Archive for the 'Free Markets' Category

Oct 08 2012

Is Switzerland becoming a feudal state?

Switzerland “could become a feudal state” claims an economist. – swissinfo

One Zurich economist thinks so:

In Switzerland 71 per cent of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of just ten per cent of the population – a figure that economist Hans Kissling finds alarming.

Kissling tells swissinfo that the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing and that this could threaten traditional Swiss democracy and the economy. He makes a call for an inheritance tax for the wealthy.

Statistics show that the 300 richest people have become 40 per cent wealthier in the past eight years, whereas most of the population has a lower income than at the beginning of the 1990s

Kissling has nothing against wealth, he just thinks that if someone did not earn their wealth but inherited it instead, they should have to share a bit with the rest of society.

I call for a tax on very high inheritances, from SFr1 million ($900.000) upwards, and only on the excess value of that. I certainly don’t want people to think that they can’t pass on their family home to the next generation.

I’m only interested in trying to stop any creeping feudalisation, to avoid having huge clans like in South America, which threaten the economy and the political world

He’s most concerned that if the gap between rich and middle class continues to widen and the middle class of Switzerland don’t start benefiting from the country’s growing wealth, there could be a dangerous backlash against the free market system.

…the richest one tenth of a percent in Zurich – there are no full Swiss statistics – had 677 times more wealth than an average citizen in 1991. By 2003, 12 years later, the richest one tenth of a percent had 1,027 times more wealth. So the gap has really grown.

The middle classes, unlike the lower classes, have not benefited from any concessions, such as health insurance or childcare allowances. Here they have to use up all their assets before they receive any support. The lower classes have help from the beginning. This is why the middle classes are threatened

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does a growing gap between rich and middle class threaten social stability in Switzerland?
  2. What threats do growing inequality pose to Economic growth?
  3. What are the benefits of an inheritance tax as a means to reduce wealth and income inequality? What are the arguments against such a tax?
  4. What other types of government policies could reduce the wealth and income inequality that exists in Switzerland?

13 responses so far

Jan 29 2012

A History of Public Goods

One question that often comes up in my class discussions of market failure and public goods is “Why can’t we just have a global government that intervenes to correct those market failures with global impacts?” The global market failures my students get so worked up about are those arising from common access resources, such as deforestation, over-fishing and global warming, those resulting from information asymmetry, such the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, and the global inequality in the distribution of income and economic opportunity.

What I haven’t ever really considered or explained to my students (until now) is the history of public goods. In the column below, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times’,  tells the history of public goods, which as it turns out, is intimately tied to the history of the modern state as we know it. This column should become a must read for all economic students studying market failure.

From The World’s Hunger for Pulbic GoodsJanuary 24, 2012, Financial Times

What… is a public good? In the jargon, a public good is “non-excludable” and “non-rivalrous”. Non-excludable means that one cannot prevent non-payers from enjoying benefits. Non-rivalrous means that one person’s enjoyment is not at another person’s expense. National defence is a classic public good. If a country is made safe from attack everybody benefits, including residents who make no contribution. Again, enjoyment of the benefits does not reduce that of others. Similarly, if an economy is stable, everybody has the benefit and nobody can be deprived of it.

Public goods are an example of what economists call “market failure”. The point is generalised in the language of “externalities” – consequences, either good or bad, not taken into account by decision-makers. In such cases, Adam Smith’s invisible hand does not work as one might like. Some way needs to be found to shift behaviour; public goods usually involve some state provision; externalities usually involve a tax, a subsidy or some change in property rights…

The history of civilisation is a history of public goods. The more complex the civilisation the greater the number of public goods that needed to be provided. Ours is far and away the most complex civilisation humanity has ever developed. So its need for public goods – and goods with public goods aspects, such as education and health – is extraordinarily large. The institutions that have historically provided public goods are states. But it is unclear whether today’s states can – or will be allowed to – provide the goods we now demand.

The story of public goods goes back to the very beginning of states, which were the result of the agricultural revolution. The latter made populations vulnerable to… “roving bandits”. The answer was the “stationary bandit” – the state. It was not a perfect answer – answers almost never are. But it worked well enough to permit substantial increases in population. The state provided defence in return for taxation. The empires – Rome or China – enjoyed economies of scale in providing security. When Rome collapsed, security was privatised by local gangsters, at huge social cost: this we now call feudalism.

