FT159: “There’s more to know than most people know.” —Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 1st, 2013

Fundamental Truth

Some want to Lower the Voting Age despite our Teens’ Penchant for Making Poor Decisions

Parents can’t tell their kids anything.  Because they know everything already.  Despite doing a lot of stupid stuff.  They smoke cigarettes.  Do drugs.  Binge drink.  Drink and drive.  Have unprotected sex.  And a whole lot of other things that can have lasting consequences.  Consequences such as cancer.  A drug addiction.  An arrest for driving under the influence.  An arrest for vehicular manslaughter.  Catching a venereal disease.  Becoming a single mother while still in high school.  Or becoming a single mother with a venereal disease.  While still in high school.

Teens and young adults have a history of making poor decisions.  Why?  Is it because they are stupid?  No.  It’s because they are young.  Inexperienced.  And grow up in an environment that tells them they are far wiser than they are.  As they grew up people constantly told them that they are smart.  They are wise.  And that we need to listen to what they say.  For they are our future.  Some even wanting to bring them into the political process earlier.  By lowering the voting age.  Which is an odd thing to do.  Considering their penchant for making poor decisions.

Of course kids are all for lowering the voting age.  For if they could vote earlier there would probably be more than 2 states that have decriminalized marijuana by now.  And they could lower the drinking age, too.  For let’s face it kids are going to binge drink no matter what we say.  Just as they are going to smoke marijuana and have sex.  So we might as well help them do these things.  And lowering the voting age will be a step towards making that happen.

The Founding Fathers wanted a Government of the People not a Ruling Elite in a Faraway Place telling them what’s Best for Them

So we know what kids want.  Less parenting.  And more fun.  They want the freedom to enjoy whatever they want to enjoy.  And believe they are enlightened like our Founding Fathers were when they wanted the freedom to do what they wanted to do.  Of course, the Founding Fathers’ Enlightenment was a lot different from that of the kids’ today.  The Founding Fathers were interested in science, economics and religious freedom.  They were familiar with the history of Greece and Rome.  Magna Carta.  The Protestant Reformation.  The English Civil War.  They were proud of their membership in the British Empire.  The most enlightened and free empire, or country, in the world.  Thanks to their representative government.  But when Parliament did not let them have any representation in that house while passing laws to govern them, well, they didn’t love the British Empire as much as they once did.

The Founding Fathers weren’t fans of mercantilism.  Then the dominant economic policy of the day.  European powers fought each other for colonies.  Their colonies shipped raw materials back to the mother country.  Who then used them to manufacture finished goods.  That they then sold to the world.  And to their colonies.  Keeping the net flow of gold and silver flowing to the mother country.  While exporting more finished goods than they imported.  With the state helping a few well-connected domestic businesses.  Keeping the state coffers flush with money.  While the people paid higher prices than they normally would have paid.  Thanks to those government policies favoring the well-connected businesses.  Basically like what China is doing today.  Maintaining a strong export economy with cheap labor.  That doesn’t benefit the Chinese masses all that much.  Creating basically two Chinas.  The rich in the cities.  And the poor and impoverished everywhere else.

The Founding Fathers wanted liberty.  Political liberty.  And economic liberty.  Laissez-faire capitalism.  Where the people taking the greatest risk profited the most.  Not the state.  They wanted a limited federal government.  Just large enough to protect the nation.  To treat with other nations.  Those things best suited for the federal government.  While the vast majority of power belonged to the states.  Closer to the people.  And not in some distant land.  They wanted a government of the people.  Not a ruling elite in a faraway place telling them what’s best for them.  That’s why they fought for their independence from a distant power in the first place.  The British Empire.  And they sure didn’t want to trade one distant power oppressing them for another.  They didn’t want money corrupting the federal government.  They wanted the seat of financial power and the seat of government power separated.  For the greatest abuses of power came when wealth joined power in the Old World capitals.  London.  Paris.  Madrid.  Thomas Jefferson wanted the federal capital as far from the bankers and merchants in New York as possible.  Which is why they placed the new federal capital in a swamp on the Potomac River.

Sadly, those who Know the Least often determine who Wins Elections

Those who have studied history understand how the United States came to be.  And what made it the world’s number one economic power.  Laissez-faire capitalism.  Free trade.  Sound money.  In particular the gold standard.  They saw history prove Say’s Law.  Supply creates its own demand.  No one demanded personal computers or the Internet.  But when those who brought these to the market place showed how wonderful they were demand soon followed.  They saw history prove David Ricardo’s comparative advantage.  How free trade lets nations produce what they do most efficiently and trade for what they don’t.  Thus increasing the economies of all nations trading freely.

