnically homogenous or diverse markets. We found that markets comprised of diverse traders did a 58 percent better job at pricing assets to their true value. Overpricing was higher in homogenous markets because traders are more likely to accept speculative prices, we found. Their pricing errors were more correlated than in diverse markets. And when bubbles burst, homogenous markets crashed more severely.