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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The Invisible Hand

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 16th, 2012

Economics 101

A Command Economy Reduces the Overall Economic Output because those Managing the Economy don’t Understand It

Command economy?  Or free market capitalism?  Which works better?  Well, let’s find out with a little experiment.  Let’s go back in time.  Say ancient Mesopotamia.  Just after they developed mass farming.  And produced some of the first food surpluses.  Allowing the rise of a middle class of artisans.  Now let’s look at what could have been the first two of these artisans.  A potter.  And a winemaker.  Who probably weren’t the first two artisans.  But will suffice for our little experiment.

The winemaker needs some pottery vessels to store and sell his wine in.  And the potter enjoys drinking wine.  They each have something the other wants.  And because we’re so far back in time there is no money yet.  We’re still only bartering at this time.  Trading the goods we make with each other.  But in our experiment the high priest of the civilization is also the economic planner.  This priest communicates to the civilization’s gods.  And guides the civilization in pleasing their gods.  Which he is very good at.  For he knows all of the old teachings and rituals.  But he doesn’t know a thing about pottery or winemaking.  But he looks at an empty pottery vessel and a pottery vessel full of wine and sees that the vessel volume equals the volume of wine.  And deems the price of one pottery vessel is the amount of wine one pottery vessel holds.

Well, the potter is quite happy with this price.  Because he is skilled.  And can dig up some clay.  Throw it on the potter’s wheel and knock out vessel after vessel.  Glaze them and fire them in the kiln.  Even working by himself he can achieve some economies of scale.  By repeating this process every day.  Something the winemaker isn’t quite able to.  For he makes wine by the batch.  Because each step in the process takes a lot of time.  Maintaining his grape vines.  Then picking the grapes.  Carrying them back to his winery.  Putting them into his winepress.  Squeezing the juice out of the grapes.  Putting the grape juice in large vats to ferment.  Monitoring the process.  When he determines the process is complete he fills the small pottery vessels with wine.  When it was finally ready for ‘sale’ and consumption.  Considering all the work it took him to make one vessel of wine the winemaker was not at all happy with the price the high priest set.  And instead builds his own potter’s wheel and kiln to make his own vessels.  Greatly increasing his workload.  And reducing his winemaking output.  While the potter loses a potentially large customer.  Thus reducing the amount pottery he makes.  Reducing overall economic output in the command economy.

The Invisible Hand makes sure we use our Limited Resources Efficiently to Make the Things People want Most

In this command economy the civilization suffered a deadweight loss.  Economic resources went unused.  They could have created more economic benefits with the available resources.  They could have made more pottery.  And made more wine.  Perhaps even creating some jobs to help with the economic output of efficiently using the available resources.  But they didn’t.  Because of the fixed prices economic resources went unused.  Thus creating a market equilibrium lower than where it could be.  Hence the deadweight loss.  Now let’s look at the same example with only one difference.  The high priest does NOT set prices.

In a barter economy people agree to trade the goods they make.  And now the potter and the winemaker are free to determine what they think is a fair trade.  That is, they set the price of pottery in wine.  And the price they agree on is one they find mutually acceptable.  Where the potter agrees to trade an amount of his pottery for an amount of wine.  And the winemaker agrees to trade an amount of his wine for an amount of pottery.  Everyone wins.  For the potter gets an amount of wine he values more than the pottery he traded for the wine.  The winemaker gets an amount of pottery he values more than the wine he traded for the pottery.  And the civilization wins because at this mutually agreed upon price both the potter and the winemaker increase their production.  Providing the civilization with more of their goods.  The potter and the winemaker may even hire people to help them produce more goods to meet this higher demand.  Thus increasing the level of happiness in the civilization.  By increasing the amount of economic activity.  Moving the market equilibrium to a higher level of economic output.  And thus reducing the deadweight loss.  By using the available resources in the most efficient manner.  As determined by these mutually agreed upon prices.

