Hard Money versus Paper Money

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 17th, 2014

Economics 101

(Originally published April 1st, 2013)

Money would have No Value if People with Talent didn’t Create things of Value

Money is a temporary storage of wealth.  We created it because of the high search costs of the barter system.  It took a lot of time for two people to find each other who each had what the other wanted.  And we started trading things to have things we couldn’t make efficiently for ourselves.  Someone may have been a superb potter but was a horrible farmer.  So, instead, the potter did what he did best.  And traded the pottery he made for the things he wanted that he was not good at making.  Or growing.  Before that we were self-sufficient.  Whatever you wanted you had to provide it yourself.

As we go back in time we learn why money is a temporary storage of wealth.  For it was the final piece in a growing and prosperous economy.  And at the beginning it was people with talent, each creating something of value.  Something of value that they could trade for something else of value.  It’s the creative talent of people that has value.  And we see that value in the goods and/or services they make or provide.  Money temporarily held that value.  So we could carry it with us easier to go to market to trade with other talented and creative people.  Who may not have wanted what we made or did.  But would gladly take our money.

So we took our goods to market.  People that wanted them traded for them.  They traded money for our goods.  Then we took that money and traded for what we wanted elsewhere in the market.  Trade grew.  With some people becoming professional traders.  By trading money for goods from distant lands.  Then trading these goods for money at the local market.  People who didn’t spend time creating anything.  But bought and sold the creative talent of others.  Who were able to do that because of money.  The creative talent came first.  Then the goods.  And then the money.  For money is a temporary storage of wealth.  Which has no value if no one is making anything of value.  Because if you can’t buy anything what good is having money?

There were no more Gold Certificates in Circulation than there was Gold in the Vault to Exchange them For

These early traders used a variety of things for money.  Pigs, tobacco, grain, oil, etc.  What we call commodity money.  Which was valuable by itself.  As people consumed these commodities.  Which is what gave them the ability to store value.  But because we could consume these they did not make the best money.  Also, they weren’t that portable.  And not easy to make change with.  Which is why we turned to specie.  Such as gold and silver.  Hard money.  It was durable.  Portable.  Divisible.  Fungible.  For example, all Spanish dollars were the same while all pigs weren’t.  One pig could weigh 30 pounds more than another.  So pigs weren’t fungible.  Or durable.  Portable.  And, though divisible, making change wasn’t easy.

So in time traders big and small turned to specie as the medium of exchange.  For all the reasons noted above.  If you worked hard to produce fine pottery you trusted in specie.  You would accept specie for your pottery goods.  Because you knew this hard money would hold its value.  And you could use it in the future to buy what you wanted.  No matter how long that may be.  Why?  Because the money supply remained relatively constant.  As it took a lot of work and great expense to mine and refine ore to make specie out of it.  So there was little inflation when using hard money.  Which meant if you saved for a rainy day that hard money would be there for you.

Gold and silver could be heavy to carry around.  Anyone struggling under the weight of their specie were targets for thieves.  Who wanted that money.  Without creating anything of value to bring to market.  So we found a way to improve a little on using gold and silver.  By locking our gold and silver in a vault.  And carrying around receipts for our gold and silver to use as money.  These gold certificates were promises to pay in gold.  People could continue to use them as money.  Or they could take these receipts back to the vault and exchange them for the gold inside.  These gold certificates were as good as gold.  And there were no more gold certificates in circulation than there was gold in the vault to exchange them for.

Governments Today use nothing but Paper Money because it gives them Privilege, Wealth and Power

Some saw advantages of expanding the money supply with paper currency.  Money that isn’t backed by gold or any other asset.  Money easy to print.  And easy to borrow.  Allowing rich people to borrow large sums of money to buy more assets.  And get richer.  Giving them more power.  And if you were the one printing and loaning that money it gave you great wealth and power.  So having a bank charter was a way to wealth and power.  You could make it easy for those who can help you to borrow money.  While making it difficult for those who oppose you to borrow money.  So there were those in business and in government that liked un-backed paper money.  Because a select few could borrow it cheaply and get rich and powerful.

While some liked these banks and that paper money there were others who bitterly opposed them.  Some who didn’t like to see so much power in so few hands.  And the hard money people.  Who wanted a money that held its value.  The common people.  People who couldn’t borrow large sums of cheap money.  But people who had to get by on less as the inflation from printing all those paper dollars raised prices.  Leaving them with less purchasing power.  Making it harder for them to get by.  Often having to turn to the hated banks to borrow money.  Again and again.  Such that the interest on their loans consumed even more of their limited funds.  Making life more tenuous.  And more bitter between the classes.  The rich who benefited from the cheap paper money.  And the common people who paid the price of all that inflation.

Rich people, on the other hand, loved that inflation.  It helped them make money.  When they bought something at a lower price and sold it at a higher price they made a lot of money.  The greater the inflation the greater the selling price.  And the more profit.  Also, the money they owed was easier to pay off with money that was worth less than when they borrowed it.  Allowing rich people to get even richer.  While the common people saw only higher prices.  And the value of their meager savings lose value.  So this cheap paper money fostered great class warfare.  The hard money people hated the paper money people.  Debtors hated creditors.  The middling classes hated the large landowners, merchants, manufacturers and, of course, the bankers.  And those who had talent to create things hated those who just made money with money.  The greater the inflation the greater the divide between the people.  And the greater wealth and power that select few acquired.  This is what paper money gave you.  Privilege.  Which is why most governments today use nothing but paper money.

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Capital Flows and Currency Exchange

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 10th, 2014

Economics 101

(Originally published July 30th, 2012)

Before we buy a Country’s Exports we have to Exchange our Currency First

What’s the first thing we do when traveling to a foreign country?  Exchange our currency.  Something we like to do at our own bank.  Before leaving home.  Where we can get a fair exchange rate.  Instead of someplace in-country where they factor the convenience of location into the exchange rate.  Places we go to only after we’ve run out of local currency.  And need some of it fast.  So we’ll pay the premium on the exchange rate.  And get less foreign money in exchange for our own currency.

