Archive for October, 2008

Oct 31 2008

Where I’ll be next week – Richmond Federal Reserve Bank

Published by under AP Economics,Teaching

Powell Center for Economic Literacy – AP Economics Teachers Conference

Tomorrow morning I board a plane from Zurich to Virginia, which in addition to being a key battle ground state in next week’s election, is home of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank. The Fed is hosting the National AP Economics Teachers Conference from Sunday through Tuesday, and I am lucky enough to get to attend this year.

This biennial national conference offers a forum for networking with other AP Economics teachers from across the country, updates on topics of interest, demonstrations of effective teaching techniques, as well as outstanding keynote speakers.

Keynote speakers will include Tim Harford, Columnist with Financial Times and best-selling author of The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life; Federal Reserve Board Governor Kevin Warsh, appointed to the Board in 2006 and formerly Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Executive Secretary of the National Economic Council from 2002 until February 2006; and Dr. J. Alfred Broaddus, Past President, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

I plan to write a post for each of the four main workshops at this conference: “Demystifying macroeconomics”, “Demystifying microeconomics”, “Technology in the Econ classroom”, and “Understanding exchange rates and the value of the dollar”. Stay tuned for some great posts from an amazing professional development experience for economics teachers.

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Oct 30 2008

“Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty”

Shop Talk – Buying local, good idea?

I live two lives. In one, I’m an international school teacher who has lived and taught in three countries, travels around the world for work and play and flies 50,000 miles a year to and from the US, Europe and Asia. In my other life, I am a small town guy, who enjoys working in his yard in his mountain cabin tucked back in the woods of remote Northern Idaho, which is not so much a state as a “state of mind”, as the locals like to say.

When I’m in my “other” life as a small town homeowner, i.e. during my long summer breaks, I like to slow things down and reflect on the state of the world around me. I start to notice things about the local economy that seem so minute in the world of international travel that occupies 10 months of my year. I notice that twice a week farmers come to my small town of Sandpoint, Idaho, to sell their produce, bread, honey, arts and crafts, eggs and even meat. I notice that the buffalo, elk and cattle roaming the valley below my mountain cabin can be bought ready to grill and eat from the local butcher shop. I notice the local brewery, Laughing Dog, where I can buy my home town brew. I notice the natural foods market, where my wife and I do all of our shopping, and where many of the items for sale were grown locally or in the greater Pacific Northwest region.

I notice that, if one so wished to do so, one could sustain oneself almost entirely on locally or regionally grown food items. Compared to the lives of so many Americans, whose foods are so heavily processed, often times shipped from around the country or even the world, the choices available to those who chose to “buy local” seem so simple and straightforward, the benefits so obvious.

So the question is, why don’t more people eat locally? According to economist Russell Roberts, the reason we don’t all survive entirely on locally grown food is that, simply stated, the cost of doing so is too high.

In the article below, a Vermont magazine discusses he “buy-local” movement going on in communities across America today with Russ Roberts, whose enthusiasm for buying local is tempered by his economic rationale rooted in the basic economic principles of opportunity cost, specialization, and the gains from trade.

SEVEN DAYS: You’ve said that the buy-local movement has a “superficial appeal.”

RUSSELL ROBERTS: The emotional, nonmonetary appeal of “buy local” is very clear. It’s nice to buy things from people you know, and often that interaction of shopping and trading with people you know enhances the quality of life.

But there’s a cost to it, and when we say, “Let’s buy the local apples rather than the apples from New Zealand,” the cost is hidden, because apples are only a very small part of our economic life. If we tried to replicate that strategy over a wide range of products, the cost would be much more apparent.

SD: Environmentalists like Bill McKibben say the cost of some products doesn’t reflect their true environmental cost –

RR: And I think that’s true, by the way –

SD: But a lot of people would say the idea of “true environmental cost” is diametrically opposed to your idea about true cost.

RR: It’s a good observation. Rather than saying the true cost, it would have been better for me to say the full cost. Right now, if you buy local produce instead of produce that comes from across the country or across the ocean, the cost is pretty clear: It’s a little more expensive, usually. Sometimes the quality is higher, so you say, “Well, I think it’s a bargain after all.” Sometimes it’s not, so you say, “Well, it’s worth it, ’cause it’s local.”

I don’t know if people think through how those costs would add up if you tried to buy more locally than just food . . . I think it’s a question of magnitudes. There’s no doubt that when you make economic decisions based just on price, you’re not getting the full picture, which is the environmental critique. But I think it’s also true that when you purchase one item or category of items, such as food, locally, you don’t think about what the full cost would be if you did that more aggressively across a wider range of products.

SD: You’ve said self-sufficiency is the “road to poverty.” Does that relate to this discussion?

RR: Absolutely. That’s a quote from my first book, The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism . . . I think the word self-sufficiency has an emotionally attractive ring to it: We don’t want to depend on others; we want to be self-sufficient; we certainly want our children at some point to grow up and become self-sufficient, rather than depending on us as parents. So self-sufficiency is generally seen as a goal, but in economic activity and in trade generally, no one really has self-sufficiency as a goal.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does self-sufficiency lead to poverty?
  2. What is the “true environmental cost” of buying certain products, namely cheap, imported food and consumer goods?
  3. What is the opportunity cost of “buying local”, whether it be food or other consumer items?

