Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Canadian Wheat Board and "Free" Markets

With it's new majority government the Harper Conservatives will now move on many issues that are hardly secret: building new prisons, buying new fighter jets, ending the long-gun registry, killing the vote-subsidy for political parties, and essentially killing the Canadian Wheat Board.  I don't think the majority of Canadians want all of this to happen, but people in Ontario, who did have a front row seat to the Mike Harris years (many of his principal ministers now on the front lines of the Harper Conservatives) decided this is the government they wanted, so here we are. (if it turns out badly, don't blame PEI).

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz visited the wheat board offices in Winnipeg  last week, formally told officials the government's plans to drastically change the wheat board's role by the next crop year, and quickly left.

The wheat board is what's called a "single desk seller" of  two of Western Canada's most important grains, barley and wheat. The board essentially buys all of the crop, and then markets it around the world. Farmers are assured they can sell their crop and the cheque won't bounce. The wheat board gains marketing leverage by being the only seller, and some reports say this alone generates about a billion dollars more a year.

Here's the rub though for the Conservatives and many farmers. It's a collective/cooperative model, all farmers share equally in the wheat board sales, and farmers are not allowed to make their own deals, even though there may be opportunities to get a higher price in certain spot markets, particularly for farmers living in the southern Prariries close to U.S. feedlots and mills. These are the farmers who have been most aggressive in calling for an end to the wheat board monopoly, and the ones the Conservatives have been listening too. Interestingly, Gerry Ritz has clearly stated that there won't be a farmer vote on the changes, something required in the wheat board legislation. Here are some comments from a Canadian Press report.

"While the law requires a vote when adding or subtracting commodities that the board handles, Ritz says changing the entire Wheat Board Act is at the discretion of Parliament.
Ritz says farmers endorsed an end to the monopoly when they voted in a majority Conservative government in last month's election."

Ritz says the the wheat board will live on, but on the same competitive footing as the handful of major grain trading companies that will vastly expand their business.

The Canadian Wheat Board won't go down without a fight. We can expect a strong campaign against these changes, and very likely a court challenge before the dust settles. This fight won't have a significant impact on the Maritimes, but symbolically it's important. Supply management in dairy, poultry and eggs has the same kind of historical resonance in Eastern Canada, as the wheat board does in the west. A collective, highly regulated marketing system that many love, but "free market" types hate. If the Conservatives can pull off the wheat board coup out West, don't think the free market fire breathers won't turn their attention on supply management. The fact that supply management in dairy is so important in Quebec would be the only reason it won't come under the gun.

I have enormous respect for the energy, determination, and risk taking  of entrepreneurs and they should definitely benefit from their labours, but as you can tell I've always been a little suspicious of this notion of "free" markets.  In Canada we have all kinds of rules and regulations that benefit some (banks and telecommunication companies for example), and these are still viewed as "free enterprise", but a farmer trying to get a reasonable return is being coddled.

There was an interesting take on all of this here:

There Is No Such Thing as a Free Market
by: Ha-Joon Chang, Bloomsbury Publishing

From the book: "23 Things They Don't Tell you About Capitalism

What They Tell You

Markets need to be free. When the government interferes to dictate what market participants can or cannot do, resources cannot flow to their most efficient use. If people cannot do the things that they find most profitable, they lose the incentive to invest and innovate. Thus, if the government puts a cap on house rents, landlords lose the incentive to maintain their properties or build new ones. Or, if the government restricts the kinds of financial products that can be sold, two contracting parties that may both have benefited from innovative transactions that fulfil their idiosyncratic needs cannot reap the potential gains of free contract. People must be left ‘free to choose’, as the title of free-market visionary Milton Friedman’s famous book goes.

What They Don’t Tell You

The free market doesn’t exist. Every market has some rules and boundaries that restrict freedom of choice. A market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restrictions that we fail to see them. How ‘free’ a market is cannot be objectively defined. It is a political definition. The usual claim by free-market economists that they are trying to defend the market from politically motivated interference by the government is false. Government is always involved and those free-marketeers are as politically motivated as anyone. Overcoming the myth that there is such a thing as an objectively defined ‘free market’ is the first step towards understanding capitalism.

Labour Ought to Be Free

In 1819 new legislation to regulate child labour, the Cotton Facto- ries Regulation Act, was tabled in the British Parliament. The proposed regulation was incredibly ‘light touch’ by modern standards. It would ban the employment of young children – that is, those under the age of nine. Older children (aged between ten and sixteen) would still be allowed to work, but with their work- ing hours restricted to twelve per day (yes, they were really going soft on those kids). The new rules applied only to cotton factories, which were recognized to be exceptionally hazardous to workers’ health.

If you've ever wished for an arsenal of arguments to refute those who argue on behalf of the mythical “free market,” this is the book for you. To get this Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week for a minimum one-time donation of $30, or a monthly commitment of $5 or more to Truthout, click here.1

The proposal caused huge controversy. Opponents saw it as undermining the sanctity of freedom of contract and thus destroying the very foundation of the free market. In debating this legislation, some members of the House of Lords objected to it on the grounds that ‘labour ought to be free’. Their argument said: the children want (and need) to work, and the factory owners want to employ them; what is the problem?

