Byzantine Empire, Bosporus, Silk Road, Dutch East India Company, English East India Company, Tea Act and Opium Wars

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 11th, 2014

History 101

(Originally published May 15th, 2012)

To encourage Risk Takers to Travel Halfway around the World Mercantile States granted Monopoly Charters

The modern world began because Europeans had a penchant for silk and spices.  Something they enjoyed during Roman times.  When the Romans ruled the world.  And the Mediterranean Sea was nothing more than a Roman lake.  But when the empire stopped conquering new lands and sending the spoils of war home they had to turn to other means to pay for the cost of empire.  Taxes.  To pay for the Roman government and their public spending.  And the Roman legions.  This excessive government spending led to the fall of the western half of the empire.  But the eastern half lived on for another 1,000 years or so.  Why?  Because the capital of the Byzantine Empire was Constantinople.  On the Bosporus.  Trade crossroads of the world.

This city was so rich everybody wanted to conquer it.  So they could have all those riches.  For everything that came along the Silk Road from China crossed into Europe at the Bosporus.  Soon Muslims fought Christians in the Holy lands.  Then more Christians came.  The Crusaders.  Those who didn’t die went back to Europe with some of those Chinese luxuries.  Spices.  Silk.  Porcelain.  Etc.  Sparking a renewed interest in these finer things in Europe.  Especially the spices.  For European cooking was horribly bland at the time.  The Ottoman Turks eventually took Constantinople.  Renamed it Istanbul.  And controlled that lucrative trade.  Making those much sought after Asian goods rather expensive in Europe.  Which they had no choice but to pay.  Because if you wanted those luxuries you had to go through Istanbul.  Until the Portuguese sailed around Africa and found a direct route to those cherished goods, that is.

It was the Commercial Revolution.  A new age of international trade.  A trade even more profitable than what the Ottoman Turks controlled.  Because big ocean-going vessels can carry more cargo than anything coming over land on the Silk Road.  And these new European maritime powers wanted that wealth.  And the power it would provide.  To encourage risk takers to get into those wooden ships and travel halfway around the world they granted monopoly charters.  The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was one of the largest.  And one of the wealthiest.  But this was not your typical company.  The VOC established overseas colonies.  It waged war.  Established treaties.  Even coined its own money.  Because of this thousands of VOC ships stuffed full of valuable cargoes sailed to Antwerp and Amsterdam, making the Dutch very wealthy.  And powerful.

The Tea Act allowed the Company to Ship their Tea Directly to America and exempted them from any Duties

Of course the Dutch weren’t the only ones doing this.  They had competition.  Portugal.  Spain.  France.  And England.  Who would bump into each other numerous times fighting for control of this trade.  And those colonies.  The English and the Dutch would fight 4 wars.  Which is how Dutch-founded Manhattan became part of the British Empire and, subsequently, one of America’s greatest cities.  The English East India Company gave the VOC a run for its money.  Parliament even passed legislation to give the English a monopoly on all trade with their American colonies.  The Navigation Acts.  Which stated that all trade to and from America had to be on English ships.  And all trade had to go through an English port.  Where the ships were unloaded and the cargoes inspected.  And taxed.  Then they could reload their cargoes and continue on their journey.  All tenets of mercantilism.  This kept the lower-priced Dutch goods out of America.  And prevented the Americans from selling to the Dutch directly for higher prices.  So it shut down the Dutch from all American trade (except for a prosperous black market). And brought in some lucrative tax revenue for England.  While extending shipping times and increasing prices for the Americans.  Which they were not happy about in the least.

The English East India Company (the Company) was similar in structure to the VOC.  And soon made the Indian subcontinent a wholly owned subsidiary of the Company.  But it wasn’t cheap.  Waging war was costly.  As was managing those conquered territories (something the Romans had also learned).  Then a famine in Bengal in 1770 claimed about one-third of the local population.  Making laborers more scarce.  And more expensive.  All at a time when the sales of their imported goods were falling in Europe.  There were warehouses full of unsold Chinese tea that they couldn’t sell.  Making for a bad time for the Company.

Higher costs and lower sales spelled trouble.  And that’s what the Company had a lot of.  Trouble.  So the Company turned to Parliament for help.  And Parliament helped.  By allowing the Company to ship their tea directly to America without having to unload it in a British port.  Or pay a duty on that tea.  Which would greatly reduce their costs.  And allow them to sell it in America cheaper than they did before.  So Parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773.  Making life better for all involved.  But the Tea Act left in place another tax in the previous Townshend Acts.  Which was a bigger problem than getting cheaper tea (which they could get on the black market from the Dutch).  These taxes on the British subjects in America were unconstitutional.  Because there were no Americans sitting in Parliament.  This was taxation without representation.  A much bigger issue than cheap tea.  So they threw that first ‘cheap’ tea into Boston Harbor.  The Boston Tea Party being a major step towards war with the mother country.  And American independence.