Why are we willing to accept less money in return for our money?  Because when we run out of money in a foreign country we have no choice.  If you want to eat at a McDonalds in Canada they expect you to pay with Canadian dollars.  Which is why the money in the cash drawer is Canadian money.  Because the cashier accepts payment and makes change in Canadian money.  Just like they do with American money in the United States.

So currency exchange is very important for foreign purchases.  Because foreign goods are priced in a foreign currency.  And it’s just not people traveling across the border eating at nice restaurants and buying souvenirs to bring home.  But people in their local stores buying goods made in other countries.  Before we buy them with our American dollars someone else has to buy them first.  Japanese manufacturers need yen to run their businesses.  Chinese manufacturers need yuan to run their businesses.  Indian manufacturers need rupees to run their businesses.  So when they ship container ships full of their goods they expect to get yen, yuan and rupees in return.  Which means that before anyone buys their exports someone has to exchange their currency first.

Goods flow One Way while Gold flows the Other until Price Inflation Reverses the Flow of Goods and Gold

We made some of our early coins out of gold.  Because different nations used gold, too, it was relatively easy to exchange currencies.  Based on the weight of gold in those coins.  Imagine one nation using a gold coin the size of a quarter as their main unit of currency.  And another nation uses a gold coin the size of a nickel.  Let’s say the larger coin weighs twice as much as the smaller coin.  Or has twice the amount of gold in it.  Making the exchange easy.  One big coin equals two small coins in gold value.  So if I travel to the country of small coins with three large gold coins I exchange them for six of the local coins.  And then go shopping.

The same principle follows in trade between these two countries.  To buy a nation’s exports you have to first exchange your currency for theirs.  This is how.  You go to the exporter country with bags of your gold coins.  You exchange them for the local currency.  You then use this local currency to pay for the goods they will export to you.  Then you go back to your country and wait for the ship to arrive with your goods.  When it arrives your nation has a net increase in imported goods (i.e., a trade deficit).  And a net decrease in gold.  While the other nation has a net increase in exported goods (i.e., a trade surplus).  And a net increase in gold.

The quantity theory of money tells us that as the amount of money in circulation increases it creates price inflation.  Because there’s more of it in circulation it’s easy to get and worth less.  Because the money is worth less it takes more of it to buy the same things it once did.  So prices rise.  As prices rise in a nation with a trade surplus.  And fall in a nation with a trade deficit.  Because less money in circulation makes it harder to get and worth more.  Because the money is worth more it takes less of it to buy the same things it once did.  So prices fall.  This helps to make trade neutral (no deficit or surplus).  As prices rise in the exporter nation people buy less of their more expensive exports.  As prices fall in an importer nation people begin buying their less expensive exports.  So as goods flow one way gold flows the other way.  Until inflation rises in one country and eventually reverses the flow of goods and gold.  We call this the price-specie flow mechanism.

In the Era of Floating Exchange Rates Governments don’t have to Act Responsibly Anymore

This made the gold standard an efficient medium of exchange for international trade.  Whether we used gold.  Or a currency backed by gold.  Which added another element to the exchange rate.  For trading paper bills backed by gold required a government to maintain their domestic money supply based on their foreign exchange rate.  Meaning that they at times had to adjust the number of bills in circulation to maintain their exchange rate.  So if a country wanted to lower their interest rates (to encourage borrowing to stimulate their economy) by increasing the money supply they couldn’t.  Limiting what governments could do with their monetary policy.  Especially in the age of Keynesian economics.  Which was the driving force for abandoning the gold standard.

Most nations today use a floating exchange rate.  Where countries treat currencies as commodities.  With their own supply and demand determining exchange rates.  Or a government’s capital controls (restricting the free flow of money) that overrule market forces.  Which you can do when you don’t have to be responsible with your monetary policy.  You can print money.  You can keep foreign currency out of your county.  And you can manipulate your official exchange rate to give you an advantage in international trade by keeping your currency weak.  So when trading partners exchange their currency with you they get a lot of yours in exchange.  Allowing them to buy more of your goods than they can buy from other nations with the same amount of money.  Giving you an unfair trade advantage.  Trade surpluses.  And lots of foreign currency to invest in things like U.S. treasury bonds.

The gold standard gave us a fixed exchange rate and the free flow of capital.  But it limited what a government could do with its monetary policy.  An active monetary policy will allow the free flow of capital but not a fixed exchange rate.  Capital controls prevent the free flow of capital but allows a fixed exchange rate and an active monetary policy.  Governments have tried to do all three of these things.  But could never do more than two.  Which is why we call these three things the impossible trinity.  Which has been a source of policy disputes within a nation.  And between nations.  Because countries wanted to abandoned the gold standard to adopt policies that favored their nation.  And then complained about nations doing the same thing because it was unfair to their own nation.  Whereas the gold standard made trade fair.  By making governments act responsible.  Something they never liked.  And in the era of floating exchange rates they don’t have to act responsibly anymore.

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FT212: “If liberals keep winning elections the United States will fall like the Roman Empire.” —Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 7th, 2014

Fundamental Truth

The Roman Empire survived for about 1500 Years

The Roman Empire was one of the greatest empires of all time.  It lasted some 500 years in the West.  And another thousand years in the East.  Give or take.  As empires go they don’t come much bigger.  Or last longer.  The Romans ruled the world.  It stretched from Northern Africa to Britain.  And from Spain to the Middle East.  It was huge.

There have been bigger empires.  The British Empire.  The Mongol Empire.  The Russian Empire.  The Spanish Empire.  And others.  But none of them lasted as long as the 1500 years of the Roman Empire.  The British Empire lasted about 400 years.  The Mongol Empire lasted about 50 years.  The Russian Empire lasted about 200 years.  And the Spanish Empire lasted about 500 years.  Adolf Hitler said the Third Reich would last a thousand years.  But it lasted only 12.  Proving that empire building—and empire maintaining—are easier said than done.

Yet the Romans did it for 1500 years.  Give or take.  So they knew a thing or two about empire building.  And maintaining that empire.  Yet even this mighty empire fell.  Why?  Historians still debate this question today.  As do the laymen.  With a person’s political persuasion sometimes determining what they believe.

