Memo from Cuba

… but not this week, because I spent much of it in Havana … It’s hard not to strongly approve of capitalism and free markets, for all of their flaws when left unchecked, after you see people excitedly queueing to buy tomatoes on one of the world’s most fertile islands.

24 comments on “Memo from Cuba

  1. and just across the water from Cuba, Venezuela is to print higher denomination Bolivar notes as its current highest note at 100 VEF is now worth only 2p.

  2. Pingback: Further To… – Longrider

  3. Just a quick thought experiment.

    How would that apply to the situation in Ireland at the time of the famine? Lots of free markets, unchecked (if somewhat post-Soviet, oligarchical style) capitalism, but the owners of the means of production were as happy to starve their producers for export riches as the Cubans are today.

    The difference seems to be less to do with capitalism and markets than to do with the attitude of the monopoly owners. In Cuba, state-owned, seemingly by kleptocrats lacking any moral fibre, in Ireland privately owned by capitalists lacking any moral fibre.

  4. The underlying problem in Ireland was the failure of an (almost) monoculture crop (a problem that was certainly not tackled well), not the export of potato production overseas. Are you trying to argue that the tomato harvest has failed in Cuba?

  5. @Chris Miller. Much of Ireland’s non-potato produce (grains, vegetables, livestock) was exported, even during the famine. One explanation is that the potato consuming part of the Irish population had no money, particularly once the potato crop had failed.

  6. Socialism: people queued up, waiting for bread.

    Capitalism: bread queued up, waiting for people.

  7. I’m not sure about the unchecked capitalism bit (depending on what is meant by capitalism). The Penal laws had made it very difficult historically for Catholics to own land, even if they had mostly been repealed by the time of the famine itself.

    As with slavery and some of the worst excesses of the railways, the state was defending property rights very strenuously for a group it favoured while denying them to a more oppressed group.

  8. @Andrew: I also like this way of cutting it:

    Socialist countries: borders to keep people in

    Capitalist countries: borders to keep people out

  9. @BiG
    Chris Millers’s quite correct. The famine was a failure of the potato harvest. How would you have expected a C19th government to have responded to this? Yes Ireland was producing grain & exporting it. But this was grain from privately owned farms being exported privately. The government owned no grain. C19th governments didn’t have the tax base to buy the grain & distribute it. What are you suggesting? That the grain was confiscated at gun-point from its owners? You want to start an Irish civil war?
    You’re proposing a late C20th solution to a C19th problem

  10. Lazy bedding and a single varietal which is now very rare because it’s virtually tasteless.

    I can think of islands more fertile than Cuba. e.g. Ireland

  11. @H: that Ireland in the famine was starving in the midst of plenty is a myth, much beloved of emotional nationalists. According to the analysis by Irish economic historians such as Austen Clarke who bothered to look at the shipping records of Irish ports, the total export of grain (the major item) at the height of the famine amounted to about 6% of the average food supply. The potato blight had destroyed about 60%. You can’t fill a 60% deficit with a 6% input.
    @BiS: dead right. Confiscating the food that was exported (by Irishmen) during the Famine would have been one of the few acts that could have united Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter in opposition to the Westminster government. And obviously, if Westminster confiscated the crop in 1847, the available crop in 1848 would have been …

  12. BiG

    Are you being deliberately perverse, or are you simply ignorant? Read what BiS said – to which I’d add only that the necessary technology and infrastructure for famine relief didn’t exist back then.

  13. The corn laws must have messed with land use in Ireland as much as the rest of these islands. People went hungry in GB, just they didn’t starve. Did the Irish have free movement rights with the rest of the UK? Curious. that’s all

  14. @stephen is correct.

    See the following:
    https://pseudoerasmus.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/irish-famine.jpg?w=640&h=267
    https://pseudoerasmus.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/ograda-figure-3-1.jpg?w=640

    While *normally*, Ireland was a net food exporter, by 1846 it was a net importer, and this accelerated into 1847, when net 750 000 tons of grain was imported (one-ninth of a ton per person). The usual exports of grain were only 250 000 tons, so during the peak of the famine, Ireland was importing three times the grain it usually exported. “Starvation due to exports” is not accurate, and quite possibly came about due to people suddenly becoming very aware of the (much reduced) exports.