This is the Invisible Hand in action.  An economic concept put forth by Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) in his The Wealth of Nations (1776).  In a competitive market place where traders set the price for their economic trade (not a command economy) two things happen.  First, resources flow to where we demand them most.  That is, to the buyers willing to pay the highest price.  Second, because of the competitive market place only those companies that sell at the low prices the market demands stay in business.  Which means that they have to use those resources as efficiently as possible.  Especially when they’re paying the highest prices for them.  And all of this happens because of the Invisible Hand. 

History has Proven that no Government Bureaucrat can do a Better Job than the Invisible Hand

Those who favor a command economy (or more government intervention into market forces) say the economy is too complex for us to leave it to its own devices.  That without a smart government bureaucrat managing this complex thing we cannot reach a market equilibrium that maximizes economic output.  Whereas Adam Smith says it is because the economy is so complex that no one is smart enough to manage it.  Just as a high priest doesn’t understand pottery or winemaking a smart government bureaucrat cannot hope to understand all the intricacies of a complex economy.  Nor can they ever hope to understand what millions upon millions of consumers want to buy most.  But the beautiful thing is we don’t have to.

The multitudes make individual decisions just like our potter and winemaker.  Where everyone is looking to maximize their own value.  And when they agree on a mutual acceptable price all parties in the trade win.  While making sure our resources flow to where they are demanded most.  And that we use these valuable and limited resources most efficiently.  Thus maximizing overall happiness in our country.  Reducing deadweight losses to a minimum.  And obtaining a market equilibrium that maximizes economic activity.  All of which happens with no one in charge.  As if an Invisible Hand guides us in the market place to make all the right decisions to maximize this economic output.  And our happiness.

So which is better?  Command economy or free market capitalism.  Well, if you’re being honest you have to choose Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand and free market capitalism.  For history has proven that no government bureaucrat can do a better job than the Invisible Hand.  Not the Soviets.  Not the Chinese Communist (under Chairman Mao).  Not the Cubans.  Not the North Koreans.  Even the Americans failed when their government actively intervened in the private economy.  Something that President Jimmy ‘one-term’ Carter knows only too well.  So based on our hypothetical Mesopotamian example, and history in general, free market capitalism is, and always has been, and always will be, better than a command economy.


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Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 31st, 2011

Economics 101

People Traded the Things they Made to have Things they couldn’t Make

Agricultural advances gave us food surpluses.  Food surpluses gave us the division of labor.  And spare time.  For the first time everyone didn’t have to hunt or gather food.  They could do other things.  Think.  Experiment.  Innovate.  Create.  And they did.  Becoming specialists.  A middle class.  Artisans.  People who became very good at doing one thing.  So they kept doing that one thing.  Finding ways to improve that one thing.  And created surpluses of their own.  Potters made excess pottery.  Shoemakers made excess shoes.  Tanners made excess leather goods.  Metalworkers made excess metal goods.

Cities grew in the center of the sprawling farmland.  And it was in the cities where these artisans lived.  Where they honed their specialties.  And met.  With other specialists.  And with farmers.  To trade.  The potter would trade pottery for shoes.  The farmer would trade food for shoes and metal goods.  The tanner would trade leather goods for pottery, shoes and food.  And so on.  People traded the things they made.  To have things they couldn’t make.  Everyone was able to have more things.  Thanks to this trade.

This unleashed the vast human capital of the people.  Their cities.  And their civilization.  Cities on the coast fished.  Cities closer to the forest harvested wood.  Cities closer to the hills mined silver, gold and copper.  And coal.  And the cities traded their surpluses with other cities.  Metal workers and potters traded their goods for fuel for their forges and kilns.  Miners traded their ore and coal for grain and fish.  Either directly.  Or indirectly.  When other people traded their large surpluses with other people in other cities.  With the miners getting a portion of these large-scale trades for all their efforts to make those trades possible.

As Civilizations became more Complex they became more Dependent on Trade

All of this trading made cities grow.  And as a result the civilization they belonged to grew.  And became more advanced.  People ventured further.  Looking for other resources.  And met people from other civilizations.  Who had raw materials that were different and interesting.  As well as finished goods that were different and interesting.  And these civilizations traded with each other.