The industrial revolution expanded the activities of the state in innumerable ways. This was fundamentally because of the needs of the economy itself. Markets could not, on their own, provide an educated population or large-scale infrastructure, defend intellectual property, protect the environment and public health, and so on. Governments felt obliged – or delighted – to intervene, as suppliers and regulators, or subsidisers and taxers. In addition to this, the arrival of democracy increased the demand for redistribution, partly in response to the insecurity of workers. For all these reasons, the modern state, vastly more potent than any that existed before, has exploded in the range and scale of its activities. Will this be reversed? No. Does it work well? That is a good question.

Yet consider where we are now. The impact of humanity is, like the economy, increasingly global. Economic stability is a global public good. So, in the era of nuclear weapons, is security. So, in important respects, are control of organised crime, counterfeiting, piracy and, above all, pollution. So, even, is the supply of education or health. What happens anywhere affects everybody – and increasingly so. Unless there is a global economic collapse, an increasing number of the public goods demanded by our civilisation will be global or have global aspects.

Our states cannot supply them on their own. They need to co-operate. Traditionally, the least bad way of securing such co-operation is through some sort of leadership. The leader acts despite free riders. As a result, some global public goods have been adequately – if imperfectly – supplied. But as we move again into a multipolar era, the ability of any country to supply such leadership will be limited. Even in the unipolar days, it only worked where the hegemon wanted to provide the particular public good in question.

I started with economic stability, because the big surprise of the past few years is just how difficult it has proved to provide even this. The point I finish with is far broader. Ours is an ever more global civilisation that demands the provision of a wide range of public goods. The states on which humanity depends to provide these goods, from security to management of climate, are unpopular, overstretched and at odds. We need to think about how to manage such a world. It is going to take extraordinary creativity.

 

3 responses so far

Aug 25 2011

The joys and sorrows of the strong Swiss franc

Last Friday my favorite podcast, NPR’s Planet Money, did a feature story called “Switzerland’s too Strong for it’s own Good”. The gist of the story is that the uncertainty over budget deficits and the national debt in the US and Eurozone at this time are causing international investors to put their money into the Swiss franc and Swiss franc denominated assets. Switzerland’s reputation for financial discipline and fiscal responsibility makes it a safe-haven for international investors feeling jittery over the large budget deficits in Euro countries and in the United States.

The Planet Money team discusses why the rising value of the franc poses a threat to the Swiss economy. To understand just how much the franc (CHF) has strengthened against the currencies of its trading partners, examine the graph below, which shows the rise (and recent decline) in the value of the CHF against the currency of Switzerland’s neighbors, the Euro.

As can be seen, earlier this year on CHF was worth only around 0.76 euros, but as recently as August 10 one CHF could buy nearly 0.95 worth of goods from Euro countries. Of course, cheaper imports is a benefit to Swiss households, but what we need to realize is that this upward trend in the value of the CHF also means that all Swiss goods are becoming more expensive to European consumers. And here’s the problem with the stronger franc. Over 50% of Switzerland’s output is exported to the rest of the world (meaning a large proportion of Switzerland’s workers depend on strong exports), and the more expensive the country’s currency, the more expensive the goods produced by Swiss businesses become in the countries with which Switzerland trades.

A simple example would help: A Swiss chocolate bar that sells for two CHF would have cost a European consumer only 1.50 euros in February of this year (when one CHF = 0.75 Euro). But in early August the same bar of chocolate would have cost the European consumer 1.90 Euro, an increase in price of nearly 30%. This may not seem like much to a casual observer, but when you realize that Switzerland’s biggest exports are capital goods and financial services, which cost far more than 2 CHF, a 30% price hike placed on foreign consumers is much more noticeable. If a train engine that sold for 1 million Euros suddenly costs a European transport agency 1.3 million Euros, you can imagine such a transaction would become much less appealing, and demand for Swiss rail engines will begin to fall, putting Swiss jobs at risk.

