Posts tagged with: economics

Blog author: ehilton
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
By

Imagine this:  a teacher tells her high school students that they are going to enjoy a chocolate cake, while learning about food distribution and economics.  (As a former high school teacher, I assure you, most of the students heard nothing past the word, “cake”.)

The teacher then divides the students into three groups.  In her class of 30 students, one group is made up of 4 students, a second group is 10 students and the third group is 16.  The teacher then sets the cake before them, and announces that she will divide the cake according to food distribution norms among “first, second and third world countries”.

The group of four students will then enjoy half the cake.  The second group of students will get about three-quarters of the remaining cake, and the smallest piece will go to the group of 16 students.  Of course, protests will follow, along with a discussion of how unfair it all is.

The goal of the teacher will be, of course, to see if the students with the most cake will share their cake with the other two groups.  If they don’t, that choice will be discussed as well.  The students will come away with the idea that everyone will have an equal piece of cake if only those with more share what they have.

This is a noble lesson, and we should of course share what we have, regardless of how much that is.  (After all, Scripture doesn’t encourage only the rich to tithe.)  Unfortunately, the lesson is wrong:  it’s based on the idea that there is only one cake, and we can’t possibly get any more.

I have to admit, that as a teacher, I used lessons similar to this one.  And never once, did I or any of my students suggest a most obvious answer:  bake another cake.

We have the same problem, writ large, in today’s economic outlook:  poor nations are poor because rich nations are hoarding what they have and not sharing.  If only the rich nations would “share the cake”, everyone would have enough.  It also reinforces the notion that poor countries have to sit around and wait for some noble rich nation to divvy up cake for them; they couldn’t possibly create one on their own.  That type of paternalistic attitude is both dangerous and wrong.  The “cake game” also supports the erroneous notion that large groups of poor people are going to take stuff from richer folks; therefore, we need to reduce the numbers of poor people in order to keep our “cake”.

This “zero-sum game” fallacy is only one problem with today’s economic policies, but it is a deeply-entrenched one.  We all need to know that there isn’t just one “cake”, and that by enabling people to create their own food sources, create their own wealth and create their own stable economies, it won’t cost us our “cake”.  We will, in fact, all have more cake – and what better reason to celebrate?

There’s a saying that when goods cross borders, armies don’t (it’s the correlative to the observation attributed to Bastiat: “If goods cannot cross borders, armies will.”). The point is that trade tends to bring people together who might otherwise have cause to be hostile. One of the themes at Acton University, which begins in just a few hours, is globalization and various Christian responses. That’s sure to be the case again this year, as we have just about 70 countries represented among the various participants.

It’s within this context that I want to pass along a noteworthy story I heard yesterday on our statewide public radio station, Michigan Radio. It focuses on what automaker General Motors did when faced with parts shortages following the Fukushima earthquake.

GM added a local Japan-based “War Room” to its response, focusing on solving problems on the ground to get the supply-chain back up and running. As Tracy Samilton reports, “Once the suppliers became convinced GM wasn’t there to dump them, they were awfully happy for their customer’s help. Whatever GM could do, it did. One supplier ran out of a special form of hydrogen peroxide. GM found another source for it and shipped it in from Korea. The company hired trucks.”

So when you have companies with global reach across borders and global supply chains to match, you get a different kind of “War Room,” those focused on putting “the links of the Japanese supply chain back together, often just in time to keep an assembly line from shutting down.”

As Samilton summarizes the lessons of the parts crisis, “People involved in the effort say they grew as human beings, grew closer to each other, met people in the company they might never have known. It was tough. But War Room veterans are keen to point out that they’re not the heroes of this story.”

Ron Mills, head of engineering at GM’s Tech Center, puts it this way,

“We all worked really hard here, but at the end of the day, I did go home, right? And I ate well, and people in Japan could not do that. They had to work hard and also go back and try to find food and clothing and shelter for them and their families and which – I was just in awe of how hard and how they were able to endure.”

The GM workers were driven both by a sense of self-preservation and need as well as genuine concern for their Japanese partners, a concern that became more concrete and palpable as the invisible hands up the supply chain became increasingly visible.

