Posts tagged with: International economics

comparativeadvantageNote: This is the latest entry in the Acton blog series, “What Christians Should Know About Economics.” For other entries in the series see this post.

The Term: Comparative advantage

What it Means: The ability of an individual or group of individual (e.g., a business firm) to produce goods or services at a lower opportunity cost than other individuals or groups.

Why it Matters: There is a story of the distinguished British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, who found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, Haldane is said to have answered, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”

When we examine creation to uncover what it reveals about the character of God, one of the things we discover time and time again is the Creator’s fondness for diversity. Like Haldane, we can see this by looking at biology (e.g., there are more species of beetle than birds or mammals combined). But we can also find it when we turn to economics.

A primary example of God’s enthusiasm for diversity is the concept of comparative advantage. While the definition of the them makes it sounds dull and wonky, comparative advantage is a beautiful, theologically profound norm of creation.

Fully appreciating the nuances of the ideas requires timely reflection. But understanding it can be achieved when a few minutes. In this brief video, economist Donald J. Boudreaux does a masterful job of explaining how, when combined with trade, comparative advantage improves human communities.
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bitcoin-wallBitcoin is dead, long live Bitcoin.

A few weeks ago the IRS killed off any chance that Bitcoin could become a mainstream currency. That’s probably for the best since it clears the way for it to become something much more important: the world’s first completely open financial network.

Timothy B. Lee has a superb article explaining why this could be transformative. Lee highlights one particularly helpful innovation:

One obvious application is international money transfers. Companies like Western Union and Moneygram can charge as much as 8 percent to transfer cash from one country to another, and transfers can take as long as 3 days to complete. In contrast, Bitcoin transactions only take about 30 minutes to clear, and Bitcoin transaction fees could be a lot less than 8 percent.

An “alternative to Western Union” doesn’t sound revolutionary, does it? Now look at this graphic produced by The Daily Mail which shows how much money is being sent by migrants to their families back home.
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Blog author: ehilton
posted by on Wednesday, February 5, 2014

tillingHelping people get out of poverty is hard, dirty work. It isn’t glamorous. Most of those involved do not get to wander around the developing world wearing cool blue shades and giving sound bites. In fact, the Campaign for Boring Development is so insistent on this, they’ve written a manifesto to drive home the point: development work can be…boring.

    • Development Does Not Photograph Well. Watching a family till their land does not make for riveting video. It’s just plain ole hard work.
    • “Making the Lives of the Poor Better” is not the same thing as ”Fighting Poverty.”

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    PovertyCure, an international coalition of more than 250 organizations and 1 million individuals (the Acton Institute is a founding partner), is seeking entries for their International Short Film Festival, slated for December 12, 2013 in New York DRCity.

    Guidelines for the film festival may be found here. With $30,000 in prizes, PovertyCure is seeking short films (25 minutes or less in length) that “push the boundaries” of thinking about poverty and ways to alleviate it. Since PovertyCure’s vision of poverty alleviation runs against the grain of foreign aid and international “hand-outs”, the organization is looking for creative narrative, documentary, and music video films that also demonstrate new, innovative ways of seeking solutions to global poverty. By looking above and beyond the traditional way of responding to poverty and international crises that stem from poverty, film-makers are encouraged to visualize new ways of tapping into human potential, illustrating not only what helps lift humans from poverty, but also what impedes poverty alleviation.

    Films may be submitted via Withouttabox.com. With the code 2WG2BWF, Acton PowerBlog readers can submit without having to pay the entry fee ($30 for non-students, $25 for students.) Entries must be made by September 9, 2013, with a late deadline of September 30, 2013. Again, all information regarding the PovertyCure Short Film Festival can be found by visiting their page.

    [Note: This is the third entry in a three part series. You can read the introductory post here and part two here.]