A Debased Coin and High Taxes made the Roman Citizenry very Unhappy

Empires are costly.  As Rome built her empire she paid for it by conquering new lands.  So as her borders pushed out treasure flowed back the other way to Rome.  Which paid for her massive military.  And her massive bureaucracy to govern that sprawling empire.  So the Roman people went about their business.  Shielded from the cost of empire.  Farming and taking their goods to market.  Safe within their empire.  For her enemies were outside the borders of the empire.  And those borders were pushed a very long way out.

But then something happened.  Those borders stopped moving.  They were not conquering new lands.  And there was no more treasure flowing back to Rome.  Which was a problem.  For the Roman Empire covered a lot of land that they had to govern.  And defend.  So the cost of the Roman Empire was never higher than when her borders stopped pushing out.  While her revenue to pay for that empire was never smaller.  So they had to do something.  And that something was taxes.  Lots of them.  All of a sudden the Roman citizenry was feeling the cost of their bloated bureaucratic state.  And the cost of that massive military that defended the frontier.

So taxes soared.  Making the Roman citizenry unhappy.  But the tax revenue proved to be insufficient.  So they started debasing their currency.  Adding more and more lead to their silver coins.  But not their gold coins.  For they used gold to pay the military and to pay the government bureaucrats.  So they only debased the silver coin.  The coin of the Roman citizenry.  Which, of course, resulted in inflation.  As the coins had less and less silver in them they bought less and less.  So prices soared.  As did taxes.  Making the Roman citizenry very unhappy.

The Cost of Mercenaries and the Roman Bureaucracy and Welfare State bankrupted the Roman Empire

So the Romans started building things to entertain the people.  And they grew a welfare state to help feed those who could not afford to buy food.  Public works and the new welfare state may have eased some of the animosity towards the state.  But it only increased the costs of the state.  Requiring higher taxes.  So high that people lost money on their farms and businesses.  So they quit.  Causing food and goods shortages.  So the Romans passed laws forcing them to stay in their jobs.  And forcing their children to do the same work their parents did.  Which eventually evolved into feudalism.

Eventually the Roman citizenry no longer wanted to serve the empire.  Leading to the use of mercenary armies.  Which were costly.  And only increased the cost of empire.  With the silver coin so debased the Roman government would not even accept it in payment of taxes.  So the government took a portion of the food grown and goods made.  Making it more difficult to pay for the welfare state (just imagine your employer paying you in food, toilet paper, soap, etc.).  And the mercenary armies guarding the frontier.  Which could prove troublesome.  As they had no loyalties to the Roman Empire.  They were just hired muscle.  Their blood loyalties were often to people on the other side of the border they were guarding.  Having come from those people.

So the massive cost of hired mercenaries and the massive cost of the Roman bureaucracy and welfare state basically bankrupted the Roman Empire.  Of course the American left prefers not to think about this.  As they are very fond of their large welfare state.  So some on the left often cite the decadence of the Roman Empire that caused her fall.  They talk about the feasts, the drink, the gladiators, the orgies and other acts of debauchery that caused a societal decay that eroded the empire from within.  Even while they are in the business of societal decay themselves.  Free birth control, abortion on demand, the decriminalization of marijuana, the rejection of virtue and morality, their extreme secularism to remove any vestige of restraint from their lives of excess, etc.  The kind of things a debauched Roman citizenry no doubt would have enjoyed.  So either way the Roman Empire fell because of principles the American left embraces.  Which means if liberals keep winning elections the United States will fall like the Roman Empire.

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Tariffs

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 9th, 2013

Economics 101

The Proponents of Tariffs say they will Protect Infant Industries and Domestic Jobs

Tariffs.  What are they?  And what are they for?  A tariff is a tax.  Or a duty.  The government applies tariffs to imported goods.  Making them more expensive.  So people have to spend more money for them.  Leaving them less money to spend on other things.  Which seems counterintuitive to trying to increase economic activity.  Increasing prices the consumers pay, leaving them less money to buy other stuff.  So why do they do it?

The argument for tariffs is typically to protect ‘infant’ industries.  To give them a chance to get off the ground and establish themselves.  So they can later compete with this more developed and less costly foreign competition.  Which they couldn’t do if those foreign competitors can sell goods just as good if not better at lower prices.

Another argument is that tariffs protect domestic jobs.  A lot of imported goods are less costly than the same domestically produced goods.  Because of less costly labor in these other countries.  Often developing economies.  Unlike the developed economies who pay their people more.  And give them more benefits.  All paid for with the higher prices the people pay for their goods.  Tariffs raise the prices of foreign goods so they are not less costly than the domestically produced goods.  To get people to buy domestic goods.  Thereby saving domestic jobs.

Americans have to Pay about $1.25 more for a Bag of Sugar than the Rest of the World

These arguments make tariffs sound noble and good.  For they’re helping the little guy.  And protecting middle class jobs from cheap labor in foreign countries.  But they also hurt the little guy.  And poor families.  Because tariffs raise the price of the things they have to buy.  For example, tariffs on sugar imports raise the price Americans pay for sugar higher than people can buy sugar outside of the United States.  So the sugar they buy, and anything that contains sugar as an ingredient that they buy, is higher than it would be if the sugar tariffs weren’t there.

The US population in 2012 was 313,914,040.  Let’s assume the adult population is approximately 250 million.  And that half of them buy sugar.  How many sugar producers are there in the United States?  Far, far fewer than 125 million.  The Washington Post noted in 2007 that there were only about 6,000 sugar farmers.  About 0.002% of the population.  While the sugar buyers are closer to 40% of the population.  Or more if you include the things we buy that have sugar in them.  The numbers are approximate but the point is clear.  The people helped by tariffs are an infinitesimally small number while the people hurt by tariffs are a much, much larger number.