It is very easy to forget what is happening in other parts of the world especially when we are in the midst of our own financial crisis in the United States. Considering the economic challenges we are faced with, this may be a mistake as we can learn from other’s problems. Europe is experiencing economic woes that continue to worsen. In the American Spectator, Samuel Gregg explains:

As Europe’s financial crisis worsens, it’s increasingly apparent that the economic woes of countries like Portugal, Spain, and Greece have resulted from more than just bad policy. With each passing day, evidence mounts that one dynamic driving the crisis is that of untruth: a disturbing European pattern of fabrication about levels of public spending and debt.

The latest proof for this thesis is the discovery by newly-elected Spanish regional and local governments of concealed debts run up by their predecessors. This contradicts claims by Spain’s Socialist Finance Minister, Elena Salgado, that Spain’s regions had no “hidden deficits” on their accounts. Spain’s business community, however, has long complained about local governments pressuring private companies to do business with them “off the books.”

One reason for such behavior is that Spain’s government knows that the greater Spain’s real overall-public debt, the higher will be the interest-rates demanded by financial markets and the more stringent will be the conditions attached to any “financial assistance package” (i.e., bailout) that Spain might, like Portugal and Greece, eventually need.

As Gregg says, the financial problems in Europe are not just current but have been festering since the beginning of the Eurozone when strict standards were to be implemented:

In the 1990s, European governments agreed the single currency’s success would depend upon countries entering the eurozone on a solid financial basis and then remaining on a firm footing. To that end, both the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and the 1997 Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) established strict criteria concerning public spending for countries admitted to the single currency.

One such standard concerned the ratio of an applicant country’ gross government debt to GDP. It was not to exceed 60 percent at the end of the preceding fiscal year. Maastricht’s convergence criteria also specified that the ratio of the annual government deficit to GDP should not exceed 3 percent of the same fiscal period.

Such standards were supposed to prevent a “free rider” program from occurring so countries with an irresponsible fiscal reputation, such as Greece, didn’t use their membership to over-indulge and rely on the rest of the members to bail them out. However, this policy wasn’t strictly adhered too. Gregg states that “…many euro applicants were allowed to get away with ‘creative accounting’ to meet the conditions of Maastricht.”

Europe continued to financially falter and wasn’t showing signs of recovery. This could be seen from many actions such as the encouragement of “fudging” numbers through new rules that “added many exceptions for types of spending that would not be included when determining debt and deficit figures.”

Is there a solution to Europe’s financial crisis? Gregg responds with a resounding yes:

Few “core values” would have a more bracing effect upon Europe’s current economic problems than their governments embracing honesty, transparency, and accountability. No doubt many a European political-career would be terminated as a result. The alternative, however, is for Europe’s governments to continue the charade about the real state of their finances.

Morally and financially, that’s not an option at all.

Click here to read the full article in the American Spectator.

Over at the Comment site, I review Dambisa Moyo’s How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly—and the Stark Choices Ahead. In “War of the Worldviews,” I note that the strongest elements of Moyo’s work are related to her analysis of the causes and the trends of global economic power. “Faced with the combined might of the Rest,” writes Moyo, “the West is forced to grapple with a relentless onslaught of challengers from all corners of the globe. And all these countries are growing in confidence, gaining in competence, and jockeying for a frontline position in the world’s economic race.”

A recently released World Bank report echoes Moyo’s sentiments, which are broadly shared by many forecasts. As Motoko Rich at the NYT Economix blog summarizes, “A new report from the World Bank predicts that by 2025, China, along with five other emerging economies — Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Russia — will account for more than half of all global growth, up from one-third now.”

One way of understanding these trends is that it is simply what you get in an age of global competition. Nations like China, India, and Brazil are increasingly able to make sustained GDP gains because of increased access to global markets, particularly the US. And the US is forced to adapt to remain competitive, and in many cases this hasn’t happened. It’s not clear at all why all this is such a bad thing. After all, it’s not that the US will cease to be affluent in the foreseeable future. It’s just that other nations won’t be as relatively poor.