Britain became the Lone Superpower after Abandoning their Protectionist Mercantile Policies and Adopting Free Trade

The American Revolutionary War was not the only headache the British got from their mercantile policies.  Part of those policies required maintaining a positive balance of trade.  So there was always a net inflow of bullion into the mother country.  That’s why raw materials shipped into Britain from America.  And finished goods shipped out to America.  Finished goods are more valuable than raw materials.  So the Americans had to make up for this balance of trade in bullion.  Resulting in a net inflow of bullion into the mother country.  Very simple.  As long as you can manufacture higher valued goods that other people want to buy.

And this is the problem they ran into with the Chinese.  For though the British wanted those Chinese spices, silk and porcelain the Chinese didn’t want anything the British manufactured.  Which meant Britain had to pay for those luxuries with bullion.  Including all that Chinese tea they craved.  Which resulted in a net outflow of bullion to the Chinese.  The British fixed this problem by finding the one thing that the Chinese people wanted.  Indian opium.  Grown in Bengal.  Of course, this turned a lot of Chinese into opium addicts.  The addiction problem was so bad that the Chinese banned opium.  But the British were able to smuggle it in.  They sold so much of it that they used the proceeds to buy their tea.  Thus reversing the bullion flow.

Not the finest hour in the British Empire.  The Chinese and the British would go on to fight a couple of wars over this opium trade.  The Opium Wars.  Which the British did all right in.  Even gaining Hong Kong in the bargain.  They didn’t build any long-lasting love with the Chinese people.  But Hong Kong turned out pretty nice under the British.  Especially after they abandoned their protectionist mercantile policies and adopted free trade.  Which made the British the lone superpower for about a century as they modernized the world by leading the way in the Industrial Revolution.  And the Chinese in Hong Kong were very happy indeed to be there when the communists took over the mainland.  And caused a famine or two.  For they lived comfortably.  In a state founded on mercantilism.  That achieved its greatest prosperity during the free trade of capitalism that followed Britain’s mercantile ways.

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Coin Debasement, Currency Inflation and the Loss of Purchasing Power

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 16th, 2013

History 101

The Roman Citizens welcomed the Barbarian Invaders as Liberators from the Oppressive Roman Regime

The Roman Empire pushed its borders out for centuries.  And when they did their legions conquered new territories.  And other civilizations.  Allowing them to send a lot of spoils back to Rome.  Providing the necessary funds for the empire.  With this lucrative stream of wealth flowing back to Rome they could leave the economy alone.  And did.  Economic activity was pretty much laissez-faire.  Then something happened.  The Romans had conquered pretty much all of the known civilized world.  And they stopped pushing their borders out.  Putting an end to that lucrative stream of wealth flowing back to Rome.

This created a problem.  For the empire was never larger.  With a greater border to protect than ever before.  And more territory to administer.  Which meant more soldiers.  And more civil servants.  Neither of which worked for free.  Which changed how the Romans handled the private sector economy.  They began to tax and regulate the hell out of it.  To raise the funds to pay the costs of empire.

Things got so bad that some people just started disappearing.  So the Romans introduced something that would evolve into European feudalism.  They forbade people from leaving their jobs.  Ever.  They even forbade the children from leaving their father’s profession.  While they were doing this they were debasing their coins.  The gold a little.  As it paid the soldiers and the civil servants.  And the silver a lot.  The money of the common people.  Who weren’t as important as the soldiers and the civil servants.  Until their silver was nothing but worthless slugs.  Causing prices to soar.  And the economy to collapse back into the barter system.  Hastening the fall of the Roman Empire.  As the Roman citizens welcomed the barbarian invaders as liberators from the oppressive Roman regime.

The Spanish brought back so much Gold and Silver from the New World that it actually Depreciated the Money Supply

Europe met Asia on the Bosporus.  The straits that connected the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.  And it was where the Silk Road brought the exotic goods of the Far East into Europe.  Which the Europeans just couldn’t get enough of.  Making the Mediterranean powers the dominant powers.  For they controlled this lucrative trade.  Until, that is, the European nations made better ships.  Ships that could cross oceans.  And were bigger than the ships that plied the Mediterranean.  So they could bypass the Mediterranean powers.  And sail directly to the Far East.  Fill their large holds with those goods the Europeans couldn’t get enough of.  Getting rich and powerful.  And shifting the balance of power to these European nations.

But the Europeans just didn’t go east.  They also went west.  And bumped into the New World.  The Dutch, the French, the British, the Portuguese and the Spanish all had colonies in the New World.  It was the age of mercantilism.  Colonies sent raw materials to their mother country.  Who manufactured these raw materials into finished goods.  And shipped them from the mother country on the mother country’s ships through the mother country’s ports.  For the name of the game was balance of trade.  Which meant you imported lower-valued raw materials and you exported higher-valued finished goods.  And because the value of their exports was greater than the value of their imports there was also a net in-flow of gold and silver.  Which was what mercantilism was all about.  Trying to accumulate more gold and silver than your trading partners.