Today, even the most ardent free-market proponents in Brit- ain or other rich countries would not think of bringing child labour back as part of the market liberalization package that they so want. However, until the late nineteenth or the early twentieth century, when the first serious child labour regulations were introduced in Europe and North America, many respectable people judged child labour regulation to be against the principles of the free market.

Thus seen, the ‘freedom’ of a market is, like beauty, in the eyes of the beholder. If you believe that the right of children not to have to work is more important than the right of factory owners to be able to hire whoever they find most profitable, you will not see a ban on child labour as an infringement on the freedom of the labour market. If you believe the opposite, you will see an ‘unfree’ market, shackled by a misguided government regulation.

We don’t have to go back two centuries to see regulations we take for granted (and accept as the ‘ambient noise’ within the free market) that were seriously challenged as undermining the free market, when first introduced. When environmental regulations (e.g., regulations on car and factory emissions) appeared a few decades ago, they were opposed by many as seri- ous infringements on our freedom to choose. Their opponents asked: if people want to drive in more polluting cars or if factories find more polluting production methods more profitable, why should the government prevent them from making such choices? Today, most people accept these regulations as ‘natural’. They believe that actions that harm others, however unintentionally (such as pollution), need to be restricted. They also understand that it is sensible to make careful use of our energy resources, when many of them are non-renewable. They may believe that reducing human impact on climate change makes sense too.

If the same market can be perceived to have varying degrees of freedom by different people, there is really no objective way to define how free that market is. In other words, the free market is an illusion. If some markets look free, it is only because we so totally accept the regulations that are propping them up that they become invisible.

Piano Wires and Kungfu Masters

Like many people, as a child I was fascinated by all those gravity- defying kungfu masters in Hong Kong movies.

Like many kids, Conditions of trade are specified too. One of the things that surprised me when I first moved to Britain in the mid 1980s was that one could demand a full refund for a product one didn’t like, even if it wasn’t faulty. At the time, you just couldn’t do that in Korea, except in the most exclusive department stores. In Britain, the consumer’s right to change her mind was considered more important than the right of the seller to avoid the cost involved in returning unwanted (yet functional) products to the manufacturer. There are many other rules regulating various aspects of the exchange process: product liability, failure in delivery, loan default, and so on. In many countries, there are also necessary permissions for the location of sales outlets – such as restrictions on street-vending or zoning laws that ban commercial activities in residential areas.

Then there are price regulations. I am not talking here just about those highly visible phenomena such as rent controls or minimum wages that free-market economists love to hate.

Wages in rich countries are determined more by immigration control than anything else, including any minimum wage legislation. How is the immigration maximum determined? Not by the ‘free’ labour market, which, if left alone, will end up replacing 80–90 per cent of native workers with cheaper, and often more productive, immigrants. Immigration is largely settled by politics. So, if you have any residual doubt about the massive role that the government plays in the economy’s free market, then pause to reflect that all our wages are, at root, politically deter- mined (see Thing 3).

Following the 2008 financial crisis, the prices of loans (if you can get one or if you already have a variable rate loan) have become a lot lower in many countries thanks to the continuous slashing of interest rates. Was that because suddenly people didn’t want loans and the banks needed to lower their prices to shift them? No, it was the result of political decisions to boost demand by cutting interest rates. Even in normal times, interest rates are set in most countries by the central bank, which means that political considerations creep in. In other words, interest rates are also determined by politics.

If wages and interest rates are (to a significant extent) politically determined, then all the other prices are politically determined, as they affect all other prices.

Is Free Trade Fair?

We see a regulation when we don’t endorse the moral values behind it. The nineteenth-century high-tariff restriction on free trade by the US federal government outraged slave-owners, who at the same time saw nothing wrong with trading people in a free market. To those who believed that people can be owned, banning trade in slaves was objectionable in the same way as restricting trade in manufactured goods. Korean shopkeepers of the 1980s would probably have thought the requirement for ‘unconditional return’ to be an unfairly burdensome government regulation restricting market freedom.

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This clash of values also lies behind the contemporary debate on free trade vs. fair trade. Many Americans believe that China is engaged in international trade that may be free but is not fair. In their view, by paying workers unacceptably low wages and making them work in inhumane conditions, China competes unfairly. The Chinese, in turn, can riposte that it is unacceptable that rich countries, while advocating free trade, try to impose artificial barriers to China’s exports by attempting to restrict the import of ‘sweatshop’ products. They find it unjust to be prevented from exploiting the only resource they have in greatest abundance – cheap labour.