Even so, Moyo can’t help but cast these developments in negative terms for the West: “…even while globalization could contribute to a rising tide for all boats, it is clear that the relative quality of life will almost certainly have to decline in the West to accommodate a rise in the Rest.” Thus the relatively greater quality of life enjoyed in the West will decline compared to the Rest. But why must this be so dire for the West?

The weakest part of Moyo’s project comes through in her attempts to provide prescriptive guidance for the West to avoid this “precarious path of forecast decline.” All you really need to know about her suggestions appears in this line: “there is, after all, nothing inherently wrong with a socialist state per se if it’s well engineered and designed and can finance itself.”

Moyo wants the US to adopt the Chinese model of state-directed markets because of the “the speed with which policies can be taken and implemented.” Deliberative democracy is just too slow, too cumbersome, and too captive to special interests. We need a lean, mean set of government committees to run the economy properly and efficiently.

What’s difficult for me to understand is why, given the West’s historical success by embodying “a fully fledged capitalist society of entrepreneurs,” we should abandon that model. Moyo should instead be calling the West back to its strengths, its foundations in “democracy and the sanctity of the rights of the individual elevated above all else,” instead of issuing the siren song of state-driven capitalism. If it is really a competition between state-run and entrepreneurial “capitalism,” it’s not clear at all (as Moyo seems to think) that the statists will win.

It seems to me that the West will only truly be “lost” when we give up our commitments to the inherent dignity and rights of the individual, the rule of law, freedom of association, exchange, religion, and expression. The thrust of Moyo’s book is a classic, “It became necessary to destroy the West to save it,” project, and that’s one that’s simply not worth fighting for.

Tomorrow evening economist Victor Claar will be leading an Acton on Tap where he will talk about fair trade. As a Christian and an economist, Claar brings a unique perspective to the discussion. He will be asking a number of key questions including: Is fair trade truly the best way to help the poor, and, if not, then what can we do instead?

The blog, Common Sense Concept, recently reviewed Claar’s new book, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution. This rerview provides a sneak peak of the discussion ahead at this week’s Acton on Tap:

But good intentions aren’t enough, and as economist Victor Claar in his new book, neither are manipulative trade initiatives. For Claar, author of Fair Trade: Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution, the fair trade movement simply “cannot deliver on what it promises,” and Christians would do well to pay heed.

[…]

Thus, Claar focuses the bulk of his critique on whether such initiatives truly achieve long-term and sustainable success and prosperity. Does fair trade actually lead to the enrichment of the lives it touches, or does it simply give them a temporary boost? Does it — or can it — lead to “transformational, lasting change,” or is it simply our way of giving them a few extra nickels for that week’s bread and milk (not wholly insignificant, mind you)?

Given that coffee is perhaps the most popular of fair-trade commodities, Claar focuses his attention there, providing an initial overview of the coffee market itself, followed by a discussion of fair trade strategies as commonly applied. Here, we learn a few important things: (1) coffee is easy to grow, (2) its price is inelastic, and (3) the “market appeal” of one’s beans is essential for success. Additionally, and most importantly, (!!!) demand is dropping while supply is rising.

“Simply put,” Claar explains, “coffee growers are poor because there is too much coffee.”

[…]

The book offers plenty of arguments against such schemes, but this often unspoken reality illuminates the most central: Artificial, top-down fair trade programs toy with price signals and manipulate individuals to do the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Incentives matter,” says Claar. “Once the stakes of any economic game have changed, people alter their behavior accordingly.”

Join us on Tuesday, May 17, from 6:30-8:00 PM at the Derby Station (2237 Wealthy St. SE, East Grand Rapids 49506) as what is sure to be a very enlightening and lively discussion.

For more information on tomorrow’s Acton on Tap click here.

Click here to read the entire blog post on Common Sense Concept.

That’s the subject of my most recent article at CrisisMagazine.com.