And the Spanish hit mercantile pay-dirt in the New World.  Gold and silver.  Lots of it.  So they loaded it up on their ships.  And sent it back to Spain.  Where it entered the European money supply.  And none too soon as the Europeans were cash-starved.  Because of all those exotic goods the Europeans couldn’t get enough of.  While those in the Far East had no interest whatsoever in European goods.  Which meant that European gold and silver went to the Far East to pay for those exotic goods.  Leaving the Europeans starving for gold and silver.  But thanks to the New World, they were able to reverse that net outflow of gold and silver.  In fact, so much gold and silver arrived from the New World that it actually inflated the money supply.  Which actually devalued the currency.  And because the currency lost purchasing power prices rose.  Making food more costly.  And life more difficult.

President Andrew Jackson joined the Hard-Money People and refused to renew the Charter of the BUS

Responsible nations have chosen gold and silver as their currency as it is difficult to increase the money supply and cause inflation.  Because mining these precious metals, refining them and minting coins is very costly.  Unless you discovered a New World with gold and silver paving the streets.  But that didn’t happen every day.  The irresponsible government, though, figured out a way to make that happen every day.  By just getting rid of the responsible gold and silver.  And replacing it with paper notes.  Fiat money.

Fiat money dates back to 11th century China.  To the Song Dynasty.  Which allowed the government to spend more money than their taxes raised.  Especially during war time.  But printing money devalued the currency.  And when you make the currency worth less it takes more of it to buy the things it once did.  Reducing purchasing power.  And unleashing price inflation.  Making food more costly.  And life more difficult.  During the American Revolutionary War there was so little gold and silver available that the Continental Congress turned to printing money.  And they printed so much that they unleashed a punishing inflation.  Causing prices to soar because the money became so worthless.  People wouldn’t accept it for payment.  So the Continental Army had to take the provisions they needed.  Leaving behind IOUs for the Continental Congress to make good on.  Later.

Of course, not everyone suffered during times of inflation.  Speculators did very well.  For their friends in the government’s central bank could print money and loan it to them on very favorable terms.  The speculators then used this cheap money and bought and sold assets.  Pocketing handsome profits in large part because of that inflation.  As the currency depreciation raised prices.  Including the prices of the assets they were selling.  So the rich got richer during periods of inflation.  While the working class just lost purchasing power.  Which is why President Andrew Jackson joined the hard-money people.  Those who favored gold and silver over paper currency.  And refused to renew the charter of the Second Bank of the United States (BUS).  Being one of the first world leaders not to choose destructive inflationary policies.  Instead choosing policies that favored the people.  Not the state.

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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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A Weak Currency may Boost Exports but it will Raise all Prices Businesses and Consumers Pay

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 24th, 2013

Week in Review

China created a booming economy thanks to a healthy export market.  In part because of their cheap labor.  An in part by keeping their currency weak.  For when you buy goods from China you first have to exchange your currency for theirs.  If your currency is stronger than theirs is you will get a lot more of theirs in exchange for yours.  Allowing you to buy a lot more Chinese goods with your stronger currency.  This is why China likes to have a weak currency.  And takes actions to keep it artificially weak.  Something her trading partners don’t like.  For their weaker currency tends to make the net flow of goods in international trade with China flowing from China to everyone else.  Thus giving China a healthy export market.  At the expense of everyone else’s export market.

But China is a developing economy.  Things change when you become an advanced economy.  Because you don’t have impoverished masses filling your factories manufacturing goods for export.  You have a thriving middle class.  With a high standard of living.  With good jobs giving them disposable income.  And few of them work in the export economy.  So despite all the talk about unfair trade practices of China most people in an advanced economy don’t worry that much about trade deficits.  For they’re buying a lot of imported goods.  From smartphones to coffee beans.  And a weak currency makes these items more expensive.

So there are two sides to the value of your currency.  If you have impoverished masses filling factories to build export goods a weak currency is good.  It lets the state sell more of those export goods.  In an export-dominated economy.  And provides a lot of low-paid factory jobs.  If you have a thriving middle class a strong currency is good.  For it lets the people buy a lot of stuff.  Creating a lot of better paying non-factory jobs.  In a non-export-dominated economy.  Basically the difference between free market capitalism.  And mercantilism (see Is the World on the Brink of a Currency War? by Michael Sivy posted 2/21/2013 on Time).

