Economic Nonsense: 45. Unbridled capitalism brought about the Great Depression


In the popular account the stock market went wild in the late 1920s, with people gambling recklessly on stocks and shares, often with money they didn't have.  Shares could only go up, they thought, but they were wrong.  The market crashed, people went broke, investors jumped off high buildings, and without investment GDP plunged and the Great Depression came about.  If it were true it might be a major indictment of unbridled capitalism, but it isn't.

People did overstretch recklessly, assuming the market could only rise, helped by easy money from the Federal Reserve Bank, and the Great Crash came in 1929.  It wiped out many investors, but it did not lead to the Great Depression.  That came later as a direct result of bad policy decisions.  Had those decisions not been made, the stock market crash might have instigated a cyclical downturn and corrected itself after a year or two.

The Federal Reserve Bank, observing that people had bought shares with easy credit, decided to tighten credit and restrict the money supply.  This is what you do not do in a recession, when struggling companies need credit to keep going and companies that see opportunities ahead need money to invest in expansion.  It was a disastrous mistake.

The folly was compounded by protectionist policies.  The Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 shut out most foreign goods to boost home-produced goods in the name of protecting American jobs.  Its effect was catastrophic.  It sparked a beggar my neighbour trade war as other countries responded with tit-for-tat measures.  Unable to sell goods in America, they stopped buying American goods.  International trade plunged and much of the world sank into recession. 

There were other contributing factors.  Banking regulation had been clumsy and restrictive, and left American banks unable to play their part in promoting investment and expansion.  Income taxes were massively hiked in 1932, just when tax cuts could have helped.

Unbridled capitalism did not cause the Great Depression, incompetent government did.  It is another piece of economic nonsense that President Roosevelt's New Deal government activism helped America's recovery from the Great Depression.  It didn't.

Economic Nonsense: 15. Protection of domestic industries will safeguard jobs


Sometimes when jobs are threatened by cheap imports there are calls for government to step in and safeguard those jobs by subsidies, tariffs or import quotas.  The aim is to make the domestic goods artificially cheaper by subsidy, or to make the imported goods more expensive by taxing them. Some domestic jobs can be retained, at least temporarily, by this tactic.  But the more expensive domestic goods will not be able to compete on world markets outside the country.  They will find their foreign market share diminishes as people opt for the cheaper ones. Where subsidies are used, domestic taxpayers are made poorer; where tariffs are used domestic customers lose access to cheaper goods.  In both cases they are paying to support the industry concerned.

Some years ago in the UK the Lancashire textile industry was protected in this way.  It might have prolonged its decline, but it did not stop it.  Mass-produced low-cost textiles were being made more cheaply by foreign competitors.  Eventually the UK textile industry moved to high added value luxury and designer products that sold at a premium in both domestic and foreign markets.  Some UK textile products have become world-beaters, without the need for subsidies or tariffs to protect the jobs they sustain.

The advent of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which succeeded the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), outlaws most of this kind of protection by multilateral agreement.  This means that calls to protect domestic jobs by such means now fall upon deaf ears.  The government has signed pledges not to engage in such practices, in return for the agreement of its trading partners to refrain similarly.

There are still grey areas, though, with Boeing and Airbus each alleging that the other receives indirect government support.  It is generally true that when governments all try to protect domestic jobs at the expense of foreign ones, everybody loses.  The world found this to its cost in the era of the Great Depression.

Trade restrictions and dehumanisation


Tariffs are simply taxes but one can see why subsidies are, in the eyes of some, somewhat justifiable (though they still remain morally reproachable). However, a closer examination of both reveals the problematic, degrading moral assumptions that their imposition necessarily presupposes (along with all protectionist policy). Protectionist policies are, more often than not, designed to protect domestic industry. The argument is usually phrased along the lines of “protecting our farmers’ jobs”, “our workers’ jobs”, “our manufacturing industry”. It all boils down to protecting the jobs of domestic citizens; this is essentially nationalism in benevolent garb.

‘Protecting’ farmers, for example, from the competition of comparatively cheaper foreign imports imposes costs upon domestic consumers (whose range of choice is restricted and who are forced to pay higher prices). However, protecting domestic farmers over foreign farmers via tariffs, subsidies and other trade restrictions presupposes a key value judgment by elevating domestic farmers’ jobs’ intrinsic worth over foreign farmers’ jobs’ intrinsic worth. There is no real economic reason for this since this is one topic that all economists agree on (except, perhaps, for some agricultural economists based in rural and/or semi-rural communities); that is, that there should be free trade between countries – rather, this is a question of politics.

Systemically, it is an issue of agricultural land usage rights; after all, if farmers could diversify the use of their land, then they would no longer need subsidies (since their income stream would no longer be limited solely to farming) – hence, they are also tools of perpetuating political dependence. There is also the issue of food security but this is reflective of the prevailing war-ready/war-preparing psyche and artificially reduces the costs of going to war in the first place (an obvious cause for concern in the long-run). In this case, the criteria for elevating the political worth of a person boils down to voting rights, nationality, culture, ethnicity etc. rather than the simple fact of the personhood they are naturally endowed with.