The new Crisis web site is a reinvigoration of the old Crisis magazine. Editor Brian Saint-Paul summarizes the history in his inaugural editorial. His statement of the vision of the new Crisis includes this:

In the name of Catholic Social Thought, many in the Church continue to promote ideas of political economy that would hurt the very people they intend to help, and often do so with the suggestion that their policies are required of the faithful. With the economy as it is, and Americans looking for the cause, this effort has only increased — as has its effectiveness.

And that’s why we’ve returned. In the days and months ahead, we will lay out a cumulative case that the principles of Catholic Social Teaching are best achieved through democratic capitalism, and that the rapid growth of the state is their greatest obstacle.

Confirmation of the importance of this initiative comes by way of this report on Catholic professors arguing that cuts to welfare programs contradict Catholic social teaching.

I look forward to being an occasional contributor to the Crisis site and I hope you’ll join me there (when you’re not spending time at the PowerBlog…)

The Acton Institute will be hosting another thought provoking and discussion orientated Acton on Tap on Tuesday, May 17. The event will begin at 6:30pm at the Derby Station (2237 Wealthy St. SE, East Grand Rapids 49506).

Leading the discussion will be Victor Claar, who is a professor of Economics at Henderson State University. The Acton on Tap with Professor Claar is titled “Clarifying the Question of Fair Trade: A Christian Economist’s Perspective.” Claar will bring a unique perspective of the discussion of fair trade by fusing Christian and economic principles:

Fair trade is an enormously popular idea in Christian and secular circles alike. Who, after all, could be against fairness? There are now fair trade certified products as varied as coffee, chocolate, fruit, and, most appropriate for an Acton on Tap audience, beer. Victor V. Claar, associate professor of economics at Henderson State University and co-author of Economics in Christian Perspective, however, raises significant economic and moral questions about both the logic and economic reasoning underlying the fair trade movement. Claar suggests that, for all its good intentions, fair trade may not be of particular service to the poor, especially in the developing world.

Claar has written extensively on fair trade including his monograph, “Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.” He wrote a commentary in 2010 discussing the economic obstacles for the world’s poor, and how to bring them out of poverty:

If we want to be effective agents in aiding the poor, we should focus our efforts in directions leading to the enhanced value of an hour of labor. That is, we should help poor countries wisely grow their stocks of human and physical capital, all the while bearing in mind that markets and their prices send the best available signals regarding where our efforts can have the greatest impact. The newfound success of innovative micro lending efforts such as Kiva can help show us ways to effectively invest in the accumulation of physical capital by the global poor. Compassion International is a marvelous organization that works to further the education—the human capital—of poor children worldwide, with a financial accountability record above reproach.

Further, markets work best when economic systems maintain the dignity of human beings. First, human beings grow and flourish—and accumulate human and physical capital—in systems that afford them considerable economic freedom. Economic freedom means that people are able to make personal choices, that their property is protected, and that they may voluntarily buy and sell in markets. Yet, economic freedom requires the protection of private property. When property rights are clearly defined and protected, people will work harder to create and to save. When they are confident that the fruits of their labors cannot be taken away arbitrarily or by force, people everywhere have greater assurance that their labors will lead to better lives for themselves and their families. Today’s rich collection of NGOs that work toward basic human rights play a critical role in this regard.

[…]

If we really care about the global poor, we should work to make trade freer for everyone in our global community: a level playing field for all. That means tearing down all of the barriers we use to keep the global poor from working in the very jobs in which they are perfectly positioned to make the greatest lasting gains.

To read the full commentary click here.

Click here for more information on next week’s Acton on Tap.

Blog author: lglinzak
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
By

Everywhere we look we are facing rising prices. We find them at the gas pumps and now we see them at our supermarkets. Food prices are climbing, and just like gas prices, they are having broadly felt adverse effects on Americans.

The Wall Street Journal sat down with C. Larry Pope, the CEO of Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer by volume, to discuss the rising food prices and how they are affecting his business. Pope attributes the increase in food prices to corn prices and the ethanol industry:

It’s also a business under enormous strain. Some “60 to 70% of the cost of raising a hog is tied up in the grains,” Mr. Pope explains. “The major ingredient is corn, and the secondary ingredient is soybean meal.” Over the last several years, “the cost of corn has gone from a base of $2.40 a bushel to today at $7.40 a bushel, nearly triple what it was just a few years ago.” Which means every product that uses corn has risen, too—including everything from “cereal to soft drinks” and more.

