Free Trade, the Corn Laws and The Economist

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 8th, 2013

Week in Review

Today the political left attacks capitalism as being unfair.  And mean.  Whereas they laud government intervention into the free market.  To level the playing field.  And to redistribute income.  To help those who can’t be as successful as others.  They support unions.  And oppose free trade.  Because free trade lowers prices for consumers.  By breaking up monopolies.  And giving them choice.  Free trade is an essential element of capitalism.  But the fight to make people’s lives better with free trade wasn’t easy.  As people who got rich with government-protected high prices opposed free trade (see Why did The Economist favour free trade? by C.R. posted 9/6/2013 on The Economist).

IN NINETEENTH century Europe and America, debates over whether tariffs or free trade produced the most economic growth dominated the political scene. Up until the early 1840s, protection appeared to be winning the argument. In Britain, high tariffs were imposed on agricultural imports in 1819, by legislation known as the Corn Laws. The ideas of Friedrich List, a German economist who argued that tariffs boosted industrial development through the protection of infant industries, were gaining ground, particularly in the United States. One Pennsylvanian legislator even joked in 1833 that the dictionary definition of man should be changed to “an animal that makes tariff speeches” so frequently were they heard.

Against this atmosphere, James Wilson founded The Economist in 1843 to campaign for free trade. His first target was to repeal the Corns Laws in Britain. He argued:

They are, in fact, laws passed by the seller to compel the buyer to give him more for his article than it is worth. They are laws enacted by the noble shopkeepers who rule us, to compel the nation to deal at their shop alone.”

The UAW got very generous contracts with the Big Three during the Fifties and the Sixties.  Raising the price of cars.  Which wasn’t a problem when they were the only ones making cars.  But then came the imports.  Which told the people how much more they were paying than these articles were worth.  And started buying the imports.  As they did those generous pay and benefit packages became more difficult to pay.  So the Big Three lobbied for tariffs on those less costly imports.  And got them.  Raising the price of the imports.  Forcing Americans to deal with the Big Three alone.  And buy their more costly cars.

More people bought cars than made them, though.  And the people who made the cars were better paid than most Americans.  So these tariffs forced poorer people to spend more on a car leaving them less for their families.  So richer people could have more.  This is what tariffs do.  They allow fewer people to have more.  While more people have to do with less.  So fewer buy more.  While more buy less.  Because there are more people who buy cars than make them these tariffs, then, reduce economic activity.  And because the Big Three didn’t have to figure out how to give more for less to their customers they didn’t.  Giving their customers ‘rust buckets’ in the Seventies.  Something else that tariffs do.  Lead to inferior goods.  Because if the government forces people to buy from you then the quality of what you sell doesn’t matter.

Wilson believed that protectionism caused “war among the material interests of the world”, in other words, war between nations and classes. A high tariff regime was no longer economically “productive”; Britain was stuck in an economic depression in the early 1840s. In contrast, free trade produced “abundance and employment”. It was appropriate for Britain’s economy where “a large proportion of the population and property depended on commerce and industry alone”. On the other hand, List’s ideas about protection were dismissed as unnecessary “swaddling clothes” for a mature economy, such as Britain’s.

The Economist’s early views on free trade were strongly influenced by the classical economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo, as Ruth Dudley Edwards, a historian, has pointed out. Wilson, like Smith, realised that trade was a two way exchange. Countries needed to “increase imports to increase exports” to boost economic growth. Consumers, Smith argued in the Wealth of Nations, should buy products from where they were cheapest. All protection did was create monopolies, which were “a great enemy to good management”. Ricardo took Smith’s ideas further, arguing that all countries benefit from free trade by producing what they were best at relative to other countries.

That’s what the Big Three wanted.  A monopoly on cars sold in America.  And there is only one way to get one.  The government has to create them.  Hence the Big Three’s request for tariff protection.

David Ricardo’s comparative advantage said nations should make what they can make best and trade for those things they can’t.  For example, if two countries can both make one thing but one can do so at lower costs they can make more of them for the same costs.  Giving them a larger surplus to trade for other things.  While the other nation will consume more resources to build the same quantity leaving less to make the other things they need.  While having fewer things available for export.  So if you try to make things you can’t make efficiently you end up consuming more resources to have less.  Whereas the nation that makes only what it can make best ends up consuming fewer resources that are then available to make other things.  And they have more things to trade.  Leading to a higher standard of living.  And if their trading partners do likewise they, too, experience a higher standard of living.

Free trade leads to greater economic activity.  Which made Britain wealthy.  Allowing them to extend their empire for another 70 years or so.  Despite the warnings of the rich landowners who said repealing the Corn Laws would cause harm.  Instead, repealing the Corn Laws led to greater economic activity.  And less costly food. Allowing people to feed their families more easily.  The only harm suffered was to the profits of the big landowners.  Who lost their monopoly.  And could no longer charge more than their food was worth.

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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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