People who know history understand that the prevalent economic policy today, Keynesian economics, is a failed policy.  For Keynesian economic policies are more like mercantilism than free market capitalism.  Calling for more government intervention into the market.  Inflationary monetary policy (i.e., printing money).  As well as tax and spend fiscal policies so the government can redistribute wealth.  So the government can choose winners and losers.  Not the free market.  Policies that all go against what made America the world’s number one economic power.  The Seventies, a time when the Keynesians got everything they wanted when President Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold, saw double-digit inflation, high unemployment and a stagnant economy.  Everything the Keynesians tried failed to improve the economy.  In fact, their policies only made the economy worse.  And the only thing that pulled us out of the stagflation and misery of the Seventies was Ronald Reagan.  Who embraced the classical economic policies that made America the number one economic power in the world.  Laissez-faire capitalism.  Say’s Law.  David Ricardo’s comparative advantage.  Sound monetary policy (i.e., noninflationary).  The policies we call Reaganomics.

People who study history know this.  But teens and young adults?  Those more interested in drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and having sex?  They haven’t a clue about economics or their history.  Yet they often determine elections.  Sad but true.  And it’s just not teens and young adults who don’t understand economics or know their history.  Thanks to the hippies of the Sixties moving into education most people coming out of our public schools don’t.  For the hippies of the Sixties changed the curriculum.  To help them in their quest to destroy capitalism.   By dumbing down the curriculum.  So it’s easier for Keynesians to keep passing the failed policies of the past.  To help them keep expanding the size of government.  To turn this nation back to what the Founding Fathers fought to get away from.  The mercantilism of the Old World.  Of present day China.  Where the few in power have all the power.  And all the wealth.  All because people think they know more than they know.  And vote as if they know everything they need to know.  But there’s more to know than most people know.  And, sadly, those who know the least often determine who wins elections.

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The U.S. and Japan assailed Argentina’s Mercantilist Trade Policies at the World Trade Organization

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 26th, 2012

Week in Review

International trade can be a funny thing.  For mercantilist ways of the past are hard to give up.  Especially the misguided belief that a trade deficit is a bad thing.  Some nations are better at some things than other nations.  And have a comparative advantage.  And it would be foolish to try and produce something another nation can produce better.  It would be better for nations to do the things they are best at.  And import the things that others are better at.  Just as David Ricardo proved with his law of comparative advantage.  Still everyone still wants to export more than they import.  Still believing that their mercantilist policies are superior to the capitalistic policies that are characteristic of advanced economies.  While mercantilist policies can rarely advance beyond emerging economies.  Case in point Argentina (see Argentina says to file WTO complaint against U.S by Tom Miles and Hugh Bronstein posted 8/21/2012 on Reuters).

The United States and Japan assailed Argentina’s import rules as protectionist at the World Trade Organization on Tuesday, putting more pressure on the country to revamp policies that many trading partners say violate global norms.

The two complaints mirrored litigation brought by the European Union in May and triggered a swift reaction from Argentina’s center-left government, which vowed to challenge U.S. rules on lemon and beef imports.

Argentina is seen by many fellow Group of 20 nations as a chronic rule-breaker since it staged the world’s biggest sovereign debt default in 2002. It remains locked out of global credit markets and relies on export revenue for hard currency.

They have inflated their currency so much that it is nearly worthless.  They can get little of foreign currency in exchange for it.  So they depend on the foreign currency buying their exports for their money needs.  For they can’t destroy foreign currency with their inflationary policies.  Only the wealth and savings of those in Argentina who don’t have access to these foreign currencies.

In the old days the mercantilist empires brought gold and silver into their countries.  They had their colonies ship raw material back to the mother country.  The mother country manufactured them into a higher valued good.  Then exported it for gold and silver.   Today we don’t use gold and silver anymore.  So Argentina just substituted foreign currency into the formula.  While keeping the rest of it in place.

Argentina began requiring prior state approval for nearly all purchases abroad in February. Imports have since fallen compared with last year’s levels, boosting the prized trade surplus but causing some shortages of goods and parts and sharply reducing capital goods imports.

EU and U.S. officials say Argentina has effectively restricted all imports since the new system came into place…

On Monday, Argentina hit the EU with a separate WTO complaint, alleging discriminatory treatment by Spain against Argentine shipments of biodiesel.

“This measure, like others taken by the European Union and other developed countries for decades, effectively aims to keep our industries from rising along the value chain, limiting the role of developing countries to the provision of raw materials,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement…

Latin America’s No. 3 economy relies heavily on a robust trade surplus, which is used to help fatten central bank foreign reserves tapped to pay government debt. The government has also moved to curb imports to protect local jobs, while imposing capital and currency controls to keep dollars in the country.