Currency wars – and trade wars generally – have their origins in a 17th and 18th century economic theory known as mercantilism. The idea was that a country’s wealth comes from selling more than it buys. A colonial empire could achieve this positive balance of trade by acquiring cheap raw materials from its colonies and then ensuring that it exported more finished goods than it imported. This was usually accomplished with tariffs that made imports very expensive.

Such an approach couldn’t work in the modern world. Countries don’t get cheap raw materials from colonies anymore. They have to buy them – especially oil – on the open market. So while currency devaluation makes exports cheaper for foreign buyers, it also makes essential imports more expensive. For Europe in particular, which imports so much of its energy, devaluation isn’t necessarily a plus…

The Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing – buying bonds to swell the money supply – is aimed principally at stimulating domestic demand. European advocates of a cheaper euro currency, meanwhile, are hoping to make national debt easier to finance, not trying to pump up exports. In fact, the continent’s greatest exporter, Germany, is the country least amenable to currency devaluation…

So forget all the talk of a currency war. What’s going on has nothing to do with trade and everything to do with debt and growth and inflation. If the global economy is in danger of reliving the past, it will not be a repeat of the 1930s. Rather, it will be a repeat of the 1970s, when the Federal Reserve expanded the money supply to offset the economic slowdown caused by the oil crisis – and ended up encouraging double-digit inflation.

The double-digit inflation of the Seventies really devalued the currency.  Raised prices.  Greatly limiting the amount of stuff people could buy.  Even though printing money then didn’t work these nations believe it will work now.  Because it will make their exports cheaper for foreigners to buy.  Despite making everything more expensive inside their own country.

But there is another reason they love to print money.  It lets them spend more.  And it makes old debt easier to pay off.  We call it monetizing the debt.  For example, if a nation has a GDP of $1 million and a debt of $500,000 that debt is huge.  It’s 50% of GDP.  But if we turn on the printing presses and devalue the currency to one tenth of its original value that GDP is now $10 million ($1 million divided by 1/10).  Making that outstanding debt only 5% of GDP.  And a whole lot easier to repay.  But what is one person’s debt is another person’s retirement savings.  So not only does inflation increase prices it destroys our retirement savings.  And all this just so we can boost the small sliver of our economy we call exports.

If this is so bad on so many levels why do governments print money then?  For one simple reason.  To get people to vote for them.  Because all the people see is the free stuff the politicians are giving them.  The damage it causes comes later.  And they can always blame that on Republicans.  Who refuse to raise tax rates on rich people to make them pay their fair share.

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Stages of Production

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 16th, 2012

Economics 101

People used their Human Capital to Transform Raw Materials into Something Valuable

As we unleashed our human capital civilization advanced.  Our food needs taken care of thanks to advances in agriculture we used our new free time to think.  To think about transforming the world around us.  By exploring our world.  And the stuff that made it.  Great civilizations rose and fell throughout history.  But the ones that really advanced the world were those in northern Europe.  The people who conquered the oceans.  The Portuguese.  The Spanish.  The Dutch.  The French.  And the British.

As these great European powers set out to explore the world they established colonies in faraway lands.  To gather the raw materials available.  And to ship them back to their mother countries.  Where their advanced civilizations would transform those raw materials into higher value finished goods.  And then export them throughout the world.  Including their colonies.  This was mercantilism.  Establish colonies.  Ship raw materials to the mother country.  Export finished goods.  And Import bullion accepted in payment for those finished goods.

It’s not a good economic system.  Mercantilism.  But it did create the United States.  Which started out as a British colony.  But as a colony of a mercantilist country the Americans had to follow the rules of the mother country.  First of all they had to understand their place.  And purpose.  They were subordinate to the mother country.  And their only purpose was to procure raw materials and ship them to the mother country.  They couldn’t open trade with other countries.  Everything that left the colonies had to go on a British ship to a British port.  Where British manufacturers would transform those raw materials into finished goods for export.  The British did this because finished goods were more valuable than raw goods.  And sold for much higher prices than the raw materials sold for.  So Britain did the manufacturing.  While their colonies fed their manufacturers with raw material.

The Stages of Production is the Economic Activity that happens to bring Finished Goods to Market

The British eventually abandoned mercantilism and adopted free market capitalism and free trade.  And the British Empire went on to rule the world for a century or so.  This after losing the American colonies in the Revolutionary War, losing about half of their empire.  So free market capitalism is clearly superior to mercantilism.  But for a couple of centuries mercantilism built empires.  And provided an excellent example of the stages of production.

Raw materials mean little to consumers.  What we like are the things that people with human capital transform them into.  The things we go to the store to buy.  Such as a smartphone, for example.  Whenever a new model comes out we flock to our favorite retail store to buy it.  The retail store has it to sell because they bought a shipment from their wholesaler.  The wholesaler had it to sell because they bought it from the assembly plants that assembled them.  The assembly plants could build them because they bought the components (displays, hard cases, antennas, keys, circuit boards, etc.) from various manufacturers.  And the various manufactures bought raw materials from those who extracted them from the ground.  Interconnecting all of these is ship, rail and truck transportation.  Even planes.  Not to mention an extensive cellular network to make these smartphones work.  As well as all the software applications they run.  Adding value at every stage along the way.