Let’s crunch some numbers.  While people outside of the United States can buy a bag a sugar for $1 Americans have to pay $2.25.  Or $1.25 more.  To protect American jobs in the sugar industry.  The 6,000 sugar farmers.  Let’s triple this number for the corn farmers (for high fructose corn syrup) and the sugar companies.  Rounding it out to an even 20,000 jobs that sugar tariffs protect.  If half of all adults buy a bag of sugar that’s $156 million pulled out of the economy that goes to, for lack of a better term, Big Sugar.  Let’s say these adults buy two bags a year.  Bringing the transfer from the 125 million (sugar consumers) to the 20,000 (Big Sugar) to $312.5 million.  Let’s double that number to include everything we buy that includes sugar as an ingredient.  And then double that number to account for all the sugar and corn subsidies.  Bringing the total annual wealth transfer from consumers to Big Sugar to approximately $1.25 billion.

Tariffs transfer Wealth from the Many to the Few and Reduce Economic Activity

That’s an enormous amount of wealth transferred from less rich people to richer people.  From consumers to Big Sugar.  But is it accurate?  Well, according to an article published in the Washington Post, yes.  The article states:

The Government Accountability Office has estimated that the sugar program costs consumers and food processors between $1 billion and $2 billion annually in higher prices for sugar and a vast array of products that contain it. Meanwhile, the new sugar subsidy would cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year, according to economists and U.S. officials.

So our crude calculation may be on the light side.  This is a lot of money taken out of the pockets of hundreds of millions of consumers to protect 20,000 or so well-paying jobs.  Nearly half of the US population supporting less than 0.02% of the population.  And those tariffs paid that 0.02% very well.  Because Big Sugar is very profitable.  And can pay their people very well.  As they have tariffs to increase their selling prices and subsidies to lower their costs.  Which greatly fattens the bottom line.

In the United States the price of sugar is so high that businesses have turned to high fructose corn syrup for their sweetener.  Which our tax dollars also subsidize.  Making it a very profitable industry.  And as an added bonus for Big Sugar, some studies have indicated that high fructose corn syrup doesn’t satiate your appetite like regular sugar.  Causing us to overeat.  Which lets the soda pop industry sell more soda pop.  The (sweetened) food industry sell more food.  And, of course, Big Sugar sell more sweetener.  Making them richer.  And the people poorer.  As well as obese.  All of this to protect a very few jobs in some very old industries.  Transferring wealth from the many to the few.  And reducing economic activity.  Pretty much the exact opposite of what the proponents of tariffs say tariffs will do.  But what they in fact do.  Help the few.  At the expense of the many.

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Food Surplus, Artisan, Guilds, Industrial Revolution, Mechanized Looms and Luddites

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 14th, 2013

History 101

As the Middle Class grew Artisans joined Guilds to Restrict Entry into their Trade

For most of our existence on this planet we were hunters and gatherers.  Like the animals in the wild.  Dependent on our environment for our food.  Which was often scarce.  Leaving our distant relatives with a chronic gnawing hunger in their bellies.  Sometimes the environment provided so little food that there wasn’t enough for everyone.  So a great many went hungry.  And a great many eventually died from that hunger.  Such was life for hunters and gatherers dependent on their environment for food.  Then we started thinking.  And figured out how to farm.

As farmers we took control of our environment.  Instead of eating only what the environment gave us we grew what we needed.  And grew even more to have a food surplus.  To get us through times when the environment did not provide a good growing season.  Having control over our food turned that chronic gnawing hunger into a rare and infrequent occurrence.  Which established us at the top of the food chain.  And made us master of the planet.  Where we shaped it to serve our needs.  Instead of living at its mercy.

With a stable food supply we were able to do something else.  Something other than grow food.  We could build things.  And an artisan class grew.  Potters.  Shoemakers.  Blacksmiths.  As time passed the artisan class grew.  Creating a middle class.  Markets where people met to trade their goods grew into cities.  The economy grew more complex.  The cities grew more crowded.  And the artisans became protective of their trades.  Joining guilds that restricted entry into their trade.  By maintaining a maximum number of artisans in each trade.  For though there was more food than ever the fear of hunger never went away.

In Medieval Europe Cloth Production was Second only to Food Production

Artisans joined guilds for one reason.  So they wouldn’t starve to death.  Basically.  By restricting entry into their trade they limited competition.  This allowed them to charge higher prices for their goods or services.  And that healthy income allowed them to buy all the food they desired.  Whereas if other artisans were allowed to set up shop in town they could offer their goods or services for less.  Forcing other artisans to lower their prices.  Which is good for the masses.  Allowing them to pay less for the artisans’ goods or services.  Helping them to push off hunger themselves.  But not good for the limited few who saw their wages fall with more artisans entering their trade.  Hence the guilds.

But artisans had more to fear than just people trying to take food off of their tables.  There was something else that was a far greater risk.  Technology.  Which led to increases in productivity.  That is, producing more with fewer people.  Replacing some highly-skilled artisans with lower-skilled and lower-paid people operating machines.  And without a job it was difficult to put food on the table.  With the specter of hunger haunting them some artisans did something about that new technology putting them out of a job.  They fought back against the machines.

Besides food there was another basic necessity the people needed.  Especially in England.  Where it got pretty cold during the winter.  To live in the northern climes you needed to wear clothes.  Or die of exposure.  In Medieval Europe food production was the number one occupation.  The number two occupation was cloth production.  To make the clothing people needed to wear to keep from dying of exposure.  Highly skilled weavers filled factories as they manually worked their looms.  Making the cloth that others would turn into clothing.

The most Infamous Neo-Luddite was the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski

Their meager production rate kept clothing prices high.  Then came the Industrial Revolution.  First they mechanized spinning.  Creating more thread than a weaver could ever use.  Then they mechanized weaving.  Turning that thread into cloth at an incredible rate.  Turning cloth-making from a skilled trade into an automated process.  Producing more with fewer people.  Lowering the price of clothing.  And reducing the need for skilled artisans.  Making the people happy.  For they could buy more clothing.  And still be able to afford enough food to ward off that gnawing hunger.  Everyone was happy except, of course, those artisans put out of a job thanks to those new machines.

