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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 26th, 2012

Week in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monetarism, Laissez-Faire Capitalism, Augusto Pinochet, Chile, Hyperinflation, El Ladrillo, Chicago Boys, Milton Friedman and Miracle of Chile

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 6th, 2012

History 101

During the 19th Century Mercantilism gave way to Laissez-Faire Capitalism and Free Trade

Portugal and Spain were superpowers around the 16th and 17th centuries.  Great monarchies with mercantilist economic policies.  Which was all about trade.  Maximize exports.  Minimize imports.  Settle colonies to mine/harvest raw material.  To ship back to the mother country.  Where they manufactured goods from the raw materials.  And exported them to other countries.  Selling them for gold and silver.  Which was key.  Maximizing the trade surplus in the balance of trade.  Finished goods going out.  Gold and silver coming in.  For the nation that gathered the most gold and silver won in the zero-sum game of mercantilism.  Where the monarchy works with business.  Picking winners and losers.  And rewarding the winners who help enrich the monarchy.

Of course, these policies force a kingdom’s subjects to pay higher prices.  By keeping out lower-priced imports.  And with special deals favoring some domestic industries so they can sell at monopoly prices.  They nationalized their Industries.  Creating an aristocratic class.  Composed of government officials.  And their partners in the nationalized industries.  Living the good life on the backs of the poor.  Who paid high taxes.  And high prices.  To support those mercantilist policies.  And it was these policies that settled South America.  Taking all of their gold and silver (bullion).  Shipping it back to the mother country.  The surge in bullion in Europe made it less scarce.  And less valuable.  Meaning it took more of it to buy the same things it once did before this surge.  Resulting in higher prices.  And inflation.  Hurting the consumer more.  And leading to the development of the quantity theory of money.  And monetarism.  Which held that the amount of money in circulation had a direct impact on prices.  The more money the higher the prices.

With the rise of Parliament in Britain power shifted from the king to the people.  Via their representatives in Parliament.  Instead of rule by dictate there was rule by consent.  Which made the business of choosing winners and losers more difficult.  Parliament had the power.  But Parliament was more than one person.  It was full of special interests.  Which made it more and more difficult to choose any one special interest over another.  Unable to curry favor for one’s own interest one didn’t support another’s interest.  At least not when that support came at the expense of your interests.  So there was another power shift in addition from the king to parliament.  There was also one from the king to the markets.  So during the 19th century mercantilism gave way to laissez-faire capitalism.  And free trade.  An economic system that let the British Empire dominate the world during the 19th century.  Making it rich.  And powerful.  Thanks to that vigorous economic activity that could build the world’s most powerful navy.  And pay for an army to garrison an empire.  Meanwhile the old school mercantilist empires fell from superpower status.  And became shadows of their former selves.  Soon the Spanish and Portuguese colonies would gain their independence from these dying empires.

Milton Friedman’s Monetarism turned the Chilean Economy Around

The South American nations may have hated their European masters but they liked one thing about them.  Their mercantilist policies.  Which survived into the 20th century.  Where government partnered with business.  In the worst of crony capitalism.  Where special interests that favored the ruling powers received government favors in return.  Usually protected markets.  And favorable legislation.  That allowed them monopoly prices.  Giving them great profits.  Generous union wages and benefits.  And generous health care and pensions.  At least, for those politically connected.  So the government rigged the game for them.  And they made it worth the government’s while to rig the game.  All of this paid for on the backs of the poor.  Who paid high taxes.  As well as high prices.  And suffered abject poverty.  Which made for an unhappy people.  And a large amount of government turnover through revolution as dictatorships and military juntas overthrew other dictatorships and military juntas.