There is much economic activity that happens to bring that smartphone to your favorite retail store.  Throughout these stages of production.  Note how everything else has to happen before you buy that smartphone.  Going all the way back to the extraction of raw materials from the ground.  All of these stages have to happen before you buy that phone.  So the payment for the phone follows much later than all of these other stages.  Introducing a very important element in the stages of production.  Time.  It takes time to bring things to market.  And because it takes time it also takes money.  Everyone working from raw material extraction to the salesperson selling you the phone earns an income.  And their employers pay them before you buy your phone.  Some a lot earlier than others.  Also, all of these people either work in a building.  Or in the field with equipment.  Things that others have to build first before we can even begin our raw material extraction.  Requiring an enormous capital investment before anyone earns a dime of revenue on the sale of a smartphone.

The British Empire went on to Rule the World for a Century or More because they let the Market Manage their Economy

To bring a smartphone to a retailer near you requires people to risk their money by investing in something that may earn a profit.  Investors.  And bankers.  As people saved their money they created large pools of capital for businesses to borrow.  Venture capitalists bankrolled promising entrepreneurs.  And the big corporations turned to the equity and bond markets to raise their capital.  Individuals worked hard and saved money to put in their savings account.  Or to buy stocks and bonds.  Because they did there was money to borrow.  Or to invest.  And because there was money to borrow and invest the stages of production could begin.

In the days of mercantilism the government controlled much of this.  Even providing some of that early capital.  But as the economy grew more complex it was too complex for government to manage.  Which is why the British Empire went on to rule the world for a century or more.  Because they let the market manage their economy.  A myriad of people in the market place pursuing their own interests.  Pursuing profits.  Which is why free market capitalism works.  For no one person could know enough to manage all of the stages of productions to bring a smartphone to market.  And the beautiful thing is in free market capitalism no one person has to.  For when people throughout the stages of production pursue profits smartphones arrive at a retailer near you.  At reasonable prices to boot.

So the next time you pick up a smartphone at a retailer think of everything it took to bring it to your hands.  And everything it takes to operate it as you wish.  Hundreds of thousands of people pursuing profits.  Most of which have no idea what they’re doing will allow you to hold a smartphone at your favorite retailer.  Because in the stages of production everyone does their part.  Without any consideration of what their part is in the big picture.  Which is why it works so well.  Thanks to people thinking.  And unleashing their human capital to create great things throughout the stages of production.

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Mercantilism, North America, Pontiac’s Rebellion, American Revolution, Northwest Territory, George Rogers Clark, Louisiana Territory

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 31st, 2012

Politics 101

The French claimed great Territories in the New World but they did not Settle them nor could they Defend Them

In the Age of Discovery the Old World discovered the New World.  The Portuguese bumped into Brazil while sailing around Africa.  And they stayed awhile.  Which explains how the language from tiny Portugal is one of the top ten spoken languages in the world today.  Because of Brazil.  Population 205,716,890 in 2012.  The Spanish pretty much discovered and settled the rest of South and Central America.  Working their way up the Pacific coast of North America.  And into Mexico, Texas and Florida.  Because of this Spanish is now the 4th most spoken language in the world.  The British discovered and settled North America east of the Appalachians between Maine and Georgia.  They also settled parts of Canada south of the Hudson Bay.  And some of the Maritime Provinces.  Today English is the 2nd most spoken language in the world.  The French also came to the New World.  But they weren’t as successful.  Today French is only the 10th most spoken language in the world.

The Age of Discovery was also the age of mercantilism.  Which is why the Old World was racing to settle the New World.  So they could establish colonies.  And ship back raw materials to the mother country.  And in Spain’s case, all the gold and silver they could find.  Which they found a lot of.  Mercantilism is a zero-sum game.  To maximize the export of manufactured goods.  And to maximize the import of raw materials and bullion.  To always maintain a positive balance of trade.  And whoever had the most overseas colonies sending raw material back to the mother country won.  And as they expanded throughout the New World they eventually began to bump into each other.  As well as the Native Americans.  Who weren’t mercantilists.  But hunters and gatherers.  Like all Europeans were some 5,000 years or so earlier.  Before they became farmers.  Moved into cities.  Where they took control of their environment.  And became more efficient.  Growing ever larger populations on smaller tracts of land.  Which proved to be a great threat to the Indians.  For when these Europeans took their land they also increased their numbers.  Greatly.  And this fast growing population had the latest in war-fighting technology.