Here on the ground in Switzerland, the effects of the strong franc have definitely not gone unnoticed. One point of discussion in the podcast is the fact that Swiss retailers have strangely not begun lowering the prices for their imported products. For example, one would expect that a bike shop selling bikes made by American companies in Taiwan would be able to lower its price for those bikes as one franc now buys about 30% more US goods than it could earlier this year. Logically, a $1000 bike that used to cost 1,100 CHF for a Swiss bike shop to import now only costs that shop around 800 CHF to import. The Swiss consumer should begin to see lower retail prices reflecting the lower costs to Swiss importers. Strangely, however, this has not materialized, and most retailers have kept their prices at the same level they were before the rise of franc’s value.

Perhaps retailers are unwilling to lower their prices because they are uncertain whether or not the franc will remain strong, and they would not want to have to be in a situation in which the franc suddenly weakens and their costs rise once again. Perhaps retailers are simply enjoying the greater profits resulting from falling costs and the same high prices. However, as a consumer myself living in Switzerland, I would guess that this is not the case, because I and many other people I know here have reduced the quantity of goods we buy from Swiss retailers. In the age of online shopping, it is now cheaper than ever to order goods like bicycles, clothing and electronics from foreign retailers through the internet.

For example, I recently ordered a bicycle from the United States that sells for $1,100 there. At current exchange rates, I was able to order this bike for only 800 CHF from the US. The same bike in Switzerland has a retail price on it reflecting the US dollar/CHF exchange rate of several years ago, and sells for 1,500 CHF. Of course, any imported product is charged a duty by customs, but even after paying around 160 CHF in duties, I still am saving nearly 500 CHF on this bike. The result is Swiss bike shops selling foreign brands have experienced a decline in sales as consumers like myself have chosen to order their good from foreign retailers, whose prices are much lower due to the stronger franc.

As an American working in Switzerland, I also benefit from the strong franc in that all of my debts are in dollars. I own a house in the States, and still have about four years left on my student loans from grad school. The strong franc reduces the burden of these debts and allow me to keep more of my income in Switzerland, sending home less and less money each month to cover the same expenses back home.

The big question on everyone in Switzerland’s minds right now is whether the rise of the franc will continue, or whether it will return to an equilibrium exchange rate against the euro and the dollar closer to levels seen earlier this year. Swiss exporters (chocolate companies, watch makers and train engine manufacturers) are hoping the franc will fall again. Households, on the other hand, will continue to enjoy the cheap online shopping opportunities, and may eventually enjoy cheaper retail products in Switzerland if importers become more comfortable lowering their prices to reflect the lower costs of their imports.

I predict that the rise in the franc is over, but that in the next few months it will reach an equilibrium against the dollar and the euro somewhere well above its historic level (around 1.5 francs per Euro and around 1.1 francs per dollar). I believe the franc will settle around 1.1 CHF per Euro and around 0.85 CHF per dollar. Once these exchange rates have settled and the wild fluctuations of the last month come to an end, Swiss exporters and importers alike will begin adjusting their costs and prices to reflect the more stable equilibrium to which we will become accustomed.

Living and working in one of Europe’s and the world’s strongest, most fiscally sound economies has its advantages. But in a world of free trade and floating exchange rates, panic among investors abroad has the potential to fire a devastating blast into the ship that is a healthy economy like Switzerland’s. But over time, just like in any speculative bubble, the rise in the value of the franc will stop, it will begin to fall once again, and everyone will come to their senses as import and export prices once again begin to reflect the true exchange rates between the franc and the currencies of its trading partners.

Discussion questions: 

  1. Strong is always better, right? A strong army, a strong economy, a strong leader. But when it comes to currencies, strong is often not better. Why is a strong currency potentially harmful to a nation’s economy?
  2. How would an increase in online shopping among Swiss households affect the prices Swiss retailers are able to charge for their imported products?
  3. How would a Swiss exporting firm, such as Rolex (a watch manufacturer) be affected by the rising value of the Swiss franc? What would such a firm have to do to keep its products at a competitive price in foreign markets?

No responses yet

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

Oct 07 2010

US / China Trade War – Could this be the beginning?

This post was originally published on September 15, 2009. It is being reposted today for my year 2 IB Econ students, who are studying free trade and protectionism as part of Unit 4 of the IB Econ course.

US president Barack Obama made a speech directly to Wall Street today. In his speech, Obama reflected on the many lessons America has learned in the last year since the financial crisis began. He urged his audience of investors, bankers and brokers that

“Normalcy cannot lead to complacency,” Obama said. “Unfortunately, there are some in the financial industry who are misreading this moment. Instead of learning the lessons of Lehman and the crisis from which we are still recovering, they are choosing to ignore them.”