Britain was at War with Napoleon’s France in 1811.  During war the home economy typically suffers.  And machines replacing people didn’t help.  Highly skilled weavers either lost their jobs.  Or had to take steep pay cuts to compete with other unskilled laborers working the new mechanized looms.  Lower incomes made it difficult to buy food when prices were rising.  As they typically do during war.  Pushing some people to the breaking point.  And some people rebelled against the machines.  Smashing them.  And burning them.  These people were Luddites.  Their rebellion against technology was so great that at times more British Red Coats were in England putting down their rebellion than were fighting Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

But in the end the Luddites loss their struggle.  By 1817 the British had put down the rebellion.  And the Industrial Revolution carried on.  Making life better for the masses.  The modern economy flooding us with new must-have products at reasonable prices.  And creating scores of new jobs the Luddites never could have imagined.  Still, their anti-technology philosophy lives on.  Perhaps the most infamous neo-Luddite being Theodore Kaczynski.  The Unabomber.  Who fought against technology by planting or mailing bombs.  Killing three.  And hurting 23 others.  Who they finally found holed up in a primitive cabin in the Montana wilderness.  Where he rejected all technology.  Living without any of the creature comforts technology gives us.  Like electricity, fresh water or personal hygiene.  Being a Luddite to the extreme.

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Hard Money versus Paper Money

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 1st, 2013

Economics 101

Money would have No Value if People with Talent didn’t Create things of Value

Money is a temporary storage of wealth.  We created it because of the high search costs of the barter system.  It took a lot of time for two people to find each other who each had what the other wanted.  And we started trading things to have things we couldn’t make efficiently for ourselves.  Someone may have been a superb potter but was a horrible farmer.  So, instead, the potter did what he did best.  And traded the pottery he made for the things he wanted that he was not good at making.  Or growing.  Before that we were self-sufficient.  Whatever you wanted you had to provide it yourself.

As we go back in time we learn why money is a temporary storage of wealth.  For it was the final piece in a growing and prosperous economy.  And at the beginning it was people with talent, each creating something of value.  Something of value that they could trade for something else of value.  It’s the creative talent of people that has value.  And we see that value in the goods and/or services they make or provide.  Money temporarily held that value.  So we could carry it with us easier to go to market to trade with other talented and creative people.  Who may not have wanted what we made or did.  But would gladly take our money.

So we took our goods to market.  People that wanted them traded for them.  They traded money for our goods.  Then we took that money and traded for what we wanted elsewhere in the market.  Trade grew.  With some people becoming professional traders.  By trading money for goods from distant lands.  Then trading these goods for money at the local market.  People who didn’t spend time creating anything.  But bought and sold the creative talent of others.  Who were able to do that because of money.  The creative talent came first.  Then the goods.  And then the money.  For money is a temporary storage of wealth.  Which has no value if no one is making anything of value.  Because if you can’t buy anything what good is having money?

There were no more Gold Certificates in Circulation than there was Gold in the Vault to Exchange them For

These early traders used a variety of things for money.  Pigs, tobacco, grain, oil, etc.  What we call commodity money.  Which was valuable by itself.  As people consumed these commodities.  Which is what gave them the ability to store value.  But because we could consume these they did not make the best money.  Also, they weren’t that portable.  And not easy to make change with.  Which is why we turned to specie.  Such as gold and silver.  Hard money.  It was durable.  Portable.  Divisible.  Fungible.  For example, all Spanish dollars were the same while all pigs weren’t.  One pig could weigh 30 pounds more than another.  So pigs weren’t fungible.  Or durable.  Portable.  And, though divisible, making change wasn’t easy.

So in time traders big and small turned to specie as the medium of exchange.  For all the reasons noted above.  If you worked hard to produce fine pottery you trusted in specie.  You would accept specie for your pottery goods.  Because you knew this hard money would hold its value.  And you could use it in the future to buy what you wanted.  No matter how long that may be.  Why?  Because the money supply remained relatively constant.  As it took a lot of work and great expense to mine and refine ore to make specie out of it.  So there was little inflation when using hard money.  Which meant if you saved for a rainy day that hard money would be there for you.

Gold and silver could be heavy to carry around.  Anyone struggling under the weight of their specie were targets for thieves.  Who wanted that money.  Without creating anything of value to bring to market.  So we found a way to improve a little on using gold and silver.  By locking our gold and silver in a vault.  And carrying around receipts for our gold and silver to use as money.  These gold certificates were promises to pay in gold.  People could continue to use them as money.  Or they could take these receipts back to the vault and exchange them for the gold inside.  These gold certificates were as good as gold.  And there were no more gold certificates in circulation than there was gold in the vault to exchange them for.

Governments Today use nothing but Paper Money because it gives them Privilege, Wealth and Power

Some saw advantages of expanding the money supply with paper currency.  Money that isn’t backed by gold or any other asset.  Money easy to print.  And easy to borrow.  Allowing rich people to borrow large sums of money to buy more assets.  And get richer.  Giving them more power.  And if you were the one printing and loaning that money it gave you great wealth and power.  So having a bank charter was a way to wealth and power.  You could make it easy for those who can help you to borrow money.  While making it difficult for those who oppose you to borrow money.  So there were those in business and in government that liked un-backed paper money.  Because a select few could borrow it cheaply and get rich and powerful.

While some liked these banks and that paper money there were others who bitterly opposed them.  Some who didn’t like to see so much power in so few hands.  And the hard money people.  Who wanted a money that held its value.  The common people.  People who couldn’t borrow large sums of cheap money.  But people who had to get by on less as the inflation from printing all those paper dollars raised prices.  Leaving them with less purchasing power.  Making it harder for them to get by.  Often having to turn to the hated banks to borrow money.  Again and again.  Such that the interest on their loans consumed even more of their limited funds.  Making life more tenuous.  And more bitter between the classes.  The rich who benefited from the cheap paper money.  And the common people who paid the price of all that inflation.

Rich people, on the other hand, loved that inflation.  It helped them make money.  When they bought something at a lower price and sold it at a higher price they made a lot of money.  The greater the inflation the greater the selling price.  And the more profit.  Also, the money they owed was easier to pay off with money that was worth less than when they borrowed it.  Allowing rich people to get even richer.  While the common people saw only higher prices.  And the value of their meager savings lose value.  So this cheap paper money fostered great class warfare.  The hard money people hated the paper money people.  Debtors hated creditors.  The middling classes hated the large landowners, merchants, manufacturers and, of course, the bankers.  And those who had talent to create things hated those who just made money with money.  The greater the inflation the greater the divide between the people.  And the greater wealth and power that select few acquired.  This is what paper money gave you.  Privilege.  Which is why most governments today use nothing but paper money.