Soon they were stepping on each others’ toes in the New World.  The British and the Spanish north of Florida.  The British and the French between the Mississippi River and the Appalachians.  In New Brunswick.  And large parts of Ontario and Quebec.  A lot more territory was in dispute between the British and the French.  And that’s because the French claimed so much territory in North America.  Their claims included the lands around the St. Lawrence Seaway.  All the land around the Great Lakes.  And pretty much the total watershed into the Mississippi River.  The French had profitable business in the fur trade.  They used the rivers in North America for that trade.  With a few forts scattered along the way.  Where they traded with the Indians.  But the big difference between the French and everyone else is that the French claimed the land.  But they didn’t settle it.  Which made the Native Americans tolerate them more than the other Europeans in the New World.  But in the days of the mercantilist empires that was a problem.  Because everyone wanted everyone else’s land.  And if it wasn’t settled with large and growing populations, someone else was just going to take it.

The Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774 tried to make Peace with the Indians but Inflamed the Americans

And that’s what happened in the French and Indian War (1754–1763).  The European powers came into conflict with each other over their North American territories.  The British came out the big winners.  And the French were the big losers.  Losing pretty much everything east of the Mississippi to the British.  And everything west of the Mississippi to Spain.  The various Indian tribes fought alongside the various European powers.  But it is the fighting on the side of the French that we know them for in this war.  Where their fighting against the British Americans was some of the cruelest fighting in the war.  For the Indians liked the non-settling ways of the French.  While they didn’t care for the settling ways of the American colonists at all.  Who kept encroaching on their hunting grounds.  So at the conclusion of the French and Indian War the Native Americans were restless.  Something the British were keenly aware of.  And after the long and expensive war they just fought they didn’t want a return to hostilities.  So King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763.  Setting the border between the British American colonists and the Indian lands along the watershed of Appalachia.  Lands where the rivers flowed to the Atlantic Ocean were the American colonists’ lands.  Lands where the rivers flowed into the Mississippi River and its tributaries (east of the Mississippi) were Indian lands. 

This did not go very well with the American colonists.  For they planned to expand west until they could expand west no further.  At the shore of the Pacific Ocean.  Especially Virginia.  Who wanted to expand into Kentucky.  And into the Ohio Country (across the Ohio River from Kentucky).  Before the Proclamation of 1763 could even go into affect the Indians rose up in the Great Lakes region, the Illinois Country and Ohio Country.  Where the British displaced the French.  Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763–66).  A rather nasty and brutal war where the Indians killed women and children as well as prisoners.  And the British used biological warfare against the Indians.  Giving the Indians smallpox-infested blankets.  In 1774 Parliament passed the Quebec Act.  Which did a lot to further annoy the American colonists.  Especially that part about extending the province of Quebec (the former French territory from Labrador all the way to the Great Lakes region) south into the Ohio and Illinois country.  Many lumped the Quebec act in with the Intolerable Acts of 1774 which were to punish the colonists for the Boston Tea Party.  All these acts of Parliament and proclamations of the Crown failed in one of their main objects.  Maintaining the peace on the frontier.  One year later there was another shooting war in North America.  And this one did not end well for the British.

The American Revolutionary War evolved into a World War.  Once the Americans defeated a British army at Saratoga the French joined the American cause and declared war on Great Britain.  Eager to get back their North American territories.  The Spanish would join the French in alliance and declared war on Great Britain.  Primarily to settle some old scores in the Old World as opposed to helping the American cause.  They had the lands west of the Mississippi and control of that same river.  They had no desire to see the Americans advance any further west.  In fact, they wanted to expand their territory at the expense of both the Americans and the British.  The Indians, meanwhile, saw the Americans as the greatest threat and allied with their two-time past enemy.  The British.

The Indians were Little More than Bystanders while the Europeans Traded their Land with each Other

The war in the frontier lands of the West was as nasty and brutal as ever.  The British coordinated their war effort against the Americans from their frontier outposts.  Where they traded with their Indian allies.  Some even paying the Indians for each scalp they brought back from their raids.  And so the Indians crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky.  Throughout the war.  And attacked these frontier settlements.  While the Americans fought a defensive war.  Until one man arose.  Who believed the strongest defense was a strong offense.  And he took the war to the Indians and the British in the West.  Saving Kentucky.  And conquered the Northwest Territory. 

George Rogers Clark’s plan for conquering the Northwest was bold.  First take Vincennes (in southern Indiana near the Illinois border).  Travel up the Wabash River.  Down the Maumee River.  And then on to Detroit.  After taking Detroit head north to Michilimackinac (on the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula).  The Virginian authorities liked the plan.  And commissioned him colonel in the Virginian forces.  And authorized him to conquer the Northwest.  For Virginia.  So Clark led his men down the Ohio River.  And traveled all the way to Kaskaskia near the Mississippi River in southern Illinois.  Not far from St. Louis.  Took it.  And marched to Vincennes.  And took Fort Sackville at Vincennes.  Shortly thereafter Henry Hamilton (who had a reputation for buying scalps from the Indians), governor of Detroit, Left Detroit and headed to Vincennes.  Gathering Indians along the way.  Recaptured Vincennes.  Then Clark returned and in one of the most fabled actions of the entire Revolutionary War took back Vincennes.  Despite the British and Indians greatly outnumbering Clark’s force.  Detroit lay open.  But Clark did not have the men or provisions for that conquest.