Those who lobby government to redistribute wealth argue that it is unfair that people can be so privileged or downtrodden merely through birth. However, tariffs and subsidies are essentially income redistributions in at least three ways; firstly, from taxpayers (taxes fund subsidies), secondly, from consumers (tariffs make products more expensive and reduce a range of choice) and thirdly, from foreign producers (by making it infeasible for them to export and thereby make a living). Through capitalising on the shaky, divisive social construct of nationality and citizenship, protectionists have successfully increased tax revenue and subtly assaulted the intrinsic worth of human life. Is this redistribution of income really worth moral retrogression?

Farmers are milking it through state subsidies


Milk is now cheaper than bottled water in some UK supermarkets. So of course there is much wailing that our dairy industry is in terminal trouble and needs subsidy and protection from foreign imports. Wrong. One reason why milk is so cheap right now is that supermarkets are using it as a loss leader. They hope that while customers are buying cheap milk, they might be tempted by less cheap other stuff. They are not actually paying farmers any less.

The dairy industry is indeed in a sorry state, but not because of the lack of state support. Rather, the problem is too much of it. When you protect industries from foreign competition through tariffs (as EU countries like the UK do), and then go on to subsidise them, you kill off competition, both international and domestic. Subsidies and protections allow production to carry on in old, outdated, inefficient, expensive ways. The result is higher prices, lower quality and less choice for customers.

Cold, rainy Britain is not a good place to raise cattle. It's fine in the summer, but in the winter the cattle have to be brought into shelters and given heat, silage and hay, all of which adds to the cost. So other, warmer countries, inevitably have the competitive edge on us.

Dairy producers can compensate for this a bit by creating much larger farms, which can be sited in the sunnier parts of the country, and where large-scale winter housing can be run much more efficiently than countless small-farm cattle sheds. In large, modern facilities, new technology can be employed, such as dry bedding, using other farm by-products for feed, recycling heat, and recapturing methane. And while we are on the subject of greenhouse gases, how much more energy-efficient is it to collect milk from one 8,000-cow farm than from 100 with 80 cows?

But planning policy, that great UK obstacle to progress, is making it hard to build such facilities – a plan for one in Lincolnshire has recently been scrapped. And the existence of subsidies makes it less urgent for inefficient dairy farmers to leave the business, and for more efficient ones to replace them.

Some people argue that we should subsidise UK agriculture to cut down on 'food miles'. Tosh. 80% of food-related emissions are from production, only 4% from transport. So it is 20 times more important to make efficiencies in production. That means super-farms here, or importing products from countries where the climate is more suitable. We do that with wine, why not with other agricultural products? And in any case, domestic production is an environmental nightmare, what with the fertilisers, pesticides and heating that have to be used. DEFRA figured that the carbon footprint of Spanish-grown tomatoes is probably smaller than that of UK tomatoes grown under glass. Remember too that food is transported, efficiently, in bulk. Most 'food miles' are getting small quantities of the stuff from the supermarket to your fridge, which is not going to change even if it is grown locally.

If we scrapped the subsidies and protections, the market could do its stuff, weeding out inefficient production and diverting investment into something better. That would be good for the industry, good for customers in terms of lower prices, good for taxpayers in terms of lower taxes, and good for the planet.

Russia, China, and the perils of economic warfare


Many Russians may believe that Putin’s invasion of Crimea was legitimate and justified, many may also believe that Putin’s domestic and foreign policies are at odds with their national interests. However, we shouldn’t be surprised if, in future, many Russians also remember the nations that refused to lift their economic sanctions whilst they suffered from a crippling crisis and that it was the Chinese government that offered help in those dire straits. Of course, this is limited help and there are a lot of other problems to sort out but the gesture is a strong signal of China’s stance and indicative of the possibility of further assistance in future. Warfare via economic sanctions leads to the division of the world into inefficient trading blocs and provides a natural basis from which governments can form convenient, logical military alliances. The wonder then, is whether economic sanctions are really worth risking any chance at long-term peace and stability we may have? Though sanctions are designed to put pressure on governments, regular citizens suffer immensely from them and, in future, when young Russians remember this crisis, that suffering won’t easily be forgotten.

Iran, like Russia, is also in a vulnerable situation and it is quite easy to see how these sanctions that artificially and inefficiently divide the world could also encourage the proliferation of worrying military alliances between those states that feel ‘cornered’ and this garners a sort of legitimate solidarity against their ‘oppressors’.

In the long-run, with alliance systems that lead to increased military posturing (as we had already witnessed from Russia in the Ukraine and in the EU, we are witnessing from China in the Asia-Pacific and we might conceivably further witness from Iran and North Korea) there will be increased uncertainty and genuine fear amongst peaceful peoples and, in the end, global social welfare and economic growth will be stunted in the name of ‘humanitarian’ intervention.

Of course, the wider problem is that the global system of trade restrictions are essentially sugar coated economic sanctions and, therefore, a form of subtle economic warfare that we are conditioned to ignore. Free trade is necessary in order to ensure that there is no unnecessary, state-induced hatred fostered between peoples. Perhaps we could add to the Geneva conventions by suggesting that economic sanctions be ruled out of the question? In this way, instead of providing fertile ground for fostering the animosity necessary for armed conflict, people who truly want peace would be free to go about their own business. The peaceful sentiment that free trade encourages may also help discourage these governments from acting violently in the first place!