    The Disadvantages of Bitcoin

    For people who are not obsessed with anonymity and are not waiting for the U.S. to return to the gold standard, the reasons for avoiding entering the Bitcoin market are numerous:

    1. Convertibility – Whereas other currencies are convertible into other financial instruments (dollars to checks to certificates of deposit, etc.) and through numerous third-party services (e.g., Visa, PayPal, Citibank), commodity currencies like Bitcoin can only be exchanged for fiat currencies—and then only through an online exchange. Indeed, unless your computer is working overtime on Bitcoin mining, the only way to acquire the currency is to buy it from one of the 30 online exchanges.

    These exchanges are completely unregulated and are subject to problems that do not affect other financial markets. For instance, in 2011 the largest Bitcoin exchange, MTGox, had a security breach that resulted in the theft of nearly $9 million worth of Bitcoins. The theft caused the value of Bitcoins to crash from $17.50 to one cent before the market was able to recover.

    2. Instability – The MTGox breach—and the subsequent market crash—taught Bitcoin owners a harsh lesson about commodity currencies: they can be wildly unstable. Over the 8 month span from October 1 2010 to June 9 2011, the market value of Bitcoins skyrocketed 9667-fold from a value of $0.06 to $29.

    The rate had dropped in 2012 and at the end of last year a Bitcoin was worth only $13.51. Last week, though, Bitcoins were trading as high as $266 before plummeting to less than $100. Anyone who had bought $1,000 worth of currency in October 2010 would theoretically have $4.4 million worth of Bitcoins. However, the convertibility problem would make it nearly impossible to extract that money without crashing the market and devaluing the entire currency. A gradual sell-off over an extended period of time would be necessary to take advantage of increase in valuation.

    Still, being the seller of the overvalued currency is preferable to being the buyer. The Winklevoss twins, millionaires famous for their legal battle with Facebook, claim to own around one percent of all Bitcoins currently in existence (around 108,000). They began buying the currency in 2012, making some early Bitcoin holders very rich.
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    Blog author: jcarter
    posted by on Thursday, March 28, 2013

    The African diaspora—nearly 140 million Africans live abroad—is such a major source of foreign income that it now outstrips foreign aid sent by Western donors. The money these expatriates send back home is collectively worth far more than the development donations sent by Western financial institutions, says Adams Bodomo:

    africa-money-bankingThe exact amount of these remittances is unknown because not all of it is sent through official banking channels. But the official volume to the continent has gradually increased over the years, from $11 billion in 2000 to $60 billion in 2012, according to the World Bank. As a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP), remittances in Africa range from next-to-nothing to almost 5%.

    Worldwide remittances to developing countries were $351 billion in 2011, far exceeding the $129 billion in official development assistance (ODA), according to the World Bank.

    The remittances paid by Africans living abroad also rival official aid to the continent. Total diaspora contributions to Africa in 2010 stood at $51.8 billion compared to the roughly $43 billion in ODA, according to the latest figures from the World Bank.

    Bodomo offers several compelling reasons why remittances are a better source of development than foreign aid:
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    Trade and Mutual AidIn the forthcoming issue of Comment magazine, I examine how free trade orients us towards the good of others. In doing so, I argue against the value of pious banalities and cheap slogans. I include examples like, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” or, “When goods do not cross borders, armies will.” The latter is often attributed to Bastiat, and while it captures the spirit, if not the letter of Bastiat’s views, the closest analogue is actually found in Otto Tod Mallery: “If soldiers are not to cross international boundaries on missions of war,” wrote Mallery in 1943, then “goods must cross them on missions of peace.”

    I was struck by the disconnect between ideology and reality, or between idealism and realism, in an anecdote from a recent foreign policy speech from Sen. Rand Paul. As Paul notes,

    In George Kennan’s biography, John Gaddis describes President Clinton asking Strobe Talbot “why don’t we have a concept as succinct as ‘containment.’” Talbot’s response [was] “that ‘containment’ had been a misleading oversimplification; strategy could not be made to fit a bumper sticker. The president laughed… “that’s why Kennan’s a great diplomat and scholar and not a politician.”