“Import growth has halted, which we should have done long before,” Foreign Trade Secretary Beatriz Paglieri was quoted as saying on the presidential website last weekend…

Argentina has also been criticized for a policy of “trade balancing,” which forces an importer to guarantee an equal value of exports. That has spawned offbeat deals whereby a car producer, for example, must ship a large amount of rice out of the country in return for a consignment of vehicle components.

Mercantilist to the core.  Which will forever trap them into being an emerging economy.  For they’ve been doing this for decades.  And they’re still an emerging economy.  Juan Peron rose to power with the same mercantilist arguments.  He was a Justicialist.  Today’s president is a Justicialist.  President Cristina Fernandez.  And little has changed since World War II.  Argentina is still an emerging economy.  Thanks to their mercantilist policies.  If they’d only give capitalism a chance their economy would explode with economic activity.  At least, based on history.  For the most advanced economies today are NOT based on the current Argentine model.  They’re based on the free trade of capitalism.  And David Ricardo’s comparative advantage.

In countries with free trade people enjoy higher standards of living.  Their governments give them this good life by doing as little for them as possible.  Letting the free market shower them with wealth and happiness.  Which brings us back to the funny part about international trade.  The countries that try to do the most for their people by restricting free trade give their people a lower standard of living.  Except, of course, for the few in power.  Or for those connected to power.

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New Zealand attacks America for Subsidizing and Protecting their Farmers

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 16th, 2012

Week in Review

You’re probably not familiar with the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).  But it’s a pretty big free-trade deal.  Or an attempt at one.  But few Americans have heard of this.  Including members of Congress.  Who can’t get any details out of the Obama administration about the current negotiations.  Which are primarily held in secret.  But they’re talking about it in New Zealand.  And they are even less happy about these negotiations (see NZ must stay staunch on TPP by Matthew Hooton posted 6/16/2012 on The National Business Review).

The Americans want us to pay more for Nikes, entertainment and pharmaceuticals, weaken Fonterra and tinker with Telecom.

It’s a deal we’ll gladly do if they stop subsidising and protecting their farmers, and give us unfettered access to their market.

That, roughly, is the deal on the table for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The risk is that our trade negotiators will buckle, conceding the former without gaining the latter.

Instead, they should walk unless New Zealand and our free-trade allies get everything we want.

The TPP began as a New Zealand and Singaporean-led initiative in the 1990s, privately encouraged by the Clinton Administration.

Its purpose was to provide a genuine free-trade path for those members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) forum who meant it.

You sure hear a lot from the government about China’s unfair trading practices.  Saying their idea of free trade isn’t fair trade.  But ‘fair trade’ depends on one’s perspective.  Apparently.  For when the Chinese trade at an advantage to the Americans that isn’t fair.  But it is fair to trade at an advantage to the New Zealanders.  Funny how that works.

Free trade is good.  Free trade is fair.  Because of David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage.  Where countries produce what they can produce most efficiently.  And trade for what others can produce more efficiently.  Thus all countries use their available resources most efficiently.  And create the greatest amount of wealth from their resources.  Thus maximizing wealth creation for all trading partners.  And increasing their standards of living.  This is what free trade gets you.  Even when it comes to the farm.

Some in Britain fought against the repeal of the Corn Laws for the longest time.  Mostly the landed aristocracy who liked selling their crops at high prices.  Because if their markets were open to U.S. farm exports pouring out of America that competition would force them to lower their prices.  And they didn’t want that.  They wanted the British to pay higher prices for their food.  So they could earn more.  But they eventually repealed the Corn Laws in Britain.  And food prices fell.  Good for the hungry.  Bad for the landed aristocracy.  But good for the British Empire.  Which reached its greatest wealth and glory during the second half of the 19th century.  Because of David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage. 

Interesting that after the British Corn Laws the Americans would be protecting their farmers.  Less than a century later the Americans caused the Great Depression in part by trying to protect their farmers (the mechanization of the farm caused food prices to fall leading to the farm loan defaults, price supports, tariffs, etc.).  And still are.  Forcing Americans to pay higher food prices.  By keeping less costly food out of the market.

People may attack free trade.  As they may attack free market capitalism.  But what we have isn’t really free trade.  Or free market capitalism.  It’s more rent-seeking mercantilism than the profit-seeking capitalism that replaced it.  For awhile, at least.  The progressives launched their attack on capitalism around the turn of the 20th century.  And have been fighting it ever since.