Of course, the difficulty here is that there is no objective way to define ‘unacceptably low wages’ or ‘inhumane working conditions’. With the huge international gaps that exist in the level of economic development and living standards, it is natural that what is a starvation wage in the US is a handsome wage in China (the average being 10 per cent that of the US) and a fortune in India (the average being 2 per cent that of the US). Indeed, most fair-trade-minded Americans would not have bought things made by their own grandfathers, who worked extremely long hours under inhumane conditions. Until the beginning of the twenti- eth century, the average work week in the US was around sixty hours. At the time (in 1905, to be more precise), it was a country in which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a New York state law limiting the working days of bakers to ten hours, on the grounds that it ‘deprived the baker of the liberty of work- ing as long as he wished’.

Thus seen, the debate about fair trade is essentially about moral values and political decisions, and not economics in the usual sense. Even though it is about an economic issue, it is not some- thing economists with their technical tool kits are particularly well equipped to rule on.

All this does not mean that we need to take a relativist posi- tion and fail to criticize anyone because anything goes. We can (and I do) have a view on the acceptability of prevailing labour standards in China (or any other country, for that matter) and try to do something about it, without believing that those who have a different view are wrong in some absolute sense. Even though China cannot afford American wages or Swedish working conditions, it certainly can improve the wages and the working conditions of its workers. Indeed, many Chinese don’t accept the prevailing conditions and demand tougher regulations. But economic theory (at least free-market economics) cannot tell us what the ‘right’ wages and working conditions should be in China.

I Don't Think We Are in France Anymore

In July 2008, with the country’s financial system in meltdown, the US government poured $200 billion into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage lenders, and nationalized them. On witnessing this, the Republican Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky famously denounced the action as something that could only happen in a ‘socialist’ country like France.

France was bad enough, but on 19 September 2008, Senator Bunning’s beloved country was turned into the Evil Empire itself by his own party leader. According to the plan announced that day by President George W. Bush and subsequently named TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), the US government was to use at least $700 billion of taxpayers’ money to buy up the ‘toxic assets’ choking up the financial system.

President Bush, however, did not see things quite that way. He argued that, rather than being ‘socialist’, the plan was simply a continuation of the American system of free enterprise, which ‘rests on the conviction that the federal government should interfere in the market place only when necessary’. Only that, in his view, nationalizing a huge chunk of the financial sector was just one of those necessary things.

Mr Bush’s statement is, of course, an ultimate example of political double-speak – one of the biggest state interventions in human history is dressed up as another workaday market process. However, through these words Mr Bush exposed the flimsy foundation on which the myth of the free market stands. As the statement so clearly reveals, what is a necessary state intervention consistent with free-market capitalism is really a matter of opinion. There is no scientifically defined boundary for free market.

If there is nothing sacred about any particular market boundaries that happen to exist, an attempt to change them is as legitimate as the attempt to defend them. Indeed, the history of capitalism has been a constant struggle over the boundaries of the market.

A lot of the things that are outside the market today have been removed by political decision, rather than the market process itself – human beings, government jobs, electoral votes, legal decisions, university places or uncertified medicines. There are still attempts to buy at least some of these things illegally (bribing government officials, judges or voters) or legally (using expensive lawyers to win a lawsuit, donations to political parties, etc.), but, even though there have been movements in both directions, the trend has been towards less marketization.

For goods that are still traded, more regulations have been introduced over time. Compared even to a few decades ago, now we have much more stringent regulations on who can produce what (e.g., certificates for organic or fair-trade producers), how they can be produced (e.g., restrictions on pollution or carbon emissions), and how they can be sold (e.g., rules on product label- ling and on refunds).

Furthermore, reflecting its political nature, the process of re-drawing the boundaries of the market has sometimes been marked by violent conflicts. The Americans fought a civil war over free trade in slaves (although free trade in goods – or the tariffs issue – was also an important issue).1 The British govern- ment fought the Opium War against China to realize a free trade in opium. Regulations on free market in child labour were implemented only because of the struggles by social reformers, as I discussed earlier. Making free markets in government jobs or votes illegal has been met with stiff resistance by political parties who bought votes and dished out government jobs to reward loyalists. These practices came to an end only through a combi- nation of political activism, electoral reforms and changes in the rules regarding government hiring.

Recognizing that the boundaries of the market are ambiguous and cannot be determined in an objective way lets us realize that economics is not a science like physics or chemistry, but a polit- ical exercise. Free-market economists may want you to believe that the correct boundaries of the market can be scientifically determined, but this is incorrect. If the boundaries of what you are studying cannot be scientifically determined, what you are doing is not a science.

Thus seen, opposing a new regulation is saying that the status quo, however unjust from some people’s point of view, should not be changed. Saying that an existing regulation should be abol- ished is saying that the domain of the market should be expanded, which means that those who have money should be given more power in that area, as the market is run on one-dollar-one-vote principle.

So, when free-market economists say that a certain regulation should not be introduced because it would restrict the ‘freedom’ of a certain market, they are merely expressing a political opinion that they reject the rights that are to be defended by the proposed law. Their ideological cloak is to pretend that their politics is not really political, but rather is an objective economic truth, while other people’s politics is political. However, they are as politically motivated as their opponents.

Breaking away from the illusion of market objectivity is the first step towards understanding capitalism.

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