24 responses so far

Oct 22 2008

McCain vs. Obama on the costs and benefits of free trade

YouTube – Obama / McCain 3rd Debate, Part 10 – Free Trade

Below is a clip from the third and final presidential debate, in which the candidates discuss the benefits of free trade.

Both candidates support the principles of free trade, one more enthusiastically and with fewer conditions than the other. Only Obama speaks of “fair trade”, which he seems to think means trade that does not encourage the violation of human rights abroad.

Notice how towards the end of the discussion of free trade, McCain attempts to wrap up the conversation when he claims:

“I don’t think there is any doubt that Senator Obama wants to restrict trade and to raise taxes; and the last president of the United States who tried that was Herbert Hoover, and we went from a deep recession into a depression…”

Hoover, of course, was the US president at the time of the Great Depression, when the government’s response to a financial crisis on Wall Street worsened the economic meltdown, throwing the US into its deepest and longest slowdown in history.

Discussion questions:

  1. How would a free trade agreement with Columbia help “create jobs in America”? What are the “billion dollars or more that (America) has already paid” through its trade with Columbia?
  2. What is the source of Obama’s lack of enthusiasm for the Columbia Free Trade Agreement? Do you agree with his position on the importance of limiting free trade in order to stand for human rights? Why or why not? Is his view a protectionist one?
  3. One of Obama’s highest priorities is to hold auto makers responsible for improving the fuel efficiency of American-made automobiles. How does he plan to create “five million new jobs all across America, including in the heartland”? Does Obama’s plan to invest in a clean energy economy sounds remotely protectionist? Why or why not?

6 responses so far

Oct 22 2008

The “bright side” of the economic meltdown… have Americans really learned to live within their means?

Colbertnation | The Colbert Report Official Site | Comedy Central

Newsweek international edition editor Fareed Zakaria explains in clear terms the root causes of the United State’s economic hardships. Simply put, Americans have lived beyond their means for far too long.

When a household, a firm, or a national government spend more than it earns (in income or tax revenues), it must borrow to do so. The only problem with this type of deficit financed spending is that at some point “the only way people will keep lending you money is that you have to pay higher and higher interest rates…” This, according to Zakaria, is why the US economy has begun to slow down. Higher interest rates make borrowing and spending less and less attractive, while making savings more attractive.

Savings rates have started to rise in America as our debts have come due. Higher savings means less spending, less spending means weak Aggregate Demand, which means slower growth and rising unemployment. There you have it, the root cause of our economic meltdown. Americans have spent beyond their means for far too long; the question is, have we learned our lesson? Will our current hardships teach us to spend more responsibly in the future?

4 responses so far

Oct 21 2008

Fair trade vs. free trade: the problem with “dumping”

FT.com / World – Anti-dumping investigations soar

Free trade is good, right? This sentiment is one that economists typically agree with wholeheartedly. The mutual gains from free trade among nations that specialize in the goods for which they have the comparative advantage results in increased global output and consumption among trading nations. That, at least, is the basic premise of free trade.

But is there such a thing as unfair free trade? The World Trade Organization, whose mission is the removal of barriers to trade among all the world’s nations, thinks there is such a thing as unfair trade. Under certain circumstances, the WTO allows member nations to place protective tariffs on particular imports, and recently, more and more nations have taken action to protect their domestic markets from unfair trade practices of their trading partners:

The number of new anti-dumping investigations soared by nearly 40 per cent in the first six months of this year, the World Trade Organisation said on Monday, reflecting increased trade tensions as the credit crunch began to take its toll on the global economy.

Between January and June 16 WTO members started 85 new investigations compared with 61 in the first six months of 2007. China was the target of nearly half the probes, a jump of 75 per cent over the same period last year.

Under WTO rules, countries can put duties on unfairly priced imports that are sold in export markets more cheaply than at home. But until this year dumping actions had seemed to be on a downward trend, with 164 investigations in the whole of last year compared with over 200 in 2006.

Anti-dumping actions, once mainly taken by rich countries against poor ones, have become a tool increasingly used by developing nations while industrialised countries have increasingly become targets…

The EU was the third-ranking target in the first half of the year, after China and Thailand. Canada, the US, New Zealand and Norway also had investigations opened against their exports.

The WTO said the main products affected were base metals (21 investigations), textiles (20) and chemicals (10).

The number of new measures taken as a result of anti-dumping probes also rose in the first six months of 2008, with 54 measures against 51 measures in the same period in 2007. India applied duties in 16 cases, with the EU some way behind in second place.

China was again the main target followed by Taiwan, the EU, South Korea, Russia and the US.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would a country want to keep cheap imports out of its domestic markets? Don’t cheap goods make consumers happy?
  2. Does dumping refer to the sale of a country’s goods below the importing country’s costs of production or the costs of production in the country where the good is made? Why does this distinction matter?
  3. When a nation protects its domestic market from dumping, is the principle of comparative advantage being undermined? Discuss.

138 responses so far

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