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FT122: “Japan’s Lost Decade helped the Clinton economy by reducing imports while the global slowdown does nothing for the Obama economy.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 15th, 2012

Fundamental Truth

The Japanese Government made Money Cheap and Plentiful to Borrow creating a Keynesian Dream but an Austrian Nightmare

Once upon a time Americans feared the Japanese.  Their awesome might.  And their relentless advances.  One by one the Japanese added new properties to their international portfolio.  They appeared unstoppable.  Throughout the Eighties everything was made in Japan.  Government partnered with business and formed Japan Inc.  And they dominated the world economy in the Eighties.  A U.S. Democrat nominee for president held up Japan Inc. as the model to follow.  For they had clearly shown how government can make the free market better.  Or so this candidate said.

But it didn’t last.  Why?  Because in the end the Japanese just interfered too much with market forces.  Businesses invested in each other.  Insulating themselves from the capital markets.  Allowing them to make bad investments to sustain bad business planning.  All facilitated with cheap credit.  Government made money cheap and plentiful to borrow.  And they borrowed.  A Keynesian dream.  But an Austrian nightmare.  Because they used that money to make even more bad investments (or ‘malinvestments’ in the vernacular of the Austrian school of economics).  Creating a real estate bubble.  And a stock market bubble.  Bubbles are never good, though.  Because they can’t last.  They must pop.  And when they do it isn’t pretty.

The U.S. just went through real estate bubble that peaked in 2006.  Money was so cheap to borrow that people were buying $300,000+ McMansions.  Anyone could walk in and get a no-documentation loan with nothing down.  People were buying houses and flipping them.  And people who couldn’t qualify for a mortgage could get a subprime mortgage.  Further pushing house prices higher.  Not because of real demand.  But because of this artificial tweaking of the free market by the government.  Making that money so cheap to borrow.  And when all that cheap credit caused inflation elsewhere in the economy the Fed finally tapped the brakes.  And increased interest rates.  Raising monthly payments on all those subprime mortgages.  Leading to a wave of defaults.  The subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

Japan’s Deflationary Spiral gave American Domestic Manufacturers a Huge Advantage

This is basically what happened in Japan during the Nineties.  The government had juiced the economy so much that they grew great big bubbles.  Ran up asset prices to incredible heights.  But then the bubble burst.  And those prices all fell.  They fell for so long and so far that Japan suffered a deflationary spiral.  Throughout the Nineties (and counting).  The Nineties were a painful economic time.  After a decade or so of inflation the market corrected that with a decade of recession.  And deflation.  A decade of economic activity the Japanese just lost.  The Lost Decade.  But it wasn’t all bad.

At least, in America.  There was still some Reaganomics in the American economy.  Producing real economic growth.  But there was also a bubble.  In the stock market.  The dot-com bubble.  The Internet was brand new and everybody was hoping to be in on the next big thing.  The next Microsoft.  Or the next Apple.  Also, unable (or unwilling) to learn from the mistakes of the Japanese real estate bubble the Clinton administration was making it very uncomfortable for banks to NOT approve mortgage applications for people who were unqualified.  Putting more people into houses who couldn’t afford them.

So while the Clinton administration was trying to change America (during the first 2 years they tried to nationalize health care against the will of the people) the economy did well.  For awhile.  Irrational exuberance was pushing the stock market to new heights as investors poured money into companies that didn’t have a dime of revenue yet.  And never would.  Clinton had to renege on his promise on the middle class tax cut because things were worse than he thought when he promised to make that middle class tax cut.  (Isn’t it always the way that when it comes to tax cuts some politicians can’t keep their promise because they were too stupid to know how bad things really were?)  Added into this mix was Japan’s Lost Decade.  Their deflationary spiral increased the value of the Yen.  And made their exports more expensive.  Giving the American domestic manufacturers a huge advantage.  The economy boomed during the Nineties.  For a mix of reasons.  They even projected a budget surplus thanks to the economic woe of the Japanese.  But then the dot-com bubble burst.  Giving Bill Clinton’s successor a nasty recession.

When a Recession ails you the Best Medicine has been and always will be Reaganomics

The Left always talks about fair trade.  And about the unfair practice of foreign manufacturers giving Americans inexpensive goods that they want to buy.  So their answer to make these unfair trade practices fair is to slap an import tariff on those inexpensive foreign goods.  To protect the domestic manufacturers.  For they believe it’s that simple.  And plug their ears and sing “la la la” when you discuss David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage.  Ricardo says countries should specialize in the things they’re good at.  And import the things others are better at.  When everyone does this we use our resources most efficiently.  And the overall wealth in the international economy increases.  Making the world a better place.  And increases our standard of living.  But the rent-seekers disagree with this.  They want high tariffs.  And obstacles for foreign imports.  To protect the domestic businesses that can’t sell as inexpensively or at such high levels of quality.

