Prisoner’s Dilemmas-XV: Sugar Tariffs

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“..Look at the United States. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain—which is, to secure to everyone his liberty and his property. Therefore, there is no country in the world where social order appears to rest upon a more solid basis. Nevertheless, even in the United States, there are two questions, and only two, that from the beginning have endangered political order. And what are these two questions? That of slavery and that of tariffs; that is, precisely the only two questions in which, contrary to the general spirit of this republic, law has taken the character of a plunderer…” Frédéric Bastiat- The Law (1850).

The tendency for people to favor protectionist policies is an understandable fallacy, but a fallacy, nevertheless. Some Americans are under the erroneous assumption that they have a moral duty to keep domestic jobs from being outsourced. Much of this sentiment; was fostered by campaigns waged by organized labor throughout American history. It is difficult to tell if the buy American fallacy is the byproduct of union propaganda or an intrinsic sense of nationalism and economic jingoism. Regardless of whether the American public is receptive to their pithy buy domestic slogans, the union interests frequently get their way. The best example is the enduring specter of import tariffs that have plagued American economic policy for centuries. The earliest example is the Tariff Act of 1789, which was strongly favored by none other than Alexander Hamilton.

Arguably one of the most notable tariffs on the books is related to the importation of sugar. The tariffs placed on foreign sugar have been upheld through various laws over the years, starting from the nascent period of the republic.

“…On brown sugars, per pound, one cent. 

On loaf sugars, per pound, three cents. 

On all other sugars, per pound, one and a half cents

(Tariff Act of 1789, P. 25)..”

From a game-theoretical standpoint, consumers are the first ones to defect. If imported sugar is cheaper American consumers gravitate toward buying the less expensive Caribbean sugar. The lobbyists for the sugar industry work to pressure lawmakers into keeping import taxes on foreign sugar. The collective pressure placed on Congress to place and uphold tariffs can be considered a defection by the domestic sugar producers. Many economists and political scientists assume that the marginal increase in the cost of sugar would be negligible to an individual customer. In turn, fulfilling the enduring axiom of Public Choice theory; concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Few households consume enough sugar to desire to change their baking and coffee flavoring habits. Although, these costs are salient to commercial confectionary producers who purchase mass quantities of sugar for domestic and international retail goods. It has led to firms relocating production facilities to countries without sugar tariffs (Life Savers plant moving to Canada, p. 4). Technically, this could be a defection, but the irony is that it undermines the moral initiative of keeping domestic jobs within the bounds of the United States. But not every company opts to move their factories abroad, another substitute for cheaper inputs. Hence, the rise of soft drink producers using high fructose corn syrup instead of cane sugar. One noteworthy example would be when Coke and Pepsi switched to using corn syrup in their sodas for the US market in the 1980s (p.5) (Mexican cola still uses real sugar). There has been much debate over whether high fructose corn syrup is more unhealthy than sugar. If it is more injurious to one’s health, then a Prisoner’s Dilemma is afoot, the suboptimal result being the American people doing unnecessary damage to their bodies merely to appease a small subset of the overall constituency.

Is Free Trade Dead?

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The Wealth Of Nations, Book IV Chapter II, pp. 456-7, paras. 11-12.

“By means of glasses, hotbeds, and hot walls, very good grapes can be raised in Scotland, and very good wine too can be made of them at about thirty times the expense for which at least equally good can be brought from foreign countries. Would it be a reasonable law to prohibit the importation of all foreign wines, merely to encourage the making of claret and burgundy in Scotland?”

The Trump era will forever be distinguished by its notable shift away from free trade economic policies. Generating a resurgence passionate resurgence in the advocacy of protectionism. This rhetoric was salient even in the nascent period of the Trump phenomenon, dating back to his iconoclastic speeches on the campaign trail in 2015. Championing a quasi-neo-mercantilism that challenged the decades-long conventional wisdom of the Republican Party. This prevalent truism being that liberalized trade is a core component of any sound economic platform. Taking into account the modest reforms we saw under the Regan Administration. The wave of neoliberal trade policy continued through the 1990s with the bipartisan support of the NAFTA bill. It seemed as if the trend towards globalized trade was seemingly unstoppable. Until right-wing populism swept the United States indicating a change in public perception of moderately unfettered international free trade.