It is also important to note that, while Pope does not go into great detail, he points to the depreciating dollar as playing a role in inflated food prices.

Pope says the majority of his customers will be hurt by rising food prices:

“Maybe to someone in the upper incomes it doesn’t matter what the price of a pound of bacon is, or what the price of a ham, or the price of a pound of pork chops is,” he says. “But for many of the customers we sell to, it really does matter.” Workers can share cars when the price of oil rises, he quips, but “you can’t share your food.”

As food prices rise, what are most people expected to do? Many are on a limited budget and where will they cut back? Increasing food prices may also result in people turning to cheaper less nutritious food. Lora Iannotti, public health expert and professor at Washington University in St. Louis, explains how rising food prices lead to nutritional problems for everyone—especially the most vulnerable:

“During a food price crisis, households moved away from ‘luxury’ food items such as meat, fish and dairy products to poorer quality food,” she says.

Data from nationally representative household budget surveys show that during a food crisis, calorie intake is reduced by an average eight percent from pre-crisis levels, equally affecting rural and urban areas.

“We are particularly concerned for families with young children,” Iannotti says. “When you have a reduction in calories and critical nutrients for kids under 2, there are long term consequences such as stunted growth, cognitive deficits, lower educational attainment, and reduced future productivity.”

Like many other critics of the ethanol subsidy, Pope calls for an end to these subsidies. That would be a significant aid to reigning in the high food prices:

…Mr. Pope says, get rid of the ethanol subsidies and the tariff. “I am in competition with the government and the oil industry,” he says. “It’s not fair.” Smithfield’s economists estimate corn prices would fall by a dollar a bushel if ethanol blending wasn’t subsidized. “Even the announcement that it is going away would see the price of corn go down, which would translate very quickly into reduced meat prices in the meat case,” he says. Imagine what would happen if the mandate and tariff were eliminated, too.

Gary Wolfram, economics and public policy professor at Hillsdale College, offers a similar message. Wolfram points to the sharp increase in food prices, the inefficiency of corn ethanol, and calls for the end of ethanol subsidies:

World food prices are on the rise. In the United States, retail food prices rose .6 percent in February and are up 2.3 percent from February of 2010, the highest 12-month increase since May 2009. Part of the reason for the revolutionary fervor in the Middle East is rising food prices. Yet our government provides a $6 billion per year subsidy to turn the U.S. corn crop into gasoline. Ever gallon of ethanol refined into gasoline receives a 45-cent per gallon subsidy.

[…]

But this inefficient use of corn does more than just cost taxpayers’ money. It is part of the problem of increasing food prices. Ethanol makes up about 8 percent of U.S. fuel for vehicles, but uses up about 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop. The Economist estimates that if all the American corn crop that goes into ethanol were used as food, global corn food supplies would increase by 14 percent.

And as an article in Investors.com argues, ethanol has failed to achieve many of the goals that its proponents claim it would achieve.

Acton’s criticism of the ethanol subsidy is not new. In 2008, Ray Nothstine was interviewed and articulated the moral problems with the ethanol subsidy, the unintended consequences, and inefficiencies of ethanol that are now coming to light. Readers can listen to the interview here.

Rising food and gasoline prices are causing people to bear economic hardships, and, with limited household budgets, these trends cannot continue. Many leaders and economists are correct in calling for a reevaluation of our ethanol policy.



Today in Acton News & Commentary we brought you guest columnist Steven F. Hayward’s “Economists in the Wild,” based on his new American Enterprise Institute monograph, Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World. Hayward, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI, looks at how the “connection between rising material standards and environmental improvement seems a paradox, because for a long time many considered material prosperity and population growth the irreversible engines of environmental destruction.” Not so. Hayward:

The central insight of environmentalism is that humanity’s great leap in material progress has come at a high cost to nature: we tear down entire mountains for their minerals; divert rivers and streams and drain swamps to provide water for modern agriculture and urban use; clear large amounts of forests for other uses, often disrupting crucial habitat for rare animal species; and too often dump our waste byproducts thoughtlessly into the air, water, and land.

