Free trade; not trade wars or negotiated trade

With a lot of Americans fearful for their jobs and their president saying he can protect jobs with tariffs, international trade has become a big emotional issue.

Trade is such an emotional issue because our economy is organized such that our physical and psychological well-being requires us to have steady employment. At the same time economic changes require employment flexibility. One way to deal with this conflict would be to have a guaranteed income scheme so that individuals can cope with changes. My committment to such a scheme stands behind the rest of this post and indeed all the posts on this weblog. If people can survive comfortably without employment then this fear should no longer be a factor.

We should also analyse economic issues in physical or real terms rather than financial terms. Trade is the exchange of goods and services, not money which is a tool to facilitate the exchanges. It is very easy to get a distorted picture of the economy when people analyse economic problems in financial terms.

For all merchant-pull-1398066_1920we talk about the market economy and our devotion to competition, we have a long tradition of restricting competition. One of the ways we do that is by imposing tariffs on imports from other countries. Other ways we restrict competition with subsidies and legislation.

The economics law of comparative advantage says countries are better off to specialize and trade, even if one country is more efficient in the production of all items. This is attractive to people who want economic growth. This blogger also likes the idea of efficiency so that we can have more time for leisure activities.

I also believe the best way to do free trade is unilaterally. To do free trade and get the full benefits Canada should abolish all tariffs and restrictions on foreign goods and services coming into the country regardless of what other countries do. If other countries want to subsidize our lifestyle, then that is up to them. If they do not want to buy from us, then that is saving our resource base for the benefit of our children.

The free trade agreements of which governments are so fond are in reality negotiated trade agreements. They are negotiated for the sake of special interests of producers. These are the same interests as those who want legislation to restrict competition – patents, copyright, licensing – and who want subsidies for their firms. To get a feel for the complexity of these negotiations look at this article in The Economist. Trying to negotiate to satisfy the special interests of multiple countries must be an impossible challenge.

International trade is not such an important issue for Americans because the United States is one large free trade zone and they are or have benefited from the law of comparative advantage.

Economics is a social activity and like all relationships, to be satisfying for all parties there needs to be a more or less equal exchange. Those Americans who promote trade wars are being anti social. To me that sounds un-American.

Lots of politicians and commentators worry about the dire consequences of American tariffs and the resulting trade wars. Yes. we are headed into some even more serious economic problems but they will not be caused by tariffs and trade wars. The basic problem is that we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources. Increased efficiency from free trade will help us cope with this issue but will not solve it.

Guaranteed work or guaranteed income?

As an alternative to a basic income scheme a commentator on Medium is proposing universal guaranteed work.  This writer has put a lot of thought into his proposal and deserves to have it given some consideration.  I have a strong commitment to a guaranteed income scheme and I have some heavy-duty concerns about his work plan.

My first concern is a belief that we do not have enough energy and mineral resources to provide employment for all the people who inhabit this planet.  There are still lots of resources but we have cherry picked the most accessible and those which are left will require lots of inexpensive energy to extract.  Even if the cost of solar energy continues to drop there may not be enough other resources to maintain the economic growth required to provide work for everyone. Topsoil is a major resource which may deteriorate and restrict growth.

The proposal for guaranteed work is probably based on a belief in economic growth and a long tradition that people must “do their share” and work to support themselves.  It may be that some people see a basic income scheme as a way of distributing goods and services rather than as an economic necessity.

Technology has been changing our economy at least since an ancient farmer discovered he could increase his production by using a horse with a collar instead of an ox with harnesses.  This development and all those that  followed allowed fewer people to work the land and more people to do other things such as fight and prey.  (In medieval times there were three classes of people – those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked to support the first two.)  My professor of European economic history spent a lot of time talking about agricultural developments which increased productivity.

Modern technology is an extension of this trend releasing more people to do things other than work to provide food and shelter.  A major question is what is this free time going to be used for.  There are many choices beyond preying and fighting including making more electronic gadgets and performing or listening to music.  Another question is who is going to make the decision about what to do with this time.  I believe individuals should be able to make the decisions for themselves.

My third concern is that a guaranteed work scheme is a continuation of the work ethic which allows a few people to tell the rest of us what to do.  We should consider the agricultural surplus and the benefits of technology an inheritance for all of us rather than a right which can be expropriated by a few.  We should be able to decide for ourselves what we want to do with the free time we have inherited from our ancestors.  That could be drinking beer or creating great works of art.  Who is to say one activity is better than another? We need a leisure ethic rather than a work ethic.

Sadly there are some people who feel they should be able to tell others how to live their lives.  A universal guaranteed work scheme is an open invitation to these people to practice this dark business.

Our civilization has to deal with some serious economic problems.  I fear the work program as proposed would make a lot of those problems even worse.  A guaranteed income program would not be enough to solve all the problems but it would be a start and needs a lot more thought.

 

 

Leisure or consumer spending?

Some Canadian economists are saying economic recovery depends upon consumers spending more and that probably applies to most other countries.

Isn’t there something wrong with our lifestyle and our thinking when our well-being, even our having enough to eat, depends upon buying things whether we need them or not or no matter how long they will last?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we as individuals could choose leisure which could include a multitude of activities?

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