21 February 2012

Hidden Subsidies

A common issue in international trade is the deleterious effects of discriminatory health and safety standards. The idea is that one government can specify a standard that cannot be met by those outside the borders. The classic example is that of northeast butchers seeking to prevent the import of beef from western states made possible by the advent of refrigeration. Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, for example, required that meat sold within their borders be inspected by local authorities. The Commerce Clause of the US Constitution prevents such policies when they obstruct interstate trade. Another example is that of Thailand, which forbid the sale of American cigarettes on the grounds of health and safety, when domestically produced cigarettes, which were no safer, were permitted. 

This has Ricardian implications, it seems. The potential elements of comparative advantage are myriad, but one argument is that these elements include labor force preferences.  Specifically, that different working-condition standards provide opportunities for some nations to gain comparative advantage over other nations. 

It could be argued that a nation, by allowing poor working conditions, is providing an implicit subsidy, especially to labor-intensive industries.

16 February 2012

The Rotten Eggs of the Ostrich

There's an old economists' joke about three people, a physicist, a chemist, and an economist, marooned on a deserted island. They've got three cans of food and have set themselves to getting them open. The physicist says that they could try to drop rocks onto the cans from a tree and hope to break open the cans. The chemist wonders if they could light a fire and burst open the cans with the heat. The economist, however, knows the true solution. 'Assume a can opener,' he says...

The can opener cited by the ostriches of libertarianism is the even distribution of power between the parties to trade. In their magical worldview, every transaction is entered into with complete knowledge by two rational parties operating on a level playing field. From this fantasy flows the article of faith that all transactions are to the equal benefit of all parties, and that all parties of interest are directly represented in the transaction. The only friction possible is the result of evil coercion or bumbling inefficiency by the dreaded government.

That this is not true is hardly the point. Frictions are everywhere. Coercion can be committed by private parties. There is indeed a commons. All of these simple truths are outside the libertarian's model. Indeed, they are sacrificed on the holy altar of property rights and individual liberty, during the libertarians' mass, immediately before the blessed incantation, 'You're on your own, pal.'

That which is tidily dressed up as liberty and freedom is, at the end of the day, simply a desperate grip on the status quo, the maintenance of which is the only firm belief of this species of ostrich. What is left to inference is that liberty and freedom, to the libertarian, are commodities like any other, the just allocation of which can be only be to the highest bidder.

There consists a slight variant on the 'level playing field' canard. Some libertarians welded to a particularly acute manifestation of the fantasy argue that those who wield mighty economic power over their fellows, and are thus able to transact in a manner which is spectacularly self-advantageous, can only do so because society, in its only true libertarian expression, the market, has deemed them to be of greater value than their fellows. Such is the moral bankruptcy endemic to this worldview.

The libertarian ostrich is a hearty beast, however. It attaches itself like a barnacle to economic power, and is staggeringly resilient in the face of such natural predators as downturns, empiricism, and moral reasoning. It's found the can opener, it's sure to tell you. If you can't see it, your head must be above the sand.

01 February 2012

The Shallow End of the Charles

It seems the sort of people who whine about overpaid government employees are the same sort of people who claim executive compensation is driven by market forces.

A better explanation of how all of this tricky business works can be found here.