But this insight contains a paradox. Environmentalism arose precisely because we have mitigated the material harshness of human life through the Industrial Revolution; as Aldo Leopold, author of the classic environmental book A Sand County Almanac, put it: “These wild things had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast.”

I want to thank John Baden of the the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment in Bozeman, Mont., for bringing this to our attention. Baden’s introduction to Hayward’s commentary is worth reprinting here in full; it’s an excellent thumbnail summary of environmental economics.

Steve Hayward’s column … makes one wonder how noted environmental professionals, and even scientists, can be so, how can I say it gently, remarkably ignorant and intellectually arrogant as this: “Economics is a form of brain damage.” Economics isn’t an ideology or a mental affliction. Rather, it’s the systematic study of allocating scarce resources among contending ends.

When applied to environmental and natural resource problems, its practitioners make a few nearly universally valid assumptions. Here are a few.

When things are free, they are counted as such and hence often over used. Common pools of fish exemplify this.

As scarcity increases, people conserve and innovate. Consider barbed wires introduction to open range, the development of particleboard, laminated beams, and plywood. Entrepreneurs developed these solutions to the increased scarcity of grass and old growth timber.

Property rights and markets peacefully coordinate development and use among people who don’t know one another and generate incentives to act as though they care about unknown others. That’s one under-appreciated function of markets.

Bureaucratic-political management replaces market prices with political favor seeking. Corn ethanol is a classic example that causes untold human misery and great environmental damage.

Wealthier is greener; poverty is the worst polluter.

And this; things that are best and most easily measured are not those that matter most.

Economics isn’t about money, it’s about confronting and helping to resolve the many problems of scarcity in a clear and logical manner. Soft hearts need not imply a mushy brain.

Read Steven F. Hayward’s “Economists in the Wild” on the Acton site. Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Do Less with Less: What the History of Federal Debt and Tax Leverage Teaches,” I reflect on how the federal government has lived beyond its means for decades. This reality is especially important to recognize as we approach Tax Day this year as well as in the context of debates about how to address the public debt crisis.

There are many who think we need to raise taxes in order to close the historic levels of deficit spending. In theory I would consider raising taxes as a viable option, or at least preferable to continued deficit spending, since it would at least make the real cost of government more visible. Roughly 40% of what the government spent last year was beyond what it took in.

But without structural connections between increased taxes and balancing the budget, there’s nothing at all to give us hope that the government wouldn’t simply continue to leverage the greater revenue into greater deficit spending. In this vein I note the conclusions recently updated by Richard Vedder and Stephen Moore, that “over the entire post World War II era through 2009 each dollar of new tax revenue was associated with $1.17 of new spending. Politicians spend the money as fast as it comes in—and a little bit more.”

Calvin College philosophy professor James K. A. Smith doesn’t take this reality into account, I don’t think, when he recently argued that the current situation calls for raising taxes, both on the rich and the middle-class. Thus, he writes,

But only a lazy, unimaginative take on this would assume that “low taxes” is a given. So sure, one strategy to reduce debt would be to slash spending, which inevitably happens on the backs of the poor and vulnerable, particularly women and children.

The alternative to such an unattractive option as Smith sees it is to raise taxes, particularly on the rich. Smith thus points to the idea that America needs to adopt a “graduated tax like most other North American countries.”

The fact is, though, that the US already has a progressive tax system, and indeed places a much higher relative burden on the top decile of household incomes than other developed nations.

One of the next big fights will be over raising the debt ceiling, as Smith points out. Perhaps we can link balanced budgets with increases on the debt ceiling (something more feasible than passing a balanced budget amendment). The idea would be that we only increase the debt ceiling on the condition balancing the annual budget, and that we only think about raising taxes to balance that budget if we actually commit to balancing it.

Simply raising taxes won’t do anything but give the federal government more money to leverage into higher levels of deficit spending.