Meanwhile the Spanish were looking to cash in on their alliance with France.  And moved against British outposts from New Orleans.  Taking Baton Rouge.  Natchez.  Mobile.  And Pensacola.  To turn back the Spanish Governor Sinclair of Michilimackinac gathered a force and headed to the Spanish outpost St. Louis.  With the ultimate goal of taking New Orleans.  It did not go well.  The following year the Spanish launched an offensive of their own to take Detroit.  They got as far as St. Joseph on the other side of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.  Around the bottom of Lake Michigan from Chicago.  A lot of land changed hands in the Northwest.  But thanks to Clark much of it remained in American hands at the end of the war.  Who came out the big winners in this war.  The British ceded all their claims east of the Mississippi to the Americans.  Including all of the Illinois and Ohio country.  Including Michigan and the lands surrounding the Great Lakes south of Canada.  The French did not drive the peace as they had hoped.  And recovered none of their North American territories.  The Spanish emerged with pretty much what they had when they entered.  Only with the Americans across the Mississippi instead of the British.  Who were much more interested in westward expansion than the British.  But they didn’t have to worry about the Americans crossing the Mississippi.  For Napoleon strong-armed the Louisiana Territory from the French in exchange for some land in Tuscany.  Who would later sell it to the Americans.  While being rather vague on the exact boundaries.  Which the Spanish would have to worry about in the years to come as the Americans headed west.  Towards Spanish country on the west coast.

Of course the Indians were the greatest losers.  For they were little more than bystanders while the Europeans traded their land with each other.  Making the Native Americans ever more restless.  And unwilling to give up their hunting and gathering ways.  Which sealed their faith.  For while they retreated west the American population exploded.  Due to their efficient use of the land.  It was the New World against the Very Old World.  Modern farming civilizations displaced the hunters and gatherers everywhere in the world.  A trend that started some 5,000 years earlier.  And the history of North America would be no different.  The Indian ways since then have been fast disappearing.  The Indian languages were so rarely spoken in the 20th century that the code based on it was the one code the Japanese couldn’t crack during World War II.

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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 22nd, 2012

History 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Success of NAFTA proves David Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage

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

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

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

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Comparative Advantage and Free Trade

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 21st, 2012

Economics 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Byzantine Empire, Bosporus, Silk Road, Dutch East India Company, English East India Company, Tea Act and Opium Wars

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 15th, 2012

History 101

To encourage Risk Takers to Travel Halfway around the World Mercantile States granted Monopoly Charters

The modern world began because Europeans had a penchant for silk and spices.  Something they enjoyed during Roman times.  When the Romans ruled the world.  And the Mediterranean Sea was nothing more than a Roman lake.  But when the empire stopped conquering new lands and sending the spoils of war home they had to turn to other means to pay for the cost of empire.  Taxes.  To pay for the Roman government and their public spending.  And the Roman legions.  This excessive government spending led to the fall of the western half of the empire.  But the eastern half lived on for another 1,000 years or so.  Why?  Because the capital of the Byzantine Empire was Constantinople.  On the Bosporus.  Trade crossroads of the world.

This city was so rich everybody wanted to conquer it.  So they could have all those riches.  For everything that came along the Silk Road from China crossed into Europe at the Bosporus.  Soon Muslims fought Christians in the Holy lands.  Then more Christians came.  The Crusaders.  Those who didn’t die went back to Europe with some of those Chinese luxuries.  Spices.  Silk.  Porcelain.  Etc.  Sparking a renewed interest in these finer things in Europe.  Especially the spices.  For European cooking was horribly bland at the time.  The Ottoman Turks eventually took Constantinople.  Renamed it Istanbul.  And controlled that lucrative trade.  Making those much sought after Asian goods rather expensive in Europe.  Which they had no choice but to pay.  Because if you wanted those luxuries you had to go through Istanbul.  Until the Portuguese sailed around Africa and found a direct route to those cherished goods, that is.

It was the Commercial Revolution.  A new age of international trade.  A trade even more profitable than what the Ottoman Turks controlled.  Because big ocean-going vessels can carry more cargo than anything coming over land on the Silk Road.  And these new European maritime powers wanted that wealth.  And the power it would provide.  To encourage risk takers to get into those wooden ships and travel halfway around the world they granted monopoly charters.  The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was one of the largest.  And one of the wealthiest.  But this was not your typical company.  The VOC established overseas colonies.  It waged war.  Established treaties.  Even coined its own money.  Because of this thousands of VOC ships stuffed full of valuable cargoes sailed to Antwerp and Amsterdam, making the Dutch very wealthy.  And powerful.