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Market Forces and Health Care

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 4th, 2013

Economics 101

Keynesians try to reduce Human Behavior down to Complex and Confusing Math

We hear a lot about introducing market forces into health care.  But what does that mean?  What exactly are market forces?  Are they like magnetic forces?  Electric forces?  Hydraulic forces?  No.  Market forces are not forces that conform to the laws of science.  Rather, they belong in the realm of the social sciences.  That are less science.  And more opinion.  Where there are a lot of theories.  And politicians massage the data to fit their theory.  As Mark Twain said, facts don’t lie but liars figure.  And politicians figure.  A lot.

So there are no hard rules when it comes to the social sciences.  Just a lot of theorizing.  And a lot of drawing conclusions.  Based on the data.  And how some massage the data.  Something to keep in mind whenever anyone discusses economic numbers.  For the accepted school of economics most politicians adhere to is the Keynesian school.  The dirty little whore of economics.  For there is a whole lot of massaging going on with Keynesians.  With the data.  Not each other.  Politicians love Keynesian economics because this school of economic thought calls for governments to tax, borrow, print and spend.  Empowering government.  Making government grow.  And become more intrusive in our personal lives.  All things politicians love.  Which is why they massage the economic data.  They have to.  Because this school of economic thought doesn’t work.

Keynesians make economics very complex.  Open a text book and you will find a lot of graphs and formulas.  Where they try to reduce human behavior down to math.  Very complex and confusing math.  And you can’t do that.  Humans have free will.  They make decisions based on any number of things.  One influencing factor more or less could change the way they decide.  And there’s no way we can quantify all the variables in our lives.  Therefore, there’s no way to reduce human decision-making down to math.  Which is what drives market forces.  Our decision-making process.  That point in time that triggers the free exchange of money for goods and/or services.

When it comes to the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet Customers think more in Terms of Quantity than Quality

Consider an all-you-can-eat buffet.  And how it changes your decision-making process.  But first let’s look at some typical behavior at a normal restaurant.  Where you may spend $15 for a 4-course meal and drink.  Soup, salad, entrée and dessert.  Which you enjoy with a friend.  You have pleasant conversation as you enjoy each of your 4 courses.  Taking your time.  Enjoying each course.  Slowly getting full.  And satisfied.  The portion sizes are just right.  Leaving just enough room for dessert.  You’re full.  But not too full.  Comfortable.  You’re able to go for an after-dinner walk.  Even take in a movie.

Now let’s consider the all-you-can-eat buffet.  Where you may pay $20 for unlimited access to the buffet.  You’re paying more than for a sit-down service.  Why?  Because you plan to eat more.  You will maximize the value you get for your $20.  Which means you’ll probably skip the soup and salad.  And start loading your plate with the expensive entrées.  You’ll probably go back once or twice.  Making sure you get a taste of everything.  And a lot of anything that is expensive.  Again, to maximize your value.  In fact you maximize so much that you become uncomfortably full.  Too full to sit through a movie without nodding off.  And too full for a walk.  All you want to do is go home and nap.

The restaurant sees this from a slightly different perspective.  The all-you-can-eat buffet is simple to serve.  You mass produce food to load up the buffet so it’s ready at the beginning of the buffet hours.  You replace the items people eat most.  While the less popular items sit longer in the buffet.  Becoming less fresh.  Also, the buffet is a good way to get rid of things approaching their ‘serve by’ dates.  Saving the freshest food for the made-to-order sit-down service.  And putting the older food in the buffet.  Because when it comes to the buffet you know customers are thinking more in terms of quantity than quality.  The food is good in the buffet.  But not as good as the food for the sit-down clientele.

If you Pay Cash at the Pharmacy you are more likely to Ask for the Less Expensive Generic Drugs

These are market forces.  People have come together to make voluntary exchanges.  The quantity of food available makes some people opt for the more expensive all-you-can-eat buffet.  Others may opt for the less expensive but higher quality made-to-order sit down service.  For the person who places the greatest value on eating mass quantities of food will choose the buffet.  The person who places the greatest value on the dining experience (quality of food, made-to-order, conversation, after-dinner walk or movie, etc.) will choose the sit-down service.  If more people are choosing the buffet the owner may extend the buffet hours.  If fewer people are choosing the buffet and leave a lot a food to throw away the owner may end the buffet service.  These are market forces.  Buyer and sellers coming together in the marketplace.  Seeing what each has to offer.  If they come to a mutual agreement they make an economic exchange.  The buyer willingly exchanges his or her money for goods and/or services.  The seller willingly accepts an amount of money in exchange for his or her goods and/or services.

The private economy works because it is buyers and sellers meeting and making exchanges they both freely agree to.  This is the key of market forces.  It’s what makes people with money go to the marketplace.  And it’s what makes people bring goods and/or services to the marketplace.  Because they will seek each other out and make these exchanges.  After which both buyer and seller will come away with something they value more.  This is what is missing in health care.  Buyer and sellers aren’t meeting to make exchanges.  In fact, the buyer and seller do not even meet.  Patients never ask for any prices.  Because they aren’t paying for anything.  Their insurer is.  And the medical provider will always provide the most expensive treatment billing guidelines will allow.  For that’s who they must please.  The people paying them.  Not the patient.  And they have to charge as much as they can to cover all the things they won’t get paid for.  People they treat without insurance who can’t pay.  And for the billings the insurers deny.

So this changes the decision making process.  For everyone.  Introducing a third party into the equation removes market forces.  If you pay cash at the pharmacy you are more likely to ask for the less expensive generic drugs.  If you get free prescription coverage you will ask for the most expensive name-brand medicine they have.  For when you’re not paying price is no object.  But when you are paying price is a very important object.  Because when it’s our money getting value for our money is very important.  So we’ll ask if the name-brand has any more value than the generic.  For who would spend more for something that doesn’t give you any more value than something you can get for less?

