Free Trade, the Corn Laws and The Economist

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 8th, 2013

Week in Review

Today the political left attacks capitalism as being unfair.  And mean.  Whereas they laud government intervention into the free market.  To level the playing field.  And to redistribute income.  To help those who can’t be as successful as others.  They support unions.  And oppose free trade.  Because free trade lowers prices for consumers.  By breaking up monopolies.  And giving them choice.  Free trade is an essential element of capitalism.  But the fight to make people’s lives better with free trade wasn’t easy.  As people who got rich with government-protected high prices opposed free trade (see Why did The Economist favour free trade? by C.R. posted 9/6/2013 on The Economist).

IN NINETEENTH century Europe and America, debates over whether tariffs or free trade produced the most economic growth dominated the political scene. Up until the early 1840s, protection appeared to be winning the argument. In Britain, high tariffs were imposed on agricultural imports in 1819, by legislation known as the Corn Laws. The ideas of Friedrich List, a German economist who argued that tariffs boosted industrial development through the protection of infant industries, were gaining ground, particularly in the United States. One Pennsylvanian legislator even joked in 1833 that the dictionary definition of man should be changed to “an animal that makes tariff speeches” so frequently were they heard.

Against this atmosphere, James Wilson founded The Economist in 1843 to campaign for free trade. His first target was to repeal the Corns Laws in Britain. He argued:

They are, in fact, laws passed by the seller to compel the buyer to give him more for his article than it is worth. They are laws enacted by the noble shopkeepers who rule us, to compel the nation to deal at their shop alone.”

The UAW got very generous contracts with the Big Three during the Fifties and the Sixties.  Raising the price of cars.  Which wasn’t a problem when they were the only ones making cars.  But then came the imports.  Which told the people how much more they were paying than these articles were worth.  And started buying the imports.  As they did those generous pay and benefit packages became more difficult to pay.  So the Big Three lobbied for tariffs on those less costly imports.  And got them.  Raising the price of the imports.  Forcing Americans to deal with the Big Three alone.  And buy their more costly cars.

More people bought cars than made them, though.  And the people who made the cars were better paid than most Americans.  So these tariffs forced poorer people to spend more on a car leaving them less for their families.  So richer people could have more.  This is what tariffs do.  They allow fewer people to have more.  While more people have to do with less.  So fewer buy more.  While more buy less.  Because there are more people who buy cars than make them these tariffs, then, reduce economic activity.  And because the Big Three didn’t have to figure out how to give more for less to their customers they didn’t.  Giving their customers ‘rust buckets’ in the Seventies.  Something else that tariffs do.  Lead to inferior goods.  Because if the government forces people to buy from you then the quality of what you sell doesn’t matter.

Wilson believed that protectionism caused “war among the material interests of the world”, in other words, war between nations and classes. A high tariff regime was no longer economically “productive”; Britain was stuck in an economic depression in the early 1840s. In contrast, free trade produced “abundance and employment”. It was appropriate for Britain’s economy where “a large proportion of the population and property depended on commerce and industry alone”. On the other hand, List’s ideas about protection were dismissed as unnecessary “swaddling clothes” for a mature economy, such as Britain’s.

The Economist’s early views on free trade were strongly influenced by the classical economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo, as Ruth Dudley Edwards, a historian, has pointed out. Wilson, like Smith, realised that trade was a two way exchange. Countries needed to “increase imports to increase exports” to boost economic growth. Consumers, Smith argued in the Wealth of Nations, should buy products from where they were cheapest. All protection did was create monopolies, which were “a great enemy to good management”. Ricardo took Smith’s ideas further, arguing that all countries benefit from free trade by producing what they were best at relative to other countries.

That’s what the Big Three wanted.  A monopoly on cars sold in America.  And there is only one way to get one.  The government has to create them.  Hence the Big Three’s request for tariff protection.

David Ricardo’s comparative advantage said nations should make what they can make best and trade for those things they can’t.  For example, if two countries can both make one thing but one can do so at lower costs they can make more of them for the same costs.  Giving them a larger surplus to trade for other things.  While the other nation will consume more resources to build the same quantity leaving less to make the other things they need.  While having fewer things available for export.  So if you try to make things you can’t make efficiently you end up consuming more resources to have less.  Whereas the nation that makes only what it can make best ends up consuming fewer resources that are then available to make other things.  And they have more things to trade.  Leading to a higher standard of living.  And if their trading partners do likewise they, too, experience a higher standard of living.

Free trade leads to greater economic activity.  Which made Britain wealthy.  Allowing them to extend their empire for another 70 years or so.  Despite the warnings of the rich landowners who said repealing the Corn Laws would cause harm.  Instead, repealing the Corn Laws led to greater economic activity.  And less costly food. Allowing people to feed their families more easily.  The only harm suffered was to the profits of the big landowners.  Who lost their monopoly.  And could no longer charge more than their food was worth.

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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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Obama Favors Protectionism to Save Manufacturing Jobs that Employ Few while Increasing Costs for Consumers Everywhere

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 28th, 2012

Week in Review

In full campaign mode, Obama seeks the support of unions in the manufacturing industry (see Why Manufacturing Can’t Solve The Jobs Problem by Roya Wolverson posted 1/27/2012 on Time Business).

Among other things, Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday drove home the idea that U.S. industries need more protection. “Over a thousand Americans are working today because we stopped a surge in Chinese tires,” he said in his speech. That’s all fine and good if your goal is to hold on to U.S. manufacturing jobs. But it’s not going to solve the country’s overall unemployment problem. And in the end, it may cost the American consumer more than those jobs are worth.

For one thing, raising trade barriers on imported goods like tires makes tire-buying more expensive for American consumers, which, as Matthew Yglesias points out, only undermines those consumers’ ability to spend elsewhere. It also provokes countries like China to raise trade barriers on U.S. goods, which makes the job of increasing U.S. exports and export-related jobs even harder. Even if protections did save some manufacturing jobs, they wouldn’t be enough to move the needle on unemployment. It’s worth remembering that only 11% of U.S. jobs come from manufacturing, thanks to globalization, which has taken jobs abroad to lower-wage countries, and technological advances that have increased worker productivity. And that percentage has been declining steadily for several decades.

…And since we can’t reverse that process, the biggest gains in the job market can’t come from greater protections, but instead from gains in technology. Standard Chartered’s Gerald Lyons made the point today that, despite the enduring public perception that technology kills jobs, for every one job technology destroys, it creates 2.1 other jobs. Thus, instead of clinging to our past by supporting unproductive industries and erecting trade barriers, the U.S. has to find “the types of jobs that are fit for this country’s future,” argues Diamond.

Once upon a time the whale oil business was booming.  And a lot of people where employed in the whaling industry.  Until John D. Rockefeller came along.  Who created Standard Oil.  Introduced Americans to kerosene.  And put the whale oil business out of business.  Creating far more jobs in the petroleum exploration and refining business than the whale oil business ever did.  Now if President Obama were in office during this time he would have placed a tax on kerosene to protect those whale oil business jobs.  Because although he may talk about the jobs of the future, he wants to protect the jobs of the past.  Especially if they are protected by a strong union.

When only 11% of U.S. jobs are  in manufacturing, this protection of the jobs of the past is also very costly.  Because to save 11% of jobs in the economy he will raise prices on everything in the economy.  Meaning 100% will pay a surtax so the 11% can keep these jobs of the past.  So to sustain a little economic activity he will kill a lot of economic activity.  Which doesn’t make sense.  But it will protect union jobs.  And sustain contributions to Democrat coffers.  Which is the whole point of saving these jobs of the past.

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