In 1973 it was Augusto Pinochet’s turn in Chile.  Who came to power in a military coup.  At the time the country wasn’t doing so well.  And in full mercantilism.  The economy was in the toilet.  There was abject poverty.  And hyperinflation (peaking at 1000% or so) as the government printed money to pay for its out of control spending.  To try and bribe the angry mob and keep them from overthrowing the latest dictatorship.  Pinochet was the guy to fix that.  Like everybody that came before him.  And after his military junta failed as the previous military juntas failed, he tried something new.  Thanks to something called El Ladrillo.  And economic plan so thick and heavy they called it ‘the brick’.  A plan prepared by the Chicago Boys.  Chilean economists schooled in the Chicago school of economics.  Pinochet even met with Milton Friedman.  Prominent economist of the Chicago school.  And monetarist.  Who came down to give a speech.  (Interestingly, for the American left roundly criticized Friedman for giving a speech in a right-wing dictatorship.  Though he received no such criticism for giving the same speech in a left-wing dictatorship – communist China.  Showing that the political left was okay with human rights violations as long as they were committed in the left-wing dictatorships they so admired). 

Pinochet asked for some economic advice.  Friedman gave it.  And Pinochet followed it.  He ditched the mercantilist policies.  Embraced laissez-faire capitalism.  Privatized the state industries.  Established free trade.  Cut government spending.  And stopped printing money.  Ending the hyperinflation.  Replacing it with a strict monetary policy.  This didn’t please the politically connected as they lost their privilege.  But Friedman’s monetarism turned the Chilean economy around.  Creating a prosperous market economy.  With a growing middle class.  The strong economic growth led to some healthy tax revenue.  Which in later years funded antipoverty programs.  The Miracle of Chile even replaced the military junta with a democratic government.  Chile now has one of the healthiest and freest economies in the world.  An economy better and stronger than their former colonial master.  Spain.  Who maintained enough of their mercantilist policies to pull them into the Eurozone debt crisis.  And probably could learn a thing or two from their one-time colony.  Who is doing very well these days.  Thanks to the Miracle of Chile.  Milton Friedman.  And the Chicago Boys.  Those great Chilean economists given a chance by of all people a military dictator.

Everyone does Better under Free Market Capitalism, not just the Politically Connected

In 2010 a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti.  A country rife with political corruption.  With little, if any, free market capitalism.  And even less rule of law.  Where most people live in abject poverty.  In ramshackle housing.  This earthquake claimed 230,000 lives.  A heart-wrenching loss of life.  Especially sad because the impoverished masses suffered the most.  As is often the case in countries with poor economic and political institutions. 

Later that same year, an 8.8 earthquake hit Chile.  Thanks to the economic reforms that rebuilt Chile into a healthy and prosperous democracy, Chileans did not live in ramshackle housing.  The higher standard of living created by the Chicago Boys’ economic reforms created better housing.  And safer cities.  Because of this the far stronger earthquake in Chile killed far fewer people than the lesser earthquake in Haiti.  The death toll in Chile was less than 1,000.  Which is impressive considering that was one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history.

Economics matter.  Say what you want about free market capitalism.  Malign it all you will.  But you can’t change some facts.  In particular, everyone does better under free market capitalism.  Including the poor.  For if this wasn’t the case Chile would have seen the loss of life Haiti saw.  But they didn’t.  Because there were no impoverished masses living in ramshackle housing in Chile.  Because those economic reforms improved the standard of living for all Chileans.  Not just the politically connected. 

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #32: “America is great but it can’t make bad ideology good.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 21st, 2010

We’ve Always Done Things This Way

The Old World was set in her ways.  Change didn’t come easy.  When it came it often spanned centuries.  But not always.  As the Roman Empire incorporated new territories into the empire, she modernized those new territories.  Roads.  Fresh water.  Sanitation.  Rule of law.  Markets.  The things that made cites better.  Civilizations better.  But as a civilization grows, so does its government.  And as government grows, taxes inevitably become more onerous.