Some would point to Japan’s Lost Decade as proof.  Where their deflationary spiral removed a lot of foreign competition to American manufacturing.  Allowing them to sell at higher prices and lower quality.  All the while protecting American jobs.  And, yes, Japan’s woes did help the American domestic manufacturers during the Nineties.  But it wasn’t because they could raise prices and lower quality in the face of low foreign competition.  It was because there was still enough Reaganomics in the country to produce some vibrant economic activity.  That encouraged entrepreneurs to take chances and bring new things to market.  Which is a huge difference from the current economic picture.

The Eurozone sovereign debt crisis has plunged Europe into a recessionary freefall.  Much like the Japanese suffered in the Nineties.  Yet the American domestic manufacturers aren’t benefiting from this huge decline in foreign competition.  Why?  Because the Obama administration has excised any remaining vestiges of Reaganomics out of the economy.  Everything the rent-seekers could ever hope for they have.  Only without tariffs.  And yet the Obama economy still lingers in recession.  Because irrational exuberance and barriers to free trade don’t create real economic growth.  And an administration hostile to capitalism doesn’t inspire entrepreneurs to take chances.  No.  What encourages them to take chances are low taxes.  And less costly and less punishing regulations.  For programs like Obamacare just scare businesses from hiring any new employees.  Because they have no idea the ultimate costs of those new employees. 

Now contrast that to the low taxation and relaxed regulatory climate of Reaganomics.  That produced solid economic growth.  And this growth was BEFORE Japan’s Lost Decade.  Which just goes to show you how solid that growth was.  And proved David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage.  For both Japan and the United States did well during the Eighties.  Unlike Clinton’s economy in the Nineties that only did well because Japan did not.  But the good times only lasted until the irrational exuberance of the dot-com bubble brought on an American recession.  Which George W. Bush pulled us out of with a little Reaganomics.  Tax cuts.  Proving yet again that higher taxes and higher regulations don’t create economic activity. Tax cuts do.  And fewer regulations.  In other words, when a recession ails you the best medicine has been and always will be Reaganomics.

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Mercantilism, Royal Navy, Napoleon, Pax Britannica, Corn Laws, David Ricardo, Comparative Advantage, European Union and NAFTA

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 22nd, 2012

History 101

Mercantilism gave Britain the Royal Navy which Ushered in the Pax Britannica

Great Britain had a rough go of it at the end of the 18th century.  They lost their American colonies in the American Revolutionary War.  A war that started over the issue of taxation to pay for the previous Seven Years’ War.  So instead of securing new revenue to pay down old debt they incurred new debt.  The French Revolution closed out the century.  Causing concern for some in Britain that their monarchy may be the next to fall.  It didn’t.  For the constitutional monarchy and representative government in Britain was a long cry from the absolute monarchy that they had in France.  So revolution did not come to Britain.  But war did.  As the French expanded their revolution into a European war.  Pulling the British back into war with their old enemy.

With a large conscripted French Army and the concept of total war France made total war.  Napoleon Bonaparte won a lot of battles.  Conquered much of Europe.  Even marched back and conquered Paris.  Proclaimed himself emperor of France.  And continued waging war.  Including an ill-conceived invasion of Russia.  Which marked the beginning of the end for Napoleon.  And the French Empire.  Weakened from war France saw her old nemesis, Great Britain, rise as the first superpower since the Roman Empire.  And like the Romans’ Pax Romana Britain entered a century of peace.  Pax Britannica.

The reason the British could do this was because of their mercantile past.  They set up colonies and international trade networks.  And they used the proceeds from that lucrative trade to finance the greatest naval power then in the world.  The Royal Navy.  And the Royal Navy would help keep the peace in the Pax Britannica.  She became the world’s policeman.  Making the world safe for trade.  Especially on the high seas.  But then something interesting happened.  She broke from her mercantile past.  Because they saw the shortcomings of mercantilism.  One of which produced wealthy landowners at the expense of a hungry population.

When the British repealed the Corn Laws in 1846 Food Prices fell and the Standard of Living Rose 

The British Corn Laws were a series of laws protecting those who grew cereal crops.  The stuff we grow that has edible grains.  Corn, rice, wheat, barley, etc.  What we call staple crops as they form the basic sustenance of humans everywhere.  We grow these in greater abundance than all other foods.  And when you look at the grain size you come to one realization.  It takes a lot of land to grow these crops.  And who owns large tracts of land?  The landowning aristocracy.  A small group of people with a lot of wealth.  And a lot of political influence.  Hence the Corn Laws. 