    The major check on importation into Ireland were the Corn Laws, which were only abolished in May 1846. They made it extremely difficult to import any grains if the price was below a certain rate, and unfortunately this rate was set UK-wide, rather than with sensitivity to the localized nature of food shortages. Once the Corn Laws were gone, importation of food (especially cheap maize) into Ireland was very large, but for many it was too late.

    Really, the problem was not *enough* capitalism – with free trade in grain, some or much of the damage could have been avoided, but the Corn Law interest only yielded to the Anti-Corn Law League once disaster was already underway.

  15. @hueshi: correct, but it is important to remember that during Peel’s administration, before the Corn Laws were repealed, the paternalistic Conservative government quietly imported large volumes of state-funded American maize, so that nobody starved. Complicated thing, politics.

    Also: the opponents of Repeal argued that, without the Corn Laws, agricultural workers in years of plenty would be desperately impoverished. Which they were.

  16. @stephen

    Yes, it was a sensible thing he did so. Still, having a strong import tariff/prohibiiton on grain was a poor idea, especially on such small islands where bad weather or blight could encompass the whole territory. Better to allow free import, and then supplement with state relief, which will frequently be slower and irregularly deployed.

    It’s true that the agricultural workers were poorly off. But I would argue that the increased price of food likely took more out of their incomes than did the added wages from price support – not to mention the increased prices for non-agricultural workers.

  17. @ hueshi
    You may be unaware of Peel’s political career – his downfall was due to his allying with the Whigs and Radicals to repeal the Corn Laws in 1846, following the *start* of the Irsh Potato famine, against the majority of his own party. So he eliminated the curb on imports of food. The famine lasted until 1852 so the Corn Laws were only to blame for the first year-and-a-bit of the seven-year famine.
    Imports of grain must have helped a bit but potatoes were the staple food of millions of Irish people and imports of potatoes were limited because thge potato blight hit Europe heavily.
    Where I think you’ve gone haywire is to suggest higher food prices would hurt agricultural labourers – food prices contributed to 100% of their wages and absorbed less than 100% of their incomes so higher food prices made them relatively better-off. Higher food prices *must* mean a transfer of income from industry to agriculture.

  18. @john77

    Oh, I’m aware of the downfall of Peel. And I’m not blaming the famine entirely on the Corn Laws (mostly it was a result of the fact that, you know, domestic Irish production more than halved in total calories.) I’m just saying the Laws made it much harder to address the problem early on and worsened the situation. A lot of the damage to agricultural productivity was done early on, when disease, malnutrition, consumption of livestock and abandonment of fields made it hard to get the next crop planted and harvested successfully.

    Imports of grain were indeed the only way to really relieve the famine because of how far potato production fell – and of course food was expensive all over Europe, true. But many places were more lightly impacted than the Isles, and helped provide those imports.

    Why I say that about agricultural labourers is for three reasons: firstly, even in Britain, transportation costs for agricultural products were still quite high. Therefore wages for agricultural labourers were not set wholly based on the price of the tradable good on world markets, but on local demand – their wages being more set by the productivity of the regional/national economy (much how a barber in Paris is paid much more than an equally productive barber in Jakarta.) Britain had one of the more flexible labour markets of the time, and so competition for labour between industry and agriculture would tend to drive up agricultural wages.

    The second reason I say it is that, despite a flexible labour market, the land market was still rather oligopolistic, and so I am assuming (perhaps with less certainty) a rent extracted from agricultural productivity by the landlords.

    The third reason is arbitrage between grain and other agricultural goods. Grain was the driving factor of food price for the agricultural labourer, but there were many other agricultural goods that made up part of their incomes, but were not consumed in similar proportions.

    Of course I could be mistaken about the magnitudes of these effects, so it could possibly go the other way.

    Naturally, all this is rather the opposite of the current situation, where farmland is highly marketable, agricultural products are shipped very widely at low cost, and food is a tiny proportion of average expenditures. So you would be totally correct for today’s British agriculturalists.

  19. Another way to look at the Potato Famine is

    — what system active at the time or since would have done better?

    Because Communism’s and Socialism’s record on preventing famines is pretty poor. I know their fans think that they solve problems like this, but that is only in theory. In practice they tend to cause them.

    No version of Monarchism or Oligarchy would be better either. I can’t think of another system available to 19th century Britain.

    They also at the time didn’t know what the problem really was with the blight, or how long it would last. That we know now tends to colour our idea of how it should have been dealt with in real time.

    So in slighting the Peel government you need to come up with a better alternative, without hindsight. Good luck!

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