Archive for the 'Comparative advantage' Category

Dec 04 2013

Planet Money’s t-shirt, comparative advantage and protectionism. A lesson in International Trade

A while back the team behind my favorite podcast, Planet Money, decided to make a t-shirt. In the process, they would tell the whole story of how a t-shirt is made in our global economy. They would track the production of the shirt from the fields where the cotton was grown to the plant where it was spun into thread to the factory where the cloth was cut and stitched into a finished t-shirt.

To finance the story, the Planet Money team undertook a Kickstarter crowd-financing campaign, hoping to get 4,000 listeners like myself to contribute $25 each to help pay for the production of the shirt and the reporting of said production. In the end, over 25,000 listeners supported the campaign, raising nearly $600,000 for the team to pursue its dream of making and telling the whole story behind it!

Along the way they’ve told many great stories about the people and resources that have gone into their shirt, and just this week they released an interactive documentary about the whole project, start to finish. On Sunday evening, after experiencing the documentary, I was inspire to create a lesson for my year 2 IB Economics students, who happen to be studying International Trade (section 3 of the IB course), at this very moment. Below is that lesson, which they are working on this week.

Introduction: The purpose of this activity is to reflect on the principle of comparative advantage and better understand how the patterns of global trade are shaped by this fundamental concept. You will watch and read the story of a t-shirt that was manufactured using resources from four separate countries. Next, you will respond to an essay prompt. Your answer will be graded as a minor assessment.

Steps:

  1. Read the page that tells the backstory to the Planet Money t-shirt project.
  2. Watch the five part documentary as a class
  3. Read the stories behind the t-shirt’s different stages of production:

Respond to the essay prompt below. (You may begin working on your response while reading the pages above). Your response is due at the beginning of next class and will be graded as a “minor assessment”.

Essay prompt:

A comparative advantage exists when a particular task can be done or a good can be produced at a lower opportunity cost by one nation than by a potential trading partner. When countries specialize in the goods for which they have a comparative advantage, the allocation of resources (land, labor and capital) between nations is more efficient, allowing for a greater level of overall production and income than what is possible without trade.

Carefully explain how the the story of the production of the Planet Money t-shirt demonstrates the principle of comparative advantage. (450 words maximum)

Bonus readingProtectionism and the Planet Money t-shirt

In the above post on the Planet Money blog (made December 2), we learn about the impact that tariffs had on the production of the Planet Money t-shirt.

As you saw in the documentary, the men’s shirt was made in Bangladesh, while the women’s was made in Columbia. We also learned that the Columbian textile worker earn about 3 times as much as the Bangladeshi workers. Why, you may ask, didn’t the ladies’ shirts get made in Bangladesh too? The answer has to do with two “P’s”: productivity and protectionism.

First productivity: According to this podcast, from a week ago, in the Bangladeshi factory where the men’s t-shirt was made, 32 workers on an assembly line would produce 80 t-shirts per hour. In Columbia, on the other hand, 8 workers could produce 140 t-shirts per hour. A simple calculation reveals that the productivity, measured in t-shirts per hour per worker, in the two countries is:

  • Bangladesh: 80/32 = 2.5 t-shirts per hour per worker
  • Columbia: 140/8 = 17.5 t-shirts per hour per worker

The Columbian workers, despite being paid three times the monthly wage that Bangladeshis are making, are 7 times more productive. What accounts for this productivity? Generally, increased productivity is the result of the integration of better or more technology and better training or education among workers. In a low-skilled manufacturing industry like garments, the greater productivity is almost certainly due to greater access to technology in Columbia than in Bangladesh.

On to the second “P”, protectionism: According to this post, due to Columbia’s free trade agreement with the United States, textiles, and most other goods, can be imported into the US “duty-free”, meaning there are no tariffs (import taxes) imposed on Columbian produced goods. This compares to textiles from Bangladesh, on which a 16% tariff is imposed, adding significantly to the cost of producing goods there.

So, let’s put all this together and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of producing t-shirts in the two countries:

In Bangladesh:

In Columbia:

Ironically, while Columbia enjoys certain advantages as a trade partner with the US with high productivity, it appears that the garment industry is slowly disappearing there, as economic development and growth drives up the wage rate further, leading to the country losing its comparative advantage in textile production. Even duty-free status with the US may not allow Columbia to continue to produce t-shirts in the future, as the lower wages of even less developed countries like Cambodia, Laos and yes, even Bangladesh, are too tempting for the garment industry to resist.

2 responses so far

Sep 12 2011

If Iceland can get rich, anyone can!

CIA – The World Factbook - Iceland

How did a barren rock in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean become one of the richest countries in the world, where the average citizen earns $40,000 per year?

Iceland’s prosperity is a perfect example of how a country that participates in international trade based on the principal of comparative advantage can produce the goods for which it has a relatively low opportunity cost, export them to the rest of the world, and become rich. Listen to the podcast below, then complete the activity that follows.