When it comes to medical tests and procedures patients aren’t going to ask for more than they absolutely need.  And doctors aren’t going to prescribe any more than a patient needs.  Because they aren’t billing a faceless bureaucrat.  They’re billing someone they have a close and personal relationship with.  And they sure aren’t going to try and bill someone they have a close and personal relationship with for someone else’s unpaid bill.  Not if they want to keep them as a patient.  Because a doctor-patient relationship is a long-term relationship.  A doctor could lose a lot of business by mistreating a patient to make an extra buck.  These are market forces.  Which makes the private sector work so well.  And why their absence makes the health care system not work so well.  Transforming our health care from a moderately priced, high quality, custom, sit-down service to a higher priced, mass-produced, lower quality, all-you-can-eat buffet.

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Capital Flows and Currency Exchange

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 30th, 2012

Economics 101

Before we buy a Country’s Exports we have to Exchange our Currency First

What’s the first thing we do when traveling to a foreign country?  Exchange our currency.  Something we like to do at our own bank.  Before leaving home.  Where we can get a fair exchange rate.  Instead of someplace in-country where they factor the convenience of location into the exchange rate.  Places we go to only after we’ve run out of local currency.  And need some of it fast.  So we’ll pay the premium on the exchange rate.  And get less foreign money in exchange for our own currency.

Why are we willing to accept less money in return for our money?  Because when we run out of money in a foreign country we have no choice.  If you want to eat at a McDonalds in Canada they expect you to pay with Canadian dollars.  Which is why the money in the cash drawer is Canadian money.  Because the cashier accepts payment and makes change in Canadian money.  Just like they do with American money in the United States.

So currency exchange is very important for foreign purchases.  Because foreign goods are priced in a foreign currency.  And it’s just not people traveling across the border eating at nice restaurants and buying souvenirs to bring home.  But people in their local stores buying goods made in other countries.  Before we buy them with our American dollars someone else has to buy them first.  Japanese manufacturers need yen to run their businesses.  Chinese manufacturers need yuan to run their businesses.  Indian manufacturers need rupees to run their businesses.  So when they ship container ships full of their goods they expect to get yen, yuan and rupees in return.  Which means that before anyone buys their exports someone has to exchange their currency first.

Goods flow One Way while Gold flows the Other until Price Inflation Reverses the Flow of Goods and Gold

We made some of our early coins out of gold.  Because different nations used gold, too, it was relatively easy to exchange currencies.  Based on the weight of gold in those coins.  Imagine one nation using a gold coin the size of a quarter as their main unit of currency.  And another nation uses a gold coin the size of a nickel.  Let’s say the larger coin weighs twice as much as the smaller coin.  Or has twice the amount of gold in it.  Making the exchange easy.  One big coin equals two small coins in gold value.  So if I travel to the country of small coins with three large gold coins I exchange them for six of the local coins.  And then go shopping.

The same principle follows in trade between these two countries.  To buy a nation’s exports you have to first exchange your currency for theirs.  This is how.  You go to the exporter country with bags of your gold coins.  You exchange them for the local currency.  You then use this local currency to pay for the goods they will export to you.  Then you go back to your country and wait for the ship to arrive with your goods.  When it arrives your nation has a net increase in imported goods (i.e., a trade deficit).  And a net decrease in gold.  While the other nation has a net increase in exported goods (i.e., a trade surplus).  And a net increase in gold.

The quantity theory of money tells us that as the amount of money in circulation increases it creates price inflation.  Because there’s more of it in circulation it’s easy to get and worth less.  Because the money is worth less it takes more of it to buy the same things it once did.  So prices rise.  As prices rise in a nation with a trade surplus.  And fall in a nation with a trade deficit.  Because less money in circulation makes it harder to get and worth more.  Because the money is worth more it takes less of it to buy the same things it once did.  So prices fall.  This helps to make trade neutral (no deficit or surplus).  As prices rise in the exporter nation people buy less of their more expensive exports.  As prices fall in an importer nation people begin buying their less expensive exports.  So as goods flow one way gold flows the other way.  Until inflation rises in one country and eventually reverses the flow of goods and gold.  We call this the price-specie flow mechanism.

In the Era of Floating Exchange Rates Governments don’t have to Act Responsibly Anymore

This made the gold standard an efficient medium of exchange for international trade.  Whether we used gold.  Or a currency backed by gold.  Which added another element to the exchange rate.  For trading paper bills backed by gold required a government to maintain their domestic money supply based on their foreign exchange rate.  Meaning that they at times had to adjust the number of bills in circulation to maintain their exchange rate.  So if a country wanted to lower their interest rates (to encourage borrowing to stimulate their economy) by increasing the money supply they couldn’t.  Limiting what governments could do with their monetary policy.  Especially in the age of Keynesian economics.  Which was the driving force for abandoning the gold standard.

Most nations today use a floating exchange rate.  Where countries treat currencies as commodities.  With their own supply and demand determining exchange rates.  Or a government’s capital controls (restricting the free flow of money) that overrule market forces.  Which you can do when you don’t have to be responsible with your monetary policy.  You can print money.  You can keep foreign currency out of your county.  And you can manipulate your official exchange rate to give you an advantage in international trade by keeping your currency weak.  So when trading partners exchange their currency with you they get a lot of yours in exchange.  Allowing them to buy more of your goods than they can buy from other nations with the same amount of money.  Giving you an unfair trade advantage.  Trade surpluses.  And lots of foreign currency to invest in things like U.S. treasury bonds.

The gold standard gave us a fixed exchange rate and the free flow of capital.  But it limited what a government could do with its monetary policy.  An active monetary policy will allow the free flow of capital but not a fixed exchange rate.  Capital controls prevent the free flow of capital but allows a fixed exchange rate and an active monetary policy.  Governments have tried to do all three of these things.  But could never do more than two.  Which is why we call these three things the impossible trinity.  Which has been a source of policy disputes within a nation.  And between nations.  Because countries wanted to abandoned the gold standard to adopt policies that favored their nation.  And then complained about nations doing the same thing because it was unfair to their own nation.  Whereas the gold standard made trade fair.  By making governments act responsible.  Something they never liked.  And in the era of floating exchange rates they don’t have to act responsibly anymore.