The Trumpian position on international trade dates back to the years of the NAFTA bill of the 1990s. Vocal high-profile opponents of the bill included columnist and former Presidential aide Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. Expressing concern over the outsourcing of production and its direct impact on the American economy. Mainly, all of the U.S. workers have been displaced by outsourcing jobs to foreign countries. From a prima facie standpoint, this argument seems sound. However, after closer examination, it becomes quite clear that economically it is profoundly flawed. There is a moral dimension embedded in this argument because people do suffer from losing their jobs. The unfortunate economic vicissitudes of the American Rust Belt can be speculated to have been greatly impacted by the outsourcing of domestic labor.

On a deeper level, most of the variable causing the shift towards foreign production of goods has been engendered by faulty economic policies. Economic behavior is guided by the unwavering laws of economic exchange. Analogous to the laws of physics they cannot be indefinitely contradicted without serious repercussions. Since each economic agent acts in their self-interest they respond accordingly to government initiatives and laws that violate these immutable laws and informal laws guiding commerce. Domestic regulations laws governing minimum wage, production, transportation, and taxation become so onerous that firms become incentivized to move to manufacture abroad. While policies such as minimum wage laws are billed as means of improving the quality of life for low-skilled workers, it tends to have the opposite effect. Such measures only serve to benefit a few while harming many through increasing the unemployment rate. Raising the price floor for labor will impact profitability that leaves employers with a difficult choice. Either cut labor expenses through automation, outsourcing and working with a skeleton crew or succumb to bankruptcy.

Driving the shift to off-shore production is the comparative advantage that many countries have over the United States when it comes to manufacturing and other services. Classical economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo believed that it was more advantageous for each economic unit (whether it be an individual worker, firm, or national economy) to focus on the goods and services they produced most efficiently. In a sense comparative advantage logically extends the anything else that can be obtained through various trading partners.  For example, it is well known that Adam Smith was a big fan of Claret wine, a beverage fermented in France. The soil in Scotland is not generally unsuited to winemaking, therefore it would not be sensible to produce Claret in the United Kingdom. But Scotland does have climate amendable to the production of some of the world’s finest Single Malt whiskies.

The comparative advantage that countries such as China as over the United States are lower labor costs and fewer regulations. Due to measures such as minimum wage laws operating as price controls (functioning as a  price floor), they are bound to create disruptions in the labor market. Tempting producers to take actions such as outsourcing jobs to curtail losses. A sensible reaction to policies that effectively undermine the core purpose of prices. That purpose is to serve as a quantifiable signal that communicates the market supply and demand of a commodity. Suppliers and producers need to respond to the inflated value of labor accordingly to stay solvent. That unfortunately requires workers to be laid off and to find more affordable labor alternatives. To quote Milton Friedman manipulating prices is never a “free lunch”! The disutility of mandating a higher minimum is evident not only from the qualitative reason of human nature but also in quantifiable data. While estimates suggest that raising the national minimum wage to $15/hr would lift 900,000 Americans out of poverty. Simultaneously, such a change would also be projected to put 34 million Americans out of work. Demonstrating how the costs of raising the national price floor outweigh the minor benefits.

From a superficial standpoint, it is easy to label the competition of foreign as being the taproot of our economic woes. It makes for wonderfully succinct bumper sticker slogans that are catchy and fun to chant at rallies and protests. The protectionist approach of blaming others for our economic problems ignores the inherent issues with our domestic policies. Its restrictive regulations and high corporate tax rates drive businesses to go abroad. There was a lot of social currency in placing the blame on other countries for our inefficiencies in production during the Trump years. These admonishments of free trade are predicated upon economic fallacies and illusory thinking. For a politician, it is easier to play the blame game than to encourage innovation to stay competitive. It is also much quicker to mobilize crowds through economically illiterate bluster than to tell them to take control of their destiny.