“They do so not just at their own peril, but at our nation’s,” the president added.

In addition to his warnings about the threat posed by overly risky financial markets to the US economy, President Obama expressed his commitment to free trade and “the fight against protectionism”.

Obama says:

…enforcing trade agreements is part and parcel of maintaining an open and free trading system.

The enforcement of existing trade agreements Obama refers to is his way of justifying a decision his administration made over the weekend that actually limits free trade between America and one of its largest trading partners, China.

Trade relations between two of the world’s biggest economies deteriorated after Barack Obama, US president, signed an order late on Friday to impose a new duty of 35 per cent on Chinese tyre imports on top of an existing 4 per cent tariff.

In his first big test on world trade since taking office in January, Mr Obama sided with America’s trade unions, which have complained that a “surge” in imports of Chinese-made tyres had caused 7,000 job losses among US factory workers.

So, in his speech today, Obama decries protectionism and calls for expanded trade and free trade agreements which are “absolutely essential to our economic future”. But only three days ago, he supported a blatantly protectionist measure aimed at keeping foreign produced goods out of America in order to save a few thousand American jobs.

Obama’s decision is a bad one for several reasons. As an economics teacher, I will turn firstly to a diagram for an illustration of the net loss to the American people of higher tariffs on imported tires:
Tire protection

The key point to notice in the above graph is that a tariff on imported tires results in a net loss of welfare in America. The blue area represents the increase in the welfare of tire manufactures (this could be interpreted as the jobs saved in the tire industry and the profits earned due to higher prices); the black areas, on the other hand, are welfare loss. Since all tire consumers in America pay more for their tires due to the 35% tariff, real income is affected negatively for the nation as a whole.

One effect of the protectionist policy the graph does not illustrate, and perhaps the most serious negative impact of the tariff on America, is the response the Chinese are likely to take to what they interpret as a violation of existing free trade agreements between the US and China.

“This is a grave act of trade protectionism,” Mr Chen said in a statement. “Not only does it violate WTO rules, it contravenes commitments the US government made at the [April] G20 financial summit.”

Beijing said it had requested WTO-sanctioned consultations with the US over Washington’s new duties on tyres. Yao Jian, a commerce ministry spokesman, said the duties were in ”violation of WTO rules”.

China said it would now investigate imports of US poultry and vehicles, responding to complaints from domestic companies.

The problems with protectionism are myriad. Clearly American consumers suffer through higher tire prices. In addition, Chinese manufacturers will see sales fall as their product becomes less competitive in the US market. According to the CCTV report below, as many as 9,000 workers in the Chinese tire industry will lose their livelihoods due to declining demand from the US. But the unforseen effects of the US tariff on Chinese tires is the retaliatory measures China will almost certainly take. If China imposes new tariffs on American automobiles and poultry, the scenario in the graph above will be reversed, and Chinese consumers will face higher prices, Chinese car and poultry producers will experience rising sales, while the American auto worker and chicken farmer will suffer.

Free trade tends to result in net benefits for economies that choose to participate in it. American tire manufacturers are certainly harmed by cheap Chinese imports; however, America as a whole benefits through cheaper goods, more consumer surplus, higher incomes in China and therefore greater demand for imports of products made in America. The road to protectionism is a dangerous path to take for the Obama administration. Justifying these new tariffs by claiming that they “enforce existing free trade agreements” is a political maneuver aimed at covering up the truth, which is that the Obama administration has sided with a special interest group to save a few thousand jobs and garner political favor at a time when 700,000 American jobs are being lost each month. By doing so, he is calling into question his own commitment to free trade, and harming America’s image as a global proponent of global economic integration.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is the Chinese government so upset about a new tax on such an insignificant product as automobile tires?
  2. “Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty”: Do you agree?
  3. Some would say that it is a small price to pay for Americans to face higher prices for one product like tires in order to “save” 7,000 Americans’ jobs. Would you agree? Why or why not?
  4. If 7,000 Americans were to lose their jobs due to free trade with China, what would we call the type of unemployment experienced by these workers? Is this the same type of unemployment experienced by the 700,000 workers who have lost their jobs each month during the last year of recession in the United States?

33 responses so far

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