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Inventories

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 23rd, 2012

Economics 101

Before a Business Earns any Sales Revenue they have to Spend Cash to Build an Inventory

To sell something a business needs to have it on hand first.  Because when it comes to manufactured goods we rarely custom manufacture things.  No.  When businesses sell something it’s something they already have in their inventories.  So how do they get things into inventory?  With cash.  Businesses buy goods and place them in their inventories.  They exchange some of their cash for the goods they hope to sell at a later date.  And the bigger the inventory they maintain the more cash it will take.  Cash they have to spend before they sell these goods.  Which requires financing.  Each large business, in fact, has a finance department.  That works to raise cash.  So the businesses can buy inventory (and pay their operating and overhead expenses) before they start selling anything.

This is how the retail stores work.  For manufacturers it’s a little different.  They make things.  Out of other things.  Things that go through various stages of production before becoming a finished good.  So to make these things requires different types of inventories.  Raw goods.  Work in process.  And finished goods.  When they pull raw goods out of inventory and begin working with them they become work in process inventory.  When finished goods come off the final production line they enter finished goods inventory.  The finance department secures the cash to buy the raw materials.  And for the equipment and labor used through the stages of production to produce a finished good.  Which enters finished goods inventory until they sell and ship these goods.

Before a business earns any sales revenue they have to spend huge amounts of cash first to move material through these inventories.  Cash they can’t use for anything else.  Like paying their overhead expenses.  Or servicing their debt.  So it’s a delicate balancing act.  You need inventory to produce revenue.  But if you run out of cash you can’t produce any inventory.  Or pay your bills.  A large inventory creates a large variety of things for customers to buy.  But if customers aren’t buying that large inventory will consume cash leaving a business struggling to pay its bills.  If they become so cash-strapped they will cut their prices to unload slow moving inventory.  Cut back on production rates.  Even cut back on expenses.  As in cost-cutting.  And lay-offs.

Good Inventory Management is Crucial for the Financial Health of a Business

A business doesn’t start generating cash until they start selling their finished goods.  Sales numbers may sound high but most sales revenue goes to pay for the costs of producing inventory.  A firm’s accounting department records these revenues.  And matches them to the cost of goods sold.  Which in a retailer is what they paid to bring those goods into inventory.  A manufacturer may use a term like cost of sales.  Which would include all the costs they incurred throughout the stages of production from bringing raw material into the plant.  To the labor to process that material.  To the energy consumed.  Etc.  Everything that was an input in the production process to place a finished good into inventory.  So from their sales revenue they subtract their costs of goods sold (or cost of sales).  The number they arrive at is gross profit.  Which has to pay for everything else.  Rent, utilities, marketing and advertising, non-production salaries and benefits, insurances, taxes, etc.  And, of course, interest on the cash their finance department borrowed to start everything off.

There is a unique relationship between inventories and sales.  There are countless things that happen in a business but what happens between inventories and sales receives particular attention.  A business’ greatest cost is the cost of goods sold.  Or cost of sales.  Everything that falls above gross profit on their income statement (the financial statement that shows a firm’s profitability).  This cost is a function of inventory.  The bigger the inventory the bigger the cost.  The smaller the inventory the smaller the cost.  This is a direct relationship.  You move one the other follows.  Whereas the relationship between sales and inventory is a little different.  The higher the sales revenue the bigger the inventory cost.  Because you have to have inventory to sell inventory.  However, there is no such corresponding relationship for falling sales.  As sales can fall for a variety of reasons.  And they can fall with a falling inventory level.  They can fall with a steady inventory level.  And they can fall with a rising inventory level.

In business sales are everything.  There are few problems healthy sales can’t solve.  It can even overcome some of the worst cost management.  So rising sales revenue is good.  While falling sales revenue is not.  There are many reasons why sales fall.  But the reason that most affects inventories is typically a bad economy.  When people scale back their purchases in response to a bad economy a firm’s sales fall.  And when their sales fall their inventories, of course, rise.  Until management scales back production to reflect the weaker demand.  Because there is no point building things when people aren’t buying.  Those who don’t scale back production will see their sales fall and their inventories rise.  Creating cash problems.  Because sales aren’t creating cash.  And a growing inventory consumes cash.  Making it difficult to meet their daily expenses.  Such as payroll and benefits.  As well as paying interest on their debt.  Which can lead to insolvency.  And bankruptcy.  So good inventory management is crucial for the financial health of a business.

If Retail Sales are Falling and Inventories are Rising Bad Times are Coming

Businesses target specific inventory levels.  During good economic times they increase inventory levels because people are buying more.  During bad economic times they decrease inventory levels because people are buying less.  And they monitor changes in the actual sales and inventory levels continuously.  Adjusting inventory levels to match changes in sales.  To balance the need to have an inventory flush with goods to sell.  While keeping the cost of that inventory to the lowest level possible.  All businesses do this.  And if you track the aggregate of the inventory levels of all businesses you can get a good idea about what’s happening in the economy.

John Maynard Keynes used inventory levels in his macroeconomics formulas.  The ‘big picture’ of the economy.  Looking at inventories tied right into jobs.  If sales are outpacing inventory levels then businesses hire new workers to increase inventory levels.  So sales growing at a greater rate than inventory levels suggest that businesses will be creating new jobs and hiring new workers.  A good thing.  If inventory levels are growing greater than sales it’s a sign of an economic slowdown.  Suggesting businesses will be reducing production and laying off workers.  Not a good thing.

Because of the stages of production changes in finished goods inventories can create or destroy a lot of jobs.  For if the major retailers are cutting back on inventory levels due to weak demand that will ripple all the way through the stages of production back to the extraction of raw materials out of the ground.  Which makes inventory levels a key economic indicator.  And when we combine it with sales you can pretty much learn everything you need to know about the economy.  For if retail sales are falling and inventories are rising bad times are coming.  And a lot of people will probably soon be losing their jobs.  As the economy falls into a recession.  Which won’t end until these economic indicators turn around.  And sales grow faster than inventories.  Which indicates a recovery.  And jobs.  As they ramp up production to increase inventory levels to meet the new growing demand.

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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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