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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 12th, 2012

History 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rent-Seeking

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 11th, 2012

Economics 101

Wealth Creators Freely met and Made Trades they felt were Mutually Beneficial

The human race started as subsistence hunters and gatherers.  Our ancestors spent all of their time hunting.  And gathering.  If they were successful they propagated our species.  Making it possible for us to be here.  If they weren’t their family tree was a barren one. 

So that was life.  A rather short and brutish life.  Except that part about propagating the species.  And we lived that way for some 2 million years.  Eating.  Fleeing.  Fighting.  And, of course, propagating.  As we grew more intelligent we did a lot of things that ushered in the modern world.  But perhaps the single greatest advancement that brought on the modern age was our evolution from hunters and gatherers to farmers.  Everything followed from this.  We learned to live together in cities.  And we increased crop yields so much we created food surpluses.  Which gave us time to do other things.  It allowed the rise of artisans.  A middle class.  That built things and traded them for their food.  These new goods helped produce more food.  And the greater food production allowed more people to do other things.  Creating a complex economy.  Where people traveled to market with the things they created.  And traded them for the things other people brought to market.  We traded things of value for other things of value.  Because these traders, these wealth creators, each created something of value.

These wealth creators freely met and made trades they felt were mutually beneficial.  Each felt they came out a winner after their trade.  For they each received something they valued more than what they traded away to get it.  Which means going to the market was where to go to get valuable things.  Which provided an incentive to make more things so you could take them to market.  And trade for things you valued more.  As everyone did this the overall wealth in the economy increased.  People specialized.  Focused on what they were good at.  To produce as much as possible so they could trade for more.  And because they specialized they improved quality.  And used the available resources as efficiently as possible.

Rent-Seeking People took more Wealth from the Market than they Brought to It

There are many competing schools of economics.  But if you go back to where it all began what you find is laissez faire free market capitalism.  Where the profit incentive drove people to create wealth.  Which they then traded for the things they didn’t make.  Then things started to change.  Some people didn’t want to work hard and innovate.  And bring new things to market.  What they wanted was influence.  Privilege.  And a rigged market.  So they could get more in trade than the value of the things they produced for trade.  One of the first vehicles used for this was the artisan guild.

In medieval Europe if you wanted to be a blacksmith you had to join a guild.  If the guild accepted you a long apprenticeship awaited you.  But the guilds denied more people entry than they allowed.  Why?  To limit competition.  So blacksmiths could keep their prices high.  At any given time a city, town or village had a very limited number of blacksmiths.  The guild worked to keep it that way.  For the last thing these blacksmiths wanted was other blacksmiths opening up shop.  Putting more goods onto the market.  And lowering prices.  No, the guild wanted to fix prices above their market value by keeping would-be blacksmiths out of the trade.

The economic term for this is rent-seeking.  Which is sort of the opposite of profit seeking.  In profit-seeking people create wealth to trade (or to pay) for other wealth.  They work hard to earn more so they can buy more.  Both buyer and seller add wealth to the economy.  Not so in rent-seeking.  In rent-seeking you try to garner more wealth not by working harder but by using the power of government.  By getting tariffs placed on foreign competition.  By getting prices fixed above market prices.  By getting onerous regulations enacted to hurt your competition.  By restricting entrance into the industry thus limiting domestic competition.  Such as the guilds did for those medieval blacksmiths.  This interference into laissez faire free market capitalism reduced economic activity.  Because rent-seeking people took more wealth from the market than they brought to it.

The Government caused the Great Depression by Favoring Rent-Seeking over Free Market Capitalism

Some say a better name for rent-seeking is privilege seeking.  For that is what they are seeking.  Special privilege so they don’t have to compete in the free market.  For the cost of a little lobbying can remove the need for innovation.  Maintaining the level of quality.  Or satisfying customers.  For if you have a government-imposed monopoly you don’t have to do any of those things because the people don’t have anywhere else to go.

Rent-seeking is rife in crony capitalism and state capitalism.  Neither of which is true capitalism.  These companies are granted monopolies (or near monopolies) by the government in exchange for political support.  Which they can afford when they can sell their goods above market prices.  They get rich.  Their cronies in government get rich.  But the consumers suffer.  As they have to pay higher prices. Suffer poorer quality.  And less innovation.  Rent-seeking is common in the older industries.  Particularly ones with strong unions.  Who have negotiated costly wage and benefit packages.  Which they can afford to pay until new innovation and new competition enters the market.  Putting out a higher quality product at a lower price.  Prices so low that an old firm saddled with a costly union wage and benefit package simply can’t sell at and pay their bills.  So they go to government.  And lobby for privilege.

What typically happens is that they delay the inevitable.  All the protected industries in the U.S. have failed.  Textile.  Steel.  Even the automobile (well, two of the Big Three have failed.  Ford hasn’t).  For when you take more wealth from the market than you bring to it you’re just transferring wealth.  You’re not creating it.  Which is a problem.  Because you have to create wealth to increase economic activity.  So when you protect an industry you’re just pulling wealth out of the private economy and transferring it to the rent-seekers.  Who give so little in return.   Which results in a decline of economic activity.  And if it spreads enough it can and has caused recessions.  Even a Great Depression.  Such as when domestic industries lobbied government to enact the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Which launched an all-out trade war.  All because the government favored rent-seeking over free market capitalism.

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