    I guess that’s also the reason that I’ll never be a politician, either. As Lord Acton observed, “Every doctrine to become popular, must be made superficial, exaggerated, untrue. We must always distinguish the real essence from the conveyance, especially in political economy.” The key for responsible governance is not to lose sight of the complexity that lies behind popular exaggerations and conveyances.

    As I argue in “Trade and Mutual Aid,” the temptation to rest easy with simple formulas to complex problems is common, but must be resisted: “Divorced
    from a more comprehensive conception of the human person and social flourishing, an uncritical reliance on free trade to solve the world’s problems can well become destructive.” Even so, I conclude, “Free trade is a system that imperfectly, and yet with some measure of success—as Bono and countless others are beginning to recognize anew—orients us toward the good of others.” In the course of this piece, I draw on a variety of sources, including Frédéric Bastiat, Adam Smith, John Calvin, Johannes Althusius, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Pope Paul VI, and Friedrich Hayek.

    To get your copy of the Comment issue on the topic of persuasion, including my piece on the fundamental persuasive nature of exchange, “Trade and Mutual Aid,” subscribe by March 1. You’ll also find content from new editor James K.A. Smith, Anne Snyder, Jim Belcher, Ashley Berner, Jonathan Chaplin, Marilyn McEntyre, Janet Epp Buckingham, D. Bruce Lockerbie, Calvin Seerveld, Natalie Race Whitaker, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

    In the journal Foreign Affairs, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg offers an analysis of the Vatican’s recent pronouncements on economic policy, most notably the document issued in October titled “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority” (also called “The Note”). The Church, Gregg said, “wanted to attract the attention of world leaders as they assembled to discuss ongoing turmoil in financial markets at the G-20 Summit in Cannes and to add its voice to those arguing for capital controls (such as the “Tobin tax”) to discourage international financial speculation.” But, he argues, advocating a world economic authority could work against the interests of developing nations, including those heavily Catholic:

    … a world authority could pit the economic interests of Catholics in developed countries against those in developing nations, creating challenges for how the Church presents its teachings about economic issues to Catholics throughout the world. Many countries throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia are in a fundamentally different economic and geopolitical place from those of the ailing EU. The Church must thus deepen its appreciation of how the global operation of economic factors such as comparative advantage, incentives, and tradeoffs has different impacts upon Catholics living in very dissimilar economic circumstances. But this also has implications for the Church’s position concerning the economic functions to be assumed by a world authority. Such responsibilities, for example, could primarily concern promoting greater economic integration through removing obstacles to trade. This, however, would be incompatible with the Note’s theme that a world authority’s economic functions should be focused upon securing greater control over the pace of change through international regulations that, if implemented, would significantly impede the free movement of people, goods, and capital.

    Read “The Vatican’s Calls for Global Financial Reform” by Samuel Gregg on the website of Foreign Affairs.

    Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg is up at Public Discourse, with a piece titled “Monetary Possibilities for a Post-Euro Europe.” With his usual mix of sophisticated economic analysis and reference to deep principles, Gregg considers European countries’ options should the eurozone fail. If that happens, he says, “European governments will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink the type of monetary order they wish to embrace.”

    One such scenario is a three-way monetary division within the EU that reflects the differing political commitments and economic priorities of different nations. Germany and the more fiscally responsible eurozone members such as Austria, Finland, and the Netherlands could, for instance, decide to reconcile themselves to being the only ones with the necessary fiscal and monetary discipline to maintain a common currency.

    Alongside this bloc would be two other groups. One would consist of those EU countries such as Britain, Sweden, and Denmark that have maintained their own monetary systems because of reservations about the euro’s implications for national sovereignty. Another group would include EU nations such as Greece, Portugal, and Italy that are simply unable or unwilling to embrace the disciplined monetary and fiscal policies required by a common currency; these nations would consequently find themselves outside the eurozone and reverting to their national currencies.