The Corn Laws were legislation with one goal.  To prevent the British people from buying less expensive food.  By either forbidding any importation of cheaper grains until the domestic price had reached a certain price level.  Or adding tariffs to the less expensive imports so the landowners could still sell their grains at higher prices.  Thus preserving their wealth.  And they made specious arguments about how lower-priced food was actually bad for the people.  For it was just a way for manufacturers to maximize their profits.  For if food was cheaper they could pay their workers less.  Being the greedy bastards that they were.  So the only fair thing to do was to keep food prices high.  To keep the living wage high.  To force manufacturers to pay their workers more.  You see, the only way to help the poor and middle class was to let the wealthy landowners become even wealthier.  By keeping the price of the food they sold high.

Opposition grew to the Corn Laws.  People studied the works of their fellow countrymen.  Adam Smith and David Hume (both Scottish).  And the Englishman David Ricardo.  All great economists and thinkers.  Who were all proponents of free trade.  Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage basically proved the case of free trade over the protectionism of mercantilism.  Eventually the political power of the landowners could not overcome the economic arguments.  Or a famine in Ireland.  And, in 1846, they repealed the Corn Laws and adopted free trade.  Food prices fell.  Leaving people with more disposable income.  To purchase the goods the Industrial Revolution was making.  Increasing their standard of living.  While small famers had to leave their farms being unable to farm efficiently enough to pay their bills at the prevailing prices.

The Success of NAFTA proves David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage

Mercantilists and other opponents to free trade like to point at the human costs.  Small farmers losing their farm.  Just so they can preserve some semblance of privilege to protect the high prices in their industry.  But it was becoming more and more difficult to make the argument that the masses were better off paying higher prices.  Because they’re not.  Lower consumer prices increase the standard of living for everyone.  Higher living standards create healthier living conditions.  And reduces child mortality.   For the greatest killer of children in the world is poverty.

The British were both a military and an economic superpower during the 19th century.  But someone was chasing her.  The Untied States.  Who was feeling her economic oats.  Her economy would catch up and surpass the British.  Making it the mightiest economic power of all time.  How did this happen?  Two words.  Free trade.  The United States was the largest free trade zone in the world.  The economic advantages of all those states trading with each other freely across their state borders made Europe stand up and take notice.  And in response created treaties that ultimately led to the European Union and the Eurozone.  To replicate the large free trade zone of the United States.

Back across the Atlantic the Americans, Canadians and the Mexicans took it up a notch.  And created the North American Free Trade Agreement.  NAFTA.  Extending the free trade that existed in each of their countries across their international borders.  The mercantilist fought against this.  Because protectionism, restrictions and tariffs helped the privileged few protect the high prices in their industry.  In America they talked about a great sucking sound as all American jobs went to low-wage Mexico.  Some manufacturers did move to Mexico.  Primarily because like the small farmers in Britain after the repeal of the Corn Laws they could no longer sell at prices to meet all of their costs.  But it was not as the mercantilists predicted.  Yes, imports increased.  In 2010 they were up 235% from pre-NAFTA 1993.  But exports were up, too.  Some 190% for the same period.  Proving Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage.  By focusing on what we do best and trading for everything else all countries do better.

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Comparative Advantage and Free Trade

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 21st, 2012

Economics 101

Mercantilism benefited only Protected Industries which Profited Handsomely from Higher Consumer Prices  

The Age of Discovery ushered in the era of mercantilism.  An era of trade.  But protected trade.  Tariffs, quotas, protectionism, restrictions, subsidies, etc.  You name it they used it.  To favor their trade position and their domestic industries.  And to restrict that of everyone else.  For mercantilism was a zero-sum game.  You only did well if others did not.  A thought that still has traction today.  Especially in older, inefficient industries.  That cannot compete with international competition that provides better quality at lower prices.  Such as textiles.  Steel.  Automobiles.  The Americans protected these industries in the face of better foreign competition.  Which only hastened their decline.

A protected industry has no incentive to improve.  When protective tariffs raise prices of lower-priced and higher-quality imports consumers buy the inferior domestic goods.  Because the tariffs make the better goods more costly.  So when a business has a captive audience their only focus is in maintaining that protectionism giving them that advantage.  Not improving their quality.  Or improving their productivity to lower their prices.  Why?  Because they don’t have to.  So prices continue to rise to pay for inefficient labor and management.  And quality continues to decline due to the lack of real competition forcing them to continually provide a better product.  By improving designs.  Production methods.  And making capital investments in new machinery and equipment.

This is the cost of protectionism.  Poorer quality and higher prices.  Because of the misguided belief in the zero-sum game of mercantilism.  There was a reason why mercantilism was abandoned for free trade.  Because free trade was better.  For consumers.  Giving them lower prices and higher quality.  Whereas mercantilism benefited only those protected industries which profited handsomely from those higher consumer prices.  And the government officials who granted those favorable protectionist policies.