A sprawling empire required a sprawling bureaucracy to control it.  And a huge standing army to protect it from without.  And to police it from within.  When you expand and conquer new territory, the spoils of conquest can fund your empire.  When your borders are relatively static, though, you have to use alternative sources of funding.  Taxation.  As the tax burden grew, dissatisfaction grew.  Fewer citizens volunteered to serve in Rome’s legions.  So Rome relied more and more on hired armies.  This increased the cost of empire.  And it increased taxation.  The tax burden grew so great that people gave up their small farms and worked for the bigger farms.  Worked for the rich landowners.  Some tried to quit farming all together.  This caused problems in trying to feed Rome’s legions.  And her bureaucracy.  The food supply became so critical that the Romans wrote new laws forbidding people to leave their farms.  Farmers were bound to the land.  They could never leave.  If you were born on the land you would farm the land.  Forever.

During the decline of the Western Roman Empire you saw the rise of the economic system that would dominate the Middle Ages.  Feudalism.  As the Western Empire declined, the power began to shift to the rich landowners.  As did loyalties.  As the empire further disintegrated, the power of Rome could no longer protect you.  Or feed you.  And thus food and protection became the foundation of feudalism.  Land owners, the nobles (i.e., lords), would let you work their lands.  The bulk of the proceeds went to the landlord.  But you also had a portion of the manor to farm for yourself.  In exchange for the use of a lord’s land you provided military service to the lord.  When needed to protect the lord and his lands.  Property rights allowed the lord’s sons to inherit the estate upon his death.  So property ownership became hereditary.  As did the nobility.   And so it would be for centuries.

England Leads the Way

From the nobles arose one.  A dominant one.  A ruler of nobles.  A king.  A king consolidated the many nobles’ estates into a kingdom.  A country.  And the king became sovereign.  The supreme authority.  The nobles pledged their loyalty to the king.  Provided for the king.  And fought for him when necessary.  Thus the few, the many and the one.  The masses (the many) served the lords and worked on their estates.  The lords (the few) were the wealthy land owners who served the king.  The king (the one) ruled the kingdom.

Thus the European monarchy was born.  In France it was absolute.  In England, in 1215, the nobles met King John on the meadow at Runnymede.  And the king reluctantly set his seal to the Magna Carta.  In England, there would be limits to the sovereign’s power.  The king may be king, but the nobles held the wealth.  And with it a lot of power.  Sometimes they saw things differently.  And the little people, the masses, often saw things differently than did the king and lords.  These different interests were reconciled, in time, by king and Parliament, a two-house or bicameral legislature (comprised of the House of Commons and the House of Lords). 

England was the place to be.  Rule of law.  Bill of rights.  Commerce.  Banking.  Capitalism.  Liberty.  Food.  Security.  Your common everyday Englishman had a better quality of life than your common everyday [insert any other European national here].  As transoceanic trade took off, the great European powers collided with each other.  Fought for that lucrative trade.  In the Old World.  And in the New World.  These wars became very expensive.  And some lasted for years.  Like the Seven Years War.  Which the British won.  And took many French possessions throughout the world.  But at a huge cost.  She incurred a great debt.  Especially in securing one of her colonies.  British North America.

Tea Anyone?

So England taxed her British American subjects.  Only problem was, these English subjects had no representation in Parliament.  And this was very un-English.  Taxation without representation.  This caused tension.  Also, Great Britain’s mercantilist policies were also rubbing the colonists the wrong way.  America was growing.  And she wanted free trade.  But that was impossible when the home country maintained a favorable balance of trade at your expense.  And had the Royal Navy to enforce it.  As a colony, everything had to ship to/from England ports on English ships so England could accumulate bullion.  The British protected their industries.  Her colonies fed raw materials to these industries.  And that’s all they did.

Trouble brewed for a while.  When Great Britain legislated what type of tea they could drink (only British East Indian tea), the American colonists had had enough.   There was a tea party in Boston, a revolution and formal independence.  And then a new nation.  With a bicameral legislation.  An executive.  And a judiciary.  It wasn’t quite Parliament, but was very similar in function.  The president was the one.  The Senate was the few.  And the House of Representatives were the many.  But there were key differences.  There was no king.  No hereditary nobility.  And there would be no mercantilism.  Despite Alexander Hamilton’s best efforts.

