Roaring Twenties, Farmers, Mechanization, Smoot-Hawley Tariff, Stock Market Crash, Great Depression and Taxi Medallions

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 12th, 2012

History 101

The New Economic Reality of Farming was that we needed Fewer Farmers in the Age of Mechanization

The Roaring Twenties was a decade of solid, real economic growth.  The world modernized during the Twenties.  Electric power, telephone, radio, motion pictures, air travel, etc.  So much of what we take for granted today became a reality during the Roaring Twenties.  But there was a downside.  Farmers borrowed money to mechanize their farms.  As farms mechanized they produced great crop yields.  Bringing bumper crops to market.  There was so much food brought to market that prices plummeted.  Reducing farm incomes so much that they couldn’t service the debt they incurred to mechanize their farms.  They defaulted.  Causing banks to fail.

By the late Twenties all the European farmers who fought in World War I were back on the farm.  And were feeding Europe again.  So not only were the Americans producing bumper crops they were losing a large export market.  Forcing farm prices down further.  There were simply more farmers than the economy was demanding thanks to the new efficiencies in farming.  But because there were so many farmers they were an important political constituency.  They were still casting a lot of votes.  So the politicians stepped in.  With a complete disregard to economic principles.  And tried to help the farmers.  With rent-seeking policies.

The farmers were hurting.  So they wanted to transfer some wealth from the masses to the farmers.  As in rent-seeking.  As opposed to profit-seeking.  Instead of creating wealth (profit-seeking) they were transferring wealth (rent-seeking).  And they did this with price supports.  They raised the price of their crops above market value.  Forcing Americans to make sacrifices in their lives so they could afford to pay higher food prices to help the farmers.  So the farmers wouldn’t have to adjust to the new economic reality of farming.  We need fewer farmers in the age of mechanization.  But it just didn’t end with higher prices.  The government would buy excess food grown by these ‘too many farmers’ and destroy it.  Or pay farmers NOT to grow food.  Then they took it up a notch.  And slapped tariffs on imported food.  Further raising the price of food.

In an Effort to raise Farming Prices the Rent-Seekers caused the Great Deflation of the Great Depression

Food tariffs were just one part of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.  This act pretty much raised the tariff on everything the U.S. imported.  Greatly increasing the cost of all imports.  To protect the domestic producers from cheap foreign competition.  But there was a problem with increasing the cost of all imports.  It increased the price of whatever we built with those imports.  So much so that when they were discussing this act in Congress businesses across America knew the boom of the Twenties would end.  As did investors investing in these companies.  So even before the bill became law it caused a huge stock selloff.  Which led to the stock market crash of 1929. 

At first the higher prices helped American businesses.  Their revenue increased.  Everyone thought the tariff act was a success.  But as prices went up costs went up throughout the manufacturing pipeline.  Prices grew so high that people stopped buying.  Inventories accumulated so they cut production.  And then laid people off en masse.  Causing a great recession.  Then further rent-seeking solutions (more governmental intervention into the free market) turned that recession into the Great Depression.  What started out as a problem for overly efficient farmers turned into a national crisis.  In an effort to raise farming prices they caused the great deflation of the Great Depression.  As prices fell so did revenues.  Making it very difficult to service debt.  More people defaulted on their debt.  And more banks failed.

When the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act became law our trading partners answered in kind.  Leading to a great trade war.  So on top of everything else what limited export markets we had shut down as well.  As the trade barriers went up economic activity decreased.  David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage worked in reverse.  Increasing opportunity costs.  When international markets closed less efficient domestic industries took their place.  Pulling resources from more efficient uses.  Raising the cost of those resources.  Adding these cost increases on top of the tariffs.  Which further increased prices.  And further lowered economic activity.  Adding further woe onto the Great Depression.

The Medallion System dates back to the Medieval Guilds and Restricts Entry into the Cabbie Market

As the Great Depression languished on few people filled the streets of New York City (NYC).  At least few people with money who had to go places.  There were more cabs than people needed.  Supply exceeded demand.  Putting a downward pressure on taxi fares.  And increasing the time a cabbie had to work to earn some decent money.  Usually the market steps in and corrects such a situation.  Forcing some cabbies out of the cabbie business.  But not in NYC.  There they used the power of government to address this surplus of supply.  And introduced the medallion system.

This was the kind of rent seeking that dated back to those medieval guilds.  The medallion restricted entry into the cabbie market.  By limiting the number of cabs in NYC.  Every cab (at least those who can pick up passengers who hail a cab at the curb) must have a medallion permanently affixed to their cab.  Which they must purchase from the city.  Or transfer from another cab.  Currently, if you want to drive a taxi cab in NYC you better have some deep pockets.  Or have the kind of credit that lets you get a very large mortgage.  For the medallion system exists to this day.  And that medallion may cost you close to a half million dollars.