The Consumer gets Lower Prices AND Higher Quality thanks to the Division of Labor, Specialization and Comparative Advantage

As civilization advanced so did the division of labor.  People began to specialize.  Instead of growing our own food, making our own tools, spinning our own pottery, etc., we did only one thing.  And did it well.  Then we traded the things we made for the things we didn’t make.  This division of labor created a middle class.  And this middle class would take their goods to market to trade with other middle class artisans.  At first bartering with each other.  Trading good for good.  Then they introduced a temporary storage of value into the economy.  Money.  Making those trades easier by reducing search times.  Trading your goods for money.  And your money for goods.  Making life a lot simpler at the market.

Let’s take a closer look at the division of labor.  Let’s consider two artisans.  A toolmaker.   And a potter.  Both are skilled craftspeople.  And can make an assortment of goods.  But each excels at one particular skill.  The toolmaker can make 10 plows a day.  But if he makes 2 pottery bowls he can only make 4 plows in that same day.  The potter can make 12 pottery bowls in a day.  But if he makes 3 plows he can only make 5 pottery bowls in that same day.  Each can make more of their specialty.  But when they try to make other things in addition to their specialty they can’t make as much of their specialty as before.  So there is a cost to the toolmaker to make pottery.  To make 2 bowls cost the toolmaker 6 plows.  And there is a cost to the potter to make tools.  To make 3 plows cost the potter 7 bowls.  So the economy as a whole is better off when the toolmaker and the potter focus all of their energies in their own specialty.  When they do we get 10 plows and 12 bowls in one day.  When they don’t we only get 7 plows and 7 bowls.

We call this economic principle comparative advantage.  Where we look at economic output.  Which is what matters.  The more we bring to market the better it is for consumers.  Because greater quantities mean lower prices.  And when these skilled craftspeople focus on their specialty they improve the overall quality of the goods they bring to market.  So the consumer gets lower prices AND higher quality.  Thanks to the division of labor.  Specialization.  And comparative advantage.

We will always Have Jobs regardless the Size of our Imports for Having a Job is the Only Way to Buy those Imported Goods

If you multiply this over and over again to represent all the individual economic exchanges throughout the world you see why free trade is better than the protectionist policies of mercantilism.  Because it provides consumers with greater economic output at lower prices and higher quality.  This is why nations practicing free trade have the highest standards of living.  Because their people can walk into large department stores and fill their carts with inexpensive, high quality goods on a moderate paycheck.  Which could never happen if the mercantilists had their way.

The old inefficient industries want tariffs to increase the costs of those goods we fill our shopping carts with.  Including the food we eat.  And the cars we drive.  They use lofty arguments about protecting American jobs.  But those protectionist policies destroy jobs by increasing costs for businesses throughout the supply chain.  Raising consumer prices everywhere.  Reducing the amount of things we can buy.  Meaning businesses can’t grow and create new jobs.  Or they have to cut back production and eliminate existing jobs.

There’s also a lot of talk about the balance of payments.  Which actually meant something during the days of the gold standard.  For any trade deficits had to be paid for with gold.  But we don’t have the gold standard anymore.  Governments everywhere abandoned it in favor of irresponsible government spending.  So we don’t have to pay for trade deficits with gold.  Most money today is just electronic entries in a computer.  International capital flows have never been greater.  There are currency markets where people actively trade the world’s currencies.  So trade deficits don’t mean the same thing they once did in the mercantile world.  Then there’s the argument that if all our manufacturing jobs go overseas there will be no jobs for Americans.  If we import everything and export nothing there will be jobs everywhere but here.  Sounds like a problem.  But can that happen?  Not unless we get those imports for free.  So we will always have jobs regardless the size of our imports.  For having a job is the only way to buy the imported goods in those department stores.

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Mercantilism

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 14th, 2012

Economics 101

Wealth is the Stuff we use our Talent and Ability to Make

Mercantilism gave us the United States.  For it was because of these policies that the British established colonies in North America.  And it was those same policies that led to American Independence.  Because those polices pissed off the Americans. 

The mercantile system came into being as nation states arose from feudal estates.  Kings arose and consolidated these estates into larger kingdoms.  Then one king arose to consolidate the kingdoms into a nation.  Creating Spain, France, the Netherlands, England, etc.  Enlightened thinking and better technology created food surpluses.  With food surpluses a middle class of artisans arose.  And manufactured goods.  People met in markets to trade their food and goods.   These markets grew into cities.  All of this economic activity created wealth.  Food.  And manufactured goods.  That we bought with money.  Often silver and gold. 