Let’s Just Agree to Disagree

Getting the colonies to come together to declare their independence was not easy.  It helped that there was already a shooting war going on.  Lexington and Concord.  Bunker Hill.  The coastal towns the British burnt and left in ruins.  They were already fighting a rebellion.  The declaration was almost a moot point.  But it was important.  And, after some arm twisting, they voted for independence and posted their Declaration of Independence.  But that was then.  After the Revolutionary War, there was no such unifying force.  Everyone was back to looking out for number one.  Well, most. 

Locked in a Philadelphia hall during a sweltering summer thick with horseflies, a collection of America’s finest worked to create a new government.  George Washington, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, to name just a few, could hardly agree on anything.  The Constitution they created was not great in their eyes.  But it was probably the best that they could do.  So acknowledged, they sent it to the states for ratification.  The odds were against them.  It would take some persuading.  And persuading they did.  Hamilton and Madison (and John Jay) wrote a series of essays appearing in newspapers to make the case for ratification.  They addressed and answered all arguments against ratification.  (You can read these today in the Federalist Papers.)  And this effort was successful.  The states ratified the constitution.  There was now a nation known as the United States of America.

Our first Secretary of the Treasury was Alexander Hamilton.  A capitalist genius.  And a great admirer of the British Empire.  Being a recent transplant to the American Colonies, he had no deep-seated resentment of the former mother country.  In fact, he wanted to emulate her.  She was the greatest empire in the world.  She was obviously doing something right.  But he pushed too far.  His mercantilist plans were a bit much for some.  Especially the ‘simple’ farmers of the South.  The planter elite.  Led by Thomas Jefferson (covertly) and James Madison (overtly), they fought Hamilton tooth and nail and did everything to destroy him.  (After seeing his plans Madison switched to the opposition.)    And ultimately, did.  When Aaron Burr shot him in a duel on the field of honor at Weehawken, New Jersey, across the Hudson from New York City.  All because Hamilton tried everything within his power to keep him from becoming president of the United States and governor of New York.  Because he was on unprincipled man.  Burr took offense to that.  And, well, the scoundrel challenged him to a duel and killed him.  But I digress.

The American Ideology

The American ideology is simple.  It includes things that have been proven to work.  And excludes things that have been proven not to.  A large, diverse people make up America.  So at the heart of our ideology is that we agree to disagree. 

We don’t have kings or nobility.  We don’t have an entitled class.  No hereditary rights.  Here, it doesn’t matter who your father was.  Or what group you belong to (religious, societal, etc.).  No one person is better than another. 

We have property rights and live under the rule of law.  We honor legal contracts.  We built our nation on laissez faire capitalism.  Free markets.  With a minimum of government interference.  We do what we want and respect that others do what they want.  And we are free to do this as long as we play by the rule of law.

It was a long road getting here.  We took the best history had to offer.  And rejected the worst that history included.  Nations who did likewise went on to greatness, too (like the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, etc.).  Those who didn’t have been repositories of great suffering and human bondage (North Korea, Cuba, The People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, etc.).  Of the latter nations, please note that life is getting much better in China and the former Soviet Union with the introduction of capitalism and free markets.  And it’s not in North Korea and Cuba where these governments stubbornly cling to failed policies to keep their governments in power.  Whatever the cost is to their people.

It’s the Ideology, Stupid

Good ideology makes good nations.  Bad ideology makes bad nations.  A good nation can NOT take bad ideology and make it good.  A good nation that implements bad ideology will only make that good nation bad.  All people have the capacity for greatness.  And that greatness will shine through if the government doesn’t suppress it.   To see this all we have to do is look to history.  It’s all there.  The good.  The bad.  And the ugly.

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