    A more radical monetary opportunity for a post-euro EU would be currency competition. This was once proposed by Britain’s Margaret Thatcher as an alternative to the present common currency. Contemporary proposals for currency competition, such as that advanced by Philip Booth and Alberto Mingardi, involve the monetary authorities of different countries authorizing the use of currencies alongside the euro in domestic settings other than their own. Consumer choice rather than state sovereignty would thus ultimately determine which currencies were used.

    Yet another option would be the embrace of what might be called a European gold standard. In the 1950s and 1960s, the German economist Wilhelm Röpke argued that European monetary integration could occur via a nucleus of countries agreeing to adhere to a gold standard, much as had happened somewhat spontaneously in the nineteenth century through a process of unilateral decision-making by individual countries. Once this had occurred, adherents of such a gold standard would have to insist upon all members maintaining monetary discipline as well as freedom and stability in foreign exchange markets.

    The stability of the European currency would be assured not by EU bureaucrats, but by the gold standard itself, and by allowance for the expulsion of countries that abuse their big-boy privileges.

    Britain just rejected an EU treaty because the Conservative Party decided Brussels was trying to capitalize on the Mediterranean crisis by grabbing more power. The three proposed currency models, Gregg argues, would maintain countries’ freedom by yanking monetary power from central bureaucrats who exercise political power. He reflects further on the composition and history of the eurozone, on the countries’ political and economic freedom, and on what Röpke would have to say in the rest of the piece.

    In a recent article in the Washington Post, Juan Forero and Michael Birnbaum recommend that in the face of the looming specter of Greek debt default, Europe may learn a few lessons from South America. In particular, they point to the good example of Uruguay and the bad example of Argentina.

    According to the authors,

    In a story that may provide a lesson for Europe, one country, Uruguay, that was on the edge of financial oblivion organized a fast, orderly and negotiated response that revived the economy and ended a run on banks. Another, Argentina, spiraled into a chaotic default and remains a pariah in world financial markets.

    The article lists a variety of reasons, such as tax evasion, political stagnation, and civil unrest, with regards to why Greece is in danger of becoming the next Argentina. There is one aspect, in particular, though, that sheds some interesting light on current monetary practice. According to the article,

    Greece is hamstrung by its ties to the euro, which it cannot devalue to make its exports cheaper, and leaving the currency zone might prove even more painful.

    Though currency debasement has been possible since time immemorial, it has become easier ever since the “Nixon Shock” of 1971, when the United States ended its tie to the gold standard, affecting every other nation which had tied its own currency to the U.S. dollar for the sake of stability. However, from that point on, most countries have been operating with purely fiat-based currency; a government’s central bank can print as much or as little money as they desire, since its value has no stable grounding. (Grounding the dollar’s value to a specific amount of gold prevented the U.S. from printing more money than gold that it could be exchanged for.)

    In a recent article in the Journal of Markets & Morality, James Alvey highlights the analysis of James Buchanan on the ethics of public debt and default. With regards to default, Buchanan identified two common means: open default or concealed default through inflation. By inflating its currency, a country can, in effect, cheat its bondholders out of the amount promised to them by repaying its debts with debased money. To do so is effectively concealed default. Notably, Alvey writes, “Buchanan says that the U.S. government did ‘default on a large scale through inflation’ during the 1970s,” the very decade in which we left the gold standard.

    What is fascinating about the current crisis with Greece is that its central bank does not have sole control of the euro. Despite being a fiat currency, its decentralized nature gives it a certain stability.  Concealed default is not an option for Greece, forcing it to make the hard decisions necessary to avert defaulting on its debt or to do so openly.

    For more on the history and moral implications of currency debasement, see Juan de Mariana, Treatise on the Alteration of Money, recently translated and published by Christian’s Library Press.