If you ever wondered why it sometimes takes so long to hail a cab in NYC this is the reason.  Rent-seeking.  As in the medallion system.  Which works just like tariffs.  Reducing supply.  And increasing prices for consumers.  So the rent-seekers can use the power of government to transfer wealth.  Instead of using innovation to create wealth.  And bringing that wealth to the market place to trade.  Instead they choose to take more wealth from the market place than they bring to it.  With the help of government.  And their rent-seeking policies.  Thus reducing overall wealth in the economy.  Which reduces economic activity.  And does nothing to help lift an economy out of recession.  Or out of a Great Depression.


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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #80: “A nation’s government spends too much when its spending increases at a rate greater than its population growth.” – Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 23rd, 2011

Parents do what they can to Live within their Means 

People don’t have as many children as before.  Why?  Cost.  It’s expensive to have children.  And to raise a family.  Those who decide to raise children make serious changes in their lives.  Because of the costs.

Before kids these people may drive a new car.  Have nice toys.  A boat.  A motorcycle.  Electronic gadgets.  They may go out to eat a lot.  Eat steak at home a couple times a week.  Go to the movies.  Take some exotic vacations.  After kids?  Used car.  Fewer toys.  More hamburger-based dishes at home.  No more movies.  And vacations are closer to home and less exotic and more mundane.

Parents do what they can to live within their means.  And it’s not easy.  Because they typically start families when they are starting their careers.  So their incomes aren’t very large.  And kids are expensive.  Put the two together and you have some serious austerity living in these early years of starting a family.  But they do what they must do to raise their family.

Personal Responsibility is a very Effective System

So let’s take a look at these costs.  The Center of Nutrition Policy and Promotion’s 2010 annual report shows annual costs for different income groups for different ranges of children from babies up to age 17.  Let’s focus on the low set of income numbers (average annual income of $36,840).  To reflect a new family starting at the same time as the income-earner’s career.  And average the two groups of children that cover ages 0-5.  Crunching these numbers to see the impact of adding one additional child on remaining monthly income looks something like this:

(Source:  Center of Nutrition Policy and Promotion’s 2010 annual report, page 26.)

This is only a crude estimate.  But the numbers are telling.  Kids are expensive.  The more you have the less you have.  Money, that is.  That’s why married men raising a family are such better employees than single men with no kids.  That kind of financial responsibility keeps you in on a Friday night instead of drinking with the boys.  It makes you a punctual employee.  And a hard worker.  Eager to advance to higher pay levels.  Because if you don’t, things are going to get pretty difficult when that third child comes along.

It’s a very effective system.  Personal responsibility.  Especially when it’s your income paying your expenses.

We have Social Safety Nets to Help People in their Time of Need

Now suppose this worker doesn’t advance his or her income before having 4 children.  Which will leave only $141.67 a month to live on.  That won’t pay for much rent.  Or food.  In fact, this person will probably be evicted from their home.  And file personal bankruptcy.  Unless family and/or friends offer to help with their finances.  Or they become a ward of the state.

Sadly, things like this happen far too often.  A plant closes.  A husband has a debilitating injury.  There’s a catastrophic health crisis in the family.  So we have social safety nets in place for these people.  To help them in their time of need.  Due to circumstances beyond their control.

But what about those who willfully spend more than their income can support?  People who live on credit?  Refusing to ever live within their means?  Often blaming others for their insufficient income that won’t support the level of spending they want to maintain?  What about them and their irresponsible ways?  Should they force others to pay more to support their irresponsible spending?  Just because they have the power to tax.  And can run deficits?

The Social Safety Nets are becoming more like European Socialism

The federal government has the power to tax.  When they can’t tax anymore they can run deficits.  Financed by borrowing.  Or by simply printing money.  When spending beyond your means is that easy, you can see why the government continually spends beyond its means.

And they are spending ever more.  And the social safety nets have grown.  Social Security.  MedicareMedicaid.  And now Obamacare.  Which are no longer social safety nets.  But more like European socialism.  Like the social democracies of Europe.  That are currently imploding in the Eurozone financial crisis.

Why?  Because the Europeans are no longer treating their people as citizens.  But as children.  Children that never leave the nest.  Cared for from the cradle to the grave.  The responsible parent can understand the problem.  They are trying to raise more children than they can afford.  Just like a few extra children can bankrupt a family of modest income, this ever expanding social welfare will bankrupt the state.  It’s just a matter of time.

Government could take a Lesson from the Average American Family

The problem with generous benefits is that they cost.  And as populations grow so do these benefits.  So they have to pay these ever increasing costs with ever increasing revenue.  Which becomes a problem.  In the private sector.  As well as the public sector.

As GM lost market share, their health care costs increased greater than their sales growth.  They went bankrupt.  Social Security and Medicare costs are growing faster than the population growth.  Which means fewer taxpayers will be available to pay a growing number of benefit recipients.  Both programs are projected to go bankrupt.

Families have to live within their means.  That’s why a family with an annual income of $36,840 doesn’t raise a family of ten children.  They wait until they can afford to.  If that’s what they want.  They make sure they work hard to earn the income necessary to raise a large family.  Government could take a lesson from the average American family.


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