Quotulatiousness

October 30, 2014

“Free Trade” deals usually have little to do with actual free trade

Filed under: Americas, Economics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

It’s not exactly a revelation that what politicians call “free trade” agreements are usually tightly constrained, regulated, and micro-managed trade: almost the exact inverse of what a genuine free trade deal would look like. This is primarily because politicians and diplomats have hijacked the original term to describe modern mercantilism. In The Diplomat, Ji Xianbai looks at how so-called free trade negotiations are little more than diplomatic beat-downs of the weaker parties by the stronger:

The classic mercantilism, the one associated with the idea that the precious metals obtained through a favorable balance of foreign trade were essential to a powerful nation, may be historically obsolete. The core of the mercantilist view, namely that self-interested states maximize economic development by optimizing political control to strengthen national power, is very much alive and well. Indeed, the vitality of mercantilism as a state of mind may have infiltrated every corner of the international political economy. If one considers the essence of mercantilism through Robert Gilpin’s definition – the attempt of governments to manipulate economic arrangements in order to maximize their own interests – multiple examples immediately come to mind: Japan’s “economic totalitarianism” system in which the entire society was united in deterring foreign competition in the postwar period, China’s ascendance since 1980s through an export-led development mode underpinned by a deliberately undervalued currency, and Germany’s unprecedented trade surplus accrued from the stringent austerity imposed on its economy to sustain competitiveness in the aftermath of the euro crisis.

Compared to those national triumphs of classic mercantilism, there is a less visible showroom, but one in which mercantilism presents itself over and over again in the form of legal mercantilism. This would be free trade agreements (FTAs), negotiations of which are usually kept in the dark. In bilateral FTA negotiations, legal mercantilist governments endeavor to impose their own (or desirable) trade rules and economic policies on other sovereign countries, usually with the aid of a combination of economic immensity, political hegemony, and asymmetric trade dependence, to create a sort of “international best practice,” favorable trade rules, and legal gains that can be leveraged and multilateralized at a regional and/or global level. The “competitive liberalization” strategy aptly pursued by the U.S. since 2002 is one such legal mercantilist policy, which aims to create another “gold standard” in international trade standard setting to project U.S.-friendly economic policies all over the world. In short, the U.S. expects the trade policies of other nations to follow those of the U.S., in the same way that their currencies used to peg to the U.S. dollar.

The U.S.–Peru FTA (PTPA) marks the very first success of Washington’s attempts to subordinate other countries’ sovereignty to its own national interest by squeezing non-trade-related provisions into a bilateral trade liberalization agreement and overriding foreign national laws. To provide a level playing field for American companies, the PTPA lays out detailed measures that Peru is obliged to take to govern its forest sector. The Forest Annex of the PTPA requires Peru to set up an independent forestry oversight body and even enact new Forestry and Wildlife Laws to legalize key provisions of PTPA. The U.S.–Colombia FTA (CTPA)’s labor provisions represent an “even more blatant assault on another country’s sovereignty.” Meanwhile, Colombia was forced to agree to establish a dedicated labor ministry; endorse legislations outlawing interference in the exercise of labor rights; double the size of its labor inspectorate; and set up a phone hotline and an internet-based system to deal with labor complaints. Examples of similar provisions abound: Don’t forget that the U.S.-Panama FTA has “helped” revamp Panama’s tax policy on behalf of Panamanians.

February 19, 2013

Container ships embiggen again

Filed under: Business, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:17

BBC News looks at the soon-to-be-launched Triple-E container ships:

What is blue, a quarter of a mile long, and taller than London’s Olympic stadium?

The answer — this year’s new class of container ship, the Triple E. When it goes into service this June, it will be the largest vessel ploughing the sea.

Each will contain as much steel as eight Eiffel Towers and have a capacity equivalent to 18,000 20-foot containers (TEU).

If those containers were placed in Times Square in New York, they would rise above billboards, streetlights and some buildings.

Or, to put it another way, they would fill more than 30 trains, each a mile long and stacked two containers high. Inside those containers, you could fit 36,000 cars or 863 million tins of baked beans.

The Triple E will not be the largest ship ever built. That accolade goes to an “ultra-large crude carrier” (ULCC) built in the 1970s, but all supertankers more than 400m (440 yards) long were scrapped years ago, some after less than a decade of service. Only a couple of shorter ULCCs are still in use. But giant container ships are still being built in large numbers — and they are still growing.

It’s 25 years since the biggest became too wide for the Panama Canal. These first “post-Panamax” ships, carrying 4,300 TEU, had roughly quarter of the capacity of the current record holder — the 16,020 TEU Marco Polo, launched in November by CMA CGM.

In the shipping industry there is already talk of a class of ship that would run aground in the Suez canal, but would just pass through another bottleneck of international trade — the Strait of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesia. The “Malaccamax” would carry 30,000 containers.

Comparison of bounding box of Chinamax with some other ship sizes in isometric view. (Wikimedia)

Comparison of bounding box of Chinamax with some other ship sizes in isometric view. (Wikimedia)

November 3, 2012

Remembering the ill-starred Darien expedition

Filed under: Americas, Britain, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:18

History Today notes that the Darien Colony was founded by Scottish would-be colonists in what is now Panama on November 3, 1698:

On July 12th, 1698 five ships carrying 1,200 eager colonists left the Port of Leith in Scotland to a rapturous send-off. Most of the ill-fated emigrants did not know where they were going and did not find out until the sealed orders were opened at Madeira, but they were brimming with enthusiasm anyway.

A voyage of three months took them across the Atlantic to a harbour on the mangrove-studded Caribbean coast of Panama. On November 3rd, they took formal possession of their new territory, confidently naming it Caledonia and laying the foundations of the settlement of New Edinburgh. But it all went horribly wrong. Hundreds died of fever and dysentery before the colony was abandoned.

[. . .]

Scotland blamed the whole fiasco on the English. Paterson himself was bankrupt, but still believed in his scheme and tried vainly to revive it. Meanwhile, the Darien disaster seems to have persuaded hard-headed Scotsmen that their country could not prosper by itself, but needed access to England’s empire, and it helped to pave the way for the Act of Union between the two countries in 1707. Under the Act the investors in the Darien scheme were quietly compensated for their losses at taxpayers’ expense.

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