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Comparative Advantage April 8, 2011

Posted by tomflesher in Macro, Teaching.
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So far, we’ve done a lot of discussion of macroeconomics where the economy is closed – that is, we assume all trade takes place in the country, or, in plain terms, there’s no importing and no exporting. Now, we can extend that idea into allowing international trade.

The first question, though, is why would we want to do any international trade at all? Why shouldn’t we – the United States – produce all the goods we need at home instead of sending money outside the country to buy things produced somewhere else?

The first thing to think about is called absolute advantage. In some cases, goods are just cheaper to produce in another country than here. An example might be labor-intensive goods (those are goods produced using more human input than machinery). A lot of clothes purchased in the US are produced in India and Bangladesh, for example, and that makes sense: there are many people, wages are relatively low, and so it’s cheaper to produce goods that can be made by people. On the other hand, the US is more adept at producing capital-intensive goods. An example might be circuitboards, which require a lot of machinery to produce right. It’s easier to substitute people for sewing machines than to substitute them for photoengraving equipment.

However, that ignores some possibilities. If we only took absolute advantage into account, we’d come to the conclusion that a few very smart, very productive nations should do just about everything. Breaking this down to individuals, imagine an economy where there are only two people: a writer and her teenage neighbor. The writer can produce 80 pages of quality material in eight hours and do her dishes in an hour. The teenager can produce 8 pages in eight hours and they aren’t very good, and it takes him two hours to do the dishes. (Not a very productive kid.) If the writer wants a novel, she should do it, and if the writer’s dishes need to be washed, then under the theory of absolute advantage, she should do them, since her absolute cost to do so is lower.

Still, that leaves her with two fewer hours to write, kicking her down to only seven hours and 70 pages. The kid has six pages written and one load of dishes. She’s had to give up 10 pages of production – that’s her opportunity cost, or the best thing she gave up to go mow the lawn. It’d be fair to say that doing the dishes cost her 10 pages of writing. The tally: 76 pages plus two set of dishes (70 + 1 from the writer, and 6 + 1 from the kid).

Suppose instead that the writer negotiates with the kid – she’ll do all his writing, and he’ll do all her dishes. She writes 80 pages. He does two loads of dishes. The total: 80 pages plus two loads of dishes, PLUS the kid has five hours free to put together another five pages of material. We have 85 pages and two loads of dishes. That’s an extra 9 pages. Everyone’s better off.

This is called comparative advantage. The kid isn’t faster than the writer at anything, but his opportunity cost to do a load of dishes – two hours of time – could only produce two pages of writing. The writer’s opportunity cost for a load of dishes is 10 pages. So, since his opportunity cost is lower, the teenager’s comparative advantage is in doing dishes. On the other hand, the opportunity cost to the writer of writing 10 pages is one load of dishes. The opportunity cost to the teenager of writing 10 pages is five loads of dishes. The writer’s opportunity cost is lower, so her comparative advantage is in writing.

You can extend that same idea to two different countries. In some, there are lower opportunity costs to produce goods. It’s correct in a quick and dirty way to say that the opportunity cost of producing labor-intensive goods in the US is higher than in India, and vice versa for capital-intensive goods. Basically, the theory of comparative advantage tells us that even if we have the capability to produce something good, we should allow another country to produce it and then import it if we can produce something better.

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