Activity:

  • Go to the CIA World Factbook online.
  • Look up your home country from the drop down menu.
  • Click on the “Economy” section and read the introduction to your nation’s economy.
  • Look through the economy section and find information on your nation’s exports, then answer the questions that follow.
Questions: 
  1. What is the value of your home country’s exports (in dollars)?
  2. What are the main exports from your country to the rest of the world?
  3. Calculate the percentage of your nation’s GDP is represented by exports (divide the dollar value of exports by the dollar value of GDP, and multiply by 100).
  4. What types of goods does your country export? Are they land-intensive? Labor-intensive? Capital-intensive? Discuss why your country exports what it does to the rest of the world.
  5. What does your country import? What is the dollar value of your country’s imports? What is the percentage of your country’s GDP made up of imports?
  6. What is greater, the value of imports or the value of exports in your country? What does this mean for your nation’s “circular flow” of income?
  7. Referring to the principal of comparative advantage, discuss the composition of your nation’s exports and imports. What types of goods or services do you think your nation has a comparative advantage in? How can you tell?

45 responses so far

Aug 15 2011

Oh the times, they are a changing!

The Economist – Sticking it to China

Not long ago, China was known as a source of low-skilled, manufactured goods imports to the United States. China’s abundant workforce andcheap raw materials made it the perfect place for American firms to source their toys, cheap electronics, and textiles from. But today things are different. China’s economy grew at over 10% in the first half of 2011, a rate that shocked many who predicted that weak international demand for its exports would slow China’s growth rate and begin to put pressure on employment. However, slow grown and weak employment figures are more characteristic of the US economy in 2011 than its Asian rival (or partner, depending on how you look at it).

So I guess I should not be surprised to see this article in the Economist, in which it appears that, at least in certain industries, the United States is now the source of low-skilled, labor and land intensive imports into China. But China’s famous “plastic toys” are even higher tech than America’s new export to China, chopsticks.

Jae Lee, a former scrap-metal exporter, saw an opportunity and began turning out chopsticks for the Chinese market late last year…

In May Georgia Chopsticks moved to larger premises in Americus, a location that offered room to grow, inexpensive facilities and a willing workforce. Sumter County, of which Americus is the seat, has an unemployment rate of more than 12%. Georgia Chopsticks now employs 81 people turning out 2m chopsticks a day. By year’s end Mr Lee and Mr Hughes hope to increase their workforce to 150, and dream of building a “manufacturing incubator” to help foreign firms take advantage of Georgia’s workforce and raw materials.

America as a source of abundant and cheap labor, raw materials, and capital… sounds more like China in the 1990s, doesn’t it?

Some say that the asendancy of the East will be defining event of the 21st Century. China, 600 years ago, was not only the world’s most populous country, but it was also the world’s most innovative, richest, and largest economy. The West, at the same time, was relatively poor and technologically under-developed compared to China. Today, after 300 years of Industrialization, the West is typically thought of as the “developed world” and China and its Asian neighbors fall under the designation of the “developing countries”.

But as the size of the developing worlds’ economies continues to grow at rates that far exceed those achieved in the developed world, the income gap between the two grows ever narrower; therefore it should not be a surprise to see the identities of their economies grow increasingly muddled. China, once the low-cost producer of basic manufactured goods, now finds it resources (land, labor and capital) growing increasingly scarce. The US, on the other hand, with its nearly stagnant growth, 16% under-employment, large amounts of idle capital and relatively abundant forests and other natural resources, will grow more attractive to manufacturers from the East looking for a place to source cheap, low-skilled goods from, even something as simple as chopsticks!

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Mar 29 2011

Resource market case study: New York’s manhole covers forged with human sweat and blood…

New York Manhole Covers, Forged Barefoot in India – New York Times

In the revealing story above, the NYT reports on the manufacture of the New York’s thousands of manhole covers, which it turns out come primarily from a foundry in the Indian state of West Bengal. An NYT photographer discovered the Indian factory, and his photos prompted the report here:

Eight thousand miles from Manhattan, barefoot, shirtless, whip-thin men rippled with muscle were forging prosaic pieces of the urban jigsaw puzzle: manhole covers.

Seemingly impervious to the heat from the metal, the workers at one of West Bengal’s many foundries relied on strength and bare hands rather than machinery. Safety precautions were barely in evidence; just a few pairs of eye goggles were seen in use on a recent visit.

In AP Economics, we have begun learning about resource markets, where firms hire the productive resources needed to produce their output. Land, labor, and capital are all needed to produce any output; the combination of these resources a firm will use depends on several factors, including the productivity and the prices of the resources. When the price of labor is low, firms tend to use more labor and less capital. In developing countries, especially those with a large, unskilled workforce (like India), firms are likely to specialize in the production of labor-intensive products, such as the manholes found in American cities like New York.

The scene at the Indian foundry sounds like something from the Middle Ages:

The temperature outside the factory yard was more than 100 degrees on a September visit. Several feet from where the metal was being poured, the area felt like an oven, and the workers were slick with sweat.