There was wealth.  And there was money.  Two different things.  Wealth is the stuff we use our talent and ability to make.  Food and manufactured goods, for example.  And the more food and manufactured goods a nation has the wealthier that nation is.  This is a critical point.  And the mercantile policies ultimately failed because those policies mistook money for wealth.  But money is not wealth.  It’s a temporary storage of wealth.  To make our trading of food and manufactured goods easier.  By reducing the search costs to find people to trade with.  Which is why the barter system failed in a complex economy.  It just took too long to find people to trade with.  Money solved that problem.  Because you could trade what you had for money.  Then trade your money for what you wanted.

England used the Positive Flow of Bullion to Finance the Building of the Royal Navy

Mercantilism focused on the money.  And used wealth to accumulate it.  Instead of the other way around.  The way most advanced nations do today.  These European nations accumulated money with international trade.  Beginning in the 15th century they started looking at the balance of trade between nations.  And did everything they could to maintain a positive balance of trade.  Meaning they tried to export more than they imported.  Why?  Well, nations often did trade with each other.  So they owed each other money.  And when you settled your account if other nations owed you more than you owed them there was a net flow of money to you.  Bullion.  Silver and gold.  Which is what they wanted.

To maintain a positive balance of trade the government actively intervened into the economy.  It set up monopolies.  It provided subsidies for manufacturers who exported their goods for bullion.  It placed tariffs on imports.  Or simply blocked the importation of any goods that they produced domestically.  They set up colonies to harvest raw materials to ship back to the mother country.  Which would use those raw materials in their factories to produced higher valued finished goods.  That they would export.  Especially to their colonies.  Which were convenient captive markets for their finished goods.  On the mother country’s ships.  Through the mother country’s ports.  Where they, of course taxed it.  Guaranteeing that at every step of the way they added to the positive bullion flow back to the mother country.

And it worked.  To a certain extent.  England used that positive flow of bullion to finance the building of the Royal Navy.  Which proved invaluable in the wars that followed in the mercantile world.  For mercantilism is a zero-sum game.  For every winner there had to be a loser.  Which is why this era was an era of world war.  To wrest control of those colonies.  And those sea lanes.  Great Britain came out the victor.  Thanks to their Royal Navy.  But it wasn’t all good.  For Spain found gold in the New World.  And they took it.  Shipped it back to the Old World.  Just like a good mercantilist would.  Which caused problems in the Old World.  Because money is not wealth.  It’s a temporary storage of wealth.  And when they inflated their money supply it took more of it to hold the same amount of value it once did.  Because there was so much of it in circulation.  And what happens during inflation?  Prices rise.  Because the money is worth less it takes more of it to buy the same things as it did before.  So by hording bullion to create wealth they actually destroyed wealth.  With wealth-destroying inflation.

With the Boston Tea Party the Americans Renounced Mercantilism and Demanded Free Trade

Spain was one of the greatest mercantile nations of the era.  But they quickly became a shadow of their former self.  Even though they had more bullion than their European neighbors.  For it turned out that those mercantile policies hindered economic growth.  Which is the true source of wealth.  Economic growth.  Where people use their talent and ability to create things.  That’s where the true value lay.  Not the money that held that value temporarily.  All those mercantilist policies did was raise domestic prices.  And allocated scarce resources poorly. 

It turned out free trade was the secret to wealth.  For free trade can increase wealth.  For both nations.  Thanks to something we call comparative advantage.  Instead of both nations manufacturing all of their goods they should only manufacture those goods that they can manufacture best.  And trade for the goods they can’t manufacture best.  This more efficiently allocates those scarce resources.  And produces a greater total amount of wealth.  By allowing people to buy lower cost imports they have more money left over to buy other stuff.  Increasing the overall amount of economic activity.  Which is why when Great Britain adopted free trade in the 19th century the British Empire went on to rule the world for a century or so.  And led the Industrial Revolution.  By creating wealth.  Goods and services people created with their talent and ability.  That changed the world.  And ushered in the modern era.  Something no amount of bullion could do.

But before Britain adopted free trade they were struggling with one of their belligerent colonies.  Their British American colonies.  Who were unhappy over taxation without representation in Parliament.  And the mother country forcing them to buy only British tea shipped on British ships at higher prices than they could get from the Dutch.  The British thought they found a solution to their problem.  By permitting their British East India Company monopoly to ship their tea directly to America without passing through an English port.  The tea was cheaper because of this.  But it also would set a precedent for taxation without representation.  Something the Americans weren’t about to accept.  So they threw that tea into Boston Harbor.  What we affectionately call the Boston Tea Party.  Renouncing mercantilism.  And demanding the right to engage in free trade.  Which they got after winning their independence.  And the mother country would follow suit in a few decades.  Because they, too, would learn that free trade was better than mercantilism.

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