Civilizations established trade routes with each other.  Which connected civilizations with others in the unknown world.  Beyond the civilizations they knew.  Markets appeared on these trade routes.  Bringing the exotic from the furthest corners of the world to everyone.  As well as new ideas.  And innovation.  The civilized world grew more advanced.  More interdependent.  More peaceful.  And better.  There was more food.  More technology.  More goods and services.  And more leisure.  Giving rise to the arts.  And entertainment.

But it was not all good.  As cities grew they grew attractive to the uncivilized barbarians beyond the frontier.  Roving bands of hunters and gatherers.  Who were more partial to plunder than trade.  So a portion of their surpluses had to be set aside for city defenses.  The building of city walls.  Implements of wars.  And standing armies.  To defend their cities.  Their civilizations.  And their trade routes.  For as civilizations became more complex they became more dependent on trade.

Trade Improved the Quality of Life which is the Hallmark of an Advanced Civilization

Trade unleashed our human capital.  Because it drove innovation.  There was a big world out there.  Creating a lot of fascinating stuff.  And the only way to get it was to trade your fascinating stuff for it.  And when we did everyone won.  Life got better.  We learned new and interesting things.  That we used as building blocks for further innovation.  And further advancement.  Which led to a better quality of life.  The hallmark of an advanced civilization.


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Pottery Stored Food Surpluses and Created Advanced Civilizations

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 26th, 2011

Technology 101

An Advanced Civilization requires a Food Surplus and Something to Store it In

Take a look around your kitchen.  Your pantry.  What do you see?  Storage jars.  Canisters.  And, of course, cups and plates.  They’re so prevalent in your life you don’t even notice them.  You just use them.  You drink from them.  Eat off of them.  Shake salt and pepper from them.  Store flour in them.  Sugar.  Coffee.  And tea.

It would be hard to live your life without the things in these containers.  It would be harder still if you had no containers to store these things in.

And it’s been this way since the dawn of civilization.  In fact, there would be no advanced civilization without one invention.  Pottery.  Because to form an advanced civilization requires a food surplus.  An excess of grain.  That they had to store.  Where animals and bugs could not get at it.  Or moisture.  Today we use storage jars and canisters in our pantry.  Back then they used pottery.  In their homes.  Even in their granaries.

Pottery allowed the Farmer and Artisan to Eat at the Harvest and Long After the Harvest

Pottery and agriculture were attached at the hip.  They both needed each other.  The mass farming of these early civilizations, before the plough simplified farming, required a lot of labor.  Which produced highly populated cities.  With a lot of mouths to fed.  And they did produce a lot of food.  So much that they had a food surplus.  To feed the farmers.  And the non-farmers.  The artisans.  At the harvest.  And long after the harvest.

They could grow a food surplus.  And did.  But a surplus without the ability to store it was useless.  So following the great agricultural developments came the all important granary.  And pottery storage vessels.

The development of pottery required a dedicated work force.  A division of labor.  The potters couldn’t farm.  They needed to spend all their time mass-producing pottery to meet the demands of their civilization.  Plates.  Bowls.  Cups.  And storage vessels.  To store that food surplus.  So both the farmer and artisan could eat.  At the harvest.  And long after the harvest.

The Division of Labor gave us Agriculture, Pottery and an Advanced Civilization

The hunter and gatherer life was simple.  You followed the food.  And hunted.  Which pretty much consumed all of your time.  And kept you on the move.  That changed after some key advances.  Agriculture.  And pottery.  To name only two.  The rise of these specialties allowed people to settle down.  To stop following food.  And, instead, to grow it.  And store it.

None of this would have been possible without the division of labor.  Which allowed the rise of artisans.  Specialists.  A middle class.  To make the things that made a civilization advanced.  And a food surplus.  Which allowed an advanced civilization to survive.


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