Often, sparks flew from pots of the molten metal. In one instance they ignited a worker’s lungi, a skirtlike cloth wrap that is common men’s wear in India. He quickly, reflexively, doused the flames by rubbing the burning part of the cloth against the rest of it with his hand, then continued to cart the metal to a nearby mold.

Once the metal solidified and cooled, workers removed the manhole cover casting from the mold and then, in the last step in the production process, ground and polished the rough edges. Finally, the men stacked the covers and bolted them together for shipping.

Why are New York’s manhole covers being made over 8,000 miles away, anyway? Wouldn’t it make more sense for American cities to buy such items from firms making them right here in the United States? To understand this question, we need to consider the principle of comparative advantage, which says that a nation should specialize in the production of the products for which it has the lowest opportunity costs.

Manhole covers manufactured in India can be anywhere from 20 to 60 percent cheaper than those made in the United States, said Alfred Spada, the editor and publisher of Modern Casting magazine and the spokesman for the American Foundry Society. Workers at foundries in India are paid the equivalent of a few dollars a day, while foundry workers in the United States earn about $25 an hour.

Bengali laborers working in India’s foundries most likely face the trade off of an agrarian existence or maybe another factory job in the pre-industrial economy of the impoverished region, alternatives presenting a much low opportunity cost than American workers whose alternatives include jobs offering much higher productivity. The productivity of a worker depends on the quality and quantity of capital available, the level of training and education of the worker himself. Clearly, Indian workers have less access to capital, lower quality capital, and much less training and education than their American counterparts.

The result is that jobs that require large inputs of low-skilled labor, such as the manufacture of manhole covers, end up being “off-shored” to remote corners of South Asia. The added cost of shipping thousands of ton of iron around the world is more than made up for by the lower resource prices (thus costs of production) in the West Bengali foundries.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do the Indian foundries use such large inputs of labor, and relatively little machinery?
  2. What factors might reduce the demand for labor in the Indian foundries?
  3. How does a firm know if it’s using the right combination of capital and labor in its production?

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12 responses so far

Oct 08 2010

The clear and simple gains from trade

Russell Roberts of George Mason University is a well-known advocate of free trade. This article is one of my favorite and certainly one of the clearest explanations of the mutual benefits resulting from free trade that I have read.

Foreign Policy: Why We Trade – by Russ Roberts

To hear most politicians talk, you’d think that exports are the key to a country’s prosperity and that imports are a threat to its way of life. Trade deficits—importing more than we export—are portrayed as the road to ruin… Politicians are always talking about the necessity of other countries’ opening their markets to American products. They never mention the virtues of opening U.S. markets to foreign products.

This perspective on imports and exports is called mercantilism. It goes back to the 14th century and has about as much intellectual rigor as alchemy, another landmark of the pre-Enlightenment era.

The logic of “exports, good—imports, bad” seems straightforward at first—after all, when a factory closes because of foreign competition, there seem to be fewer jobs than there otherwise would be. Don’t imports cause factories to close? Don’t exports build factories?

But is the logic really so clear? As a thought experiment, take what would seem to be the ideal situation for a mercantilist. Suppose we only export and import nothing. The ultimate trade surplus. So we work and use raw materials and effort and creativity to produce stuff for others without getting anything in return. There’s another name for that. It’s called slavery. How can a country get rich working for others?

Then there’s the mercantilist nightmare: We import from abroad, but foreigners buy nothing from us. What would the world be like if every morning you woke up and found a Japanese car in your driveway, Chinese clothing in your closet, and French wine in your cellar? All at no cost. Does that sound like heaven or hell? The only analogy I can think of is Santa Claus. How can a country get poor from free stuff? Or cheap stuff? How do imports hurt us?

We don’t export to create jobs. We export so we can have money to buy the stuff that’s hard for us to make—or at least hard for us to make as cheaply. We export because that’s the only way to get imports. If people would just give us stuff, then we wouldn’t have to export. But the world doesn’t work that way.

It’s the same in our daily lives. It’s great when people give us presents—a loaf of banana bread or a few tomatoes from the garden. But a new car would be better. Or even just a cheaper car. But the people who bring us cars and clothes and watches and shoes expect something in return. That’s OK. That’s the way the world works. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the goal of life is to turn away bargains from outside our house or outside our country because we’d rather make everything ourselves. Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty.

And imports don’t destroy jobs. They destroy jobs in certain industries. But because trade allows us to buy goods more cheaply than we otherwise could, resources are freed up to expand existing opportunities and to create new ones. That’s why we trade—to leverage the skills of others who can produce things more effectively than we can, freeing us to make things we otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.

Discussion Questions:

  1. “Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty” – Discuss…
  2. Explain the logical economic fallacy of the mercantilist philosophy of “exports good, imports bad”
  3. “…because trade allows us to buy goods more cheaply than we otherwise could, resources are freed up to expand existing opportunities and to create new ones”. What basic economic principle is Professor Roberts alluding to here?

76 responses so far

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