The Tea Act allowed the Company to Ship their Tea Directly to America and exempted them from any Duties

Of course the Dutch weren’t the only ones doing this.  They had competition.  Portugal.  Spain.  France.  And England.  Who would bump into each other numerous times fighting for control of this trade.  And those colonies.  The English and the Dutch would fight 4 wars.  Which is how Dutch-founded Manhattan became part of the British Empire and, subsequently, one of America’s greatest cities.  The English East India Company gave the VOC a run for its money.  Parliament even passed legislation to give the English a monopoly on all trade with their American colonies.  The Navigation Acts.  Which stated that all trade to and from America had to be on English ships.  And all trade had to go through an English port.  Where the ships were unloaded and the cargoes inspected.  And taxed.  Then they could reload their cargoes and continue on their journey.  All tenets of mercantilism.  This kept the lower-priced Dutch goods out of America.  And prevented the Americans from selling to the Dutch directly for higher prices.  So it shut down the Dutch from all American trade (except for a prosperous black market). And brought in some lucrative tax revenue for England.  While extending shipping times and increasing prices for the Americans.  Which they were not happy about in the least.

The English East India Company (the Company) was similar in structure to the VOC.  And soon made the Indian subcontinent a wholly owned subsidiary of the Company.  But it wasn’t cheap.  Waging war was costly.  As was managing those conquered territories (something the Romans had also learned).  Then a famine in Bengal in 1770 claimed about one-third of the local population.  Making laborers more scarce.  And more expensive.  All at a time when the sales of their imported goods were falling in Europe.  There were warehouses full of unsold Chinese tea that they couldn’t sell.  Making for a bad time for the Company.

Higher costs and lower sales spelled trouble.  And that’s what the Company had a lot of.  Trouble.  So the Company turned to Parliament for help.  And Parliament helped.  By allowing the Company to ship their tea directly to America without having to unload it in a British port.  Or pay a duty on that tea.  Which would greatly reduce their costs.  And allow them to sell it in America cheaper than they did before.  So Parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773.  Making life better for all involved.  But the Tea Act left in place another tax in the previous Townshend Acts.  Which was a bigger problem than getting cheaper tea (which they could get on the black market from the Dutch).  These taxes on the British subjects in America were unconstitutional.  Because there were no Americans sitting in Parliament.  This was taxation without representation.  A much bigger issue than cheap tea.  So they threw that first ‘cheap’ tea into Boston Harbor.  The Boston Tea Party being a major step towards war with the mother country.  And American independence.

Britain became the Lone Superpower after Abandoning their Protectionist Mercantile Policies and Adopting Free Trade

The American Revolutionary War was not the only headache the British got from their mercantile policies.  Part of those policies required maintaining a positive balance of trade.  So there was always a net inflow of bullion into the mother country.  That’s why raw materials shipped into Britain from America.  And finished goods shipped out to America.  Finished goods are more valuable than raw materials.  So the Americans had to make up for this balance of trade in bullion.  Resulting in a net inflow of bullion into the mother country.  Very simple.  As long as you can manufacture higher valued goods that other people want to buy.

And this is the problem they ran into with the Chinese.  For though the British wanted those Chinese spices, silk and porcelain the Chinese didn’t want anything the British manufactured.  Which meant Britain had to pay for those luxuries with bullion.  Including all that Chinese tea they craved.  Which resulted in a net outflow of bullion to the Chinese.  The British fixed this problem by finding the one thing that the Chinese people wanted.  Indian opium.  Grown in Bengal.  Of course, this turned a lot of Chinese into opium addicts.  The addiction problem was so bad that the Chinese banned opium.  But the British were able to smuggle it in.  They sold so much of it that they used the proceeds to buy their tea.  Thus reversing the bullion flow.

Not the finest hour in the British Empire.  The Chinese and the British would go on to fight a couple of wars over this opium trade.  The Opium Wars.  Which the British did all right in.  Even gaining Hong Kong in the bargain.  They didn’t build any long-lasting love with the Chinese people.  But Hong Kong turned out pretty nice under the British.  Especially after they abandoned their protectionist mercantile policies and adopted free trade.  Which made the British the lone superpower for about a century as they modernized the world by leading the way in the Industrial Revolution.  And the Chinese in Hong Kong were very happy indeed to be there when the communists took over the mainland.  And caused a famine or two.  For they lived comfortably.  In a state founded on mercantilism.  That achieved its greatest prosperity during the free trade of capitalism that followed Britain’s mercantile ways.

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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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