All Commentary
Friday, January 1, 1993

Growing Toyotas, Manufacturing Soybeans

Sometimes it takes a little surrealism to make economics clear to people.

Gary North is president of the Institute for Christian Economics.

(Des Moines, Iowa)—Jeremiah V. Jones, a farmer living in nearby Elkhart, thinks it will be a very good year. “The weather has been excellent. We ought to get a good crop.” This fall he planted Toyotas. “We rotate the crops, of course. In fall, we plant Toyotas. In spring, it’s Nissans. In summer, we usually plant Isuzus, mostly for ground cover. It works out well most years, although a drought three summers ago wiped out half our Isuzus.”

When asked about models and colors, he says he’s betting on red winter Toyotas. “Pretty hardy crop. Withstands cold weather better than the metallic blue variety. Good crop for Iowa. ‘Course, if anything comes of this global warming business, we may have to switch. No signs of it yet, though.”

(NAGOYA, JAPAN)—Toshiro Uda, director of the Tanaka Soybean Works, is guardedly optimistic about prospects for soybean sales this year. “Demand remains high. But why not? This is Japan, after all. Our main concern is with supply. The whole industry has been adding plant capacity. The new robots have really streamlined production.”

Mr. Uda pointed with obvious pride to the main floor of his spotlessly clean factory. Only three men were visible, sitting in front of computer screens, monitoring every aspect of the soybean production process, from the “just in time” deliveries at the front end of the factory to the robot-controlled packaging as the newly canned beans headed to the docking area. “Nothing else like it in the industry,” he said.


Who Buys What?

These two news reports sound like something out of a bizarre science fiction short story about some future era where nanotechnology—manufacturing at the molecular level—has become a reality. Economically, however, both reports are the essence of a modern economy. Sometimes it takes a little surrealism to make economics clear to people.

The farmer in Iowa who plants soybeans or any other crop aimed at the market has no intention of personally eating his crop—certainly not soybeans. In the United States, soybeans are eaten mostly by household pets and certain health food devotees. Most of the soybean crop is exported, and a significant portion winds up in Japan.

The goal of farmer Jones is not to consume soybeans. He plans to buy something else. He wants money. He will sell the crop to the highest bidder, but agricultural crops being what they are, a uniform price will confront all soybean farmers, adjusted for transportation costs and other minor differences. In the bidding war, the Japanese importers of soybeans usually win. They buy the lion’s share of the crop. Soybean oil is used for many products. Fido and kitty get most of whatever remains. Although I find it difficult to imagine, I suppose the rest goes into soybean burgers.

Similarly, the goal of Mr. Uda is not to drive a fleet of Toyotas. He plans to buy something else. He wants money. He will sell the Toyotas to the highest bidder, but car sales being what they are, a lot of non-price competition exists: models, colors, and features. In the bidding war, the Americans will buy, if not the lion’s share, then at least a good-sized black bear’s share.

Taken as an individual, farmer Jones may or may not buy a Toyota or feed his household pets soybeans. Mr. Uda may or may not eat more soybeans or buy a new Toyota this year. But taken as nations, a lot of Joneses will buy Toyotas, and a lot of Udas will buy soybeans.

The economic question is: What is the least expensive way for the Joneses to buy their Toyotas, and for the Udas to buy their soybeans?


Getting the Money to Buy

To buy a Toyota produced in Japan, Mr. Jones will need some Japanese yen. To buy some soybeans, Mr. Uda will need some dollars. But neither Mr. Jones nor Mr. Uda normally handles the currency of the other nation. So, intermediaries in both countries (or maybe in a third country) intervene to make it possible for both Jones and Uda to buy what they want. They sell dollars to the Japanese importer who wants to import soybeans. They sell dollars for yen. They sell yen to the American importer who wants a shipment of Toyotas. They sell yen for dollars. Back and forth, back and forth: the currency traders are always in search of a lower price for the currency they plan to buy next. The importers then sell their newly imported products to buyers in their respective nations.

How do the soybean farmers get the dollars to pay the importers of Toyotas? They grow soybeans. How do the Toyota manufacturers get the yen to buy the soybeans? They manufacture Toyotas. So far, so good.

The Iowa farmer is uniquely equipped to grow soybeans. He has a tremendous advantage here. The Japanese manufacturer is not uniquely equipped to manufacture Toyotas. Land costs in Japan are high: too high for growing soybeans—low value per square foot—but not too high for manufacturing Toyotas. It would be a lot more expensive for the Iowa farmer to shift production to Japan than it would be for the Toyota manufacturer to build a Toyota factory in Iowa.

The economic reality is this: the soybeans will move from Iowa to Japan for as long as the high bidders for soybeans are in Japan. Meanwhile, Toyotas will move from Nagoya to America for as long as the higher bidders are in America and the overall costs of production plus export remain lower in Nagoya.


Giving a Good Account

I would rather drive a Toyota than eat soybeans. There are Japanese who would rather dine on soybeans—presumably a great deal of soybeans—than drive a Toyota. As always, there is no accounting for taste. There is, however, accounting for cost of production.

Accountants on both sides of the Pacific Ocean are fluent in a strange and arcane language: double-entry bookkeeping. The discovery and development of double-entry accounting was one of the greatest discoveries of all time. It allows specialists in accounting to inform a producer regarding the success or failure of his efforts. The market provides the numbers: income vs. expenditures. The accountants inform the producers: “keep up the good work” vs. “shut the whole thing down until you figure out a cheaper way.” When the producers listen to their accountants, an amazing thing happens: soybeans get grown in Iowa, and Toyotas get built in Nagoya.

Well, maybe this is not so amazing. But explaining to people how this happens is more difficult than you might imagine. People really do not understand the whole process. This is why politicians can frequently persuade voters to erect barriers to imports. Politicians rarely campaign on a platform of “Let’s pay more for the things we enjoy!” but they often campaign on a platform of “unfair competition.” They get elected, too.


The Economists’ Disadvantage

Economists have discovered a way for drivers and diners to fulfill their respective desires with the least expenditure of money. It is called free trade. Each producer specializes in what he does best, that is, does with the least expenditure of scarce economic resources. Each consumer is therefore able to take advantage of the cost-effective production methods of the least wasteful producers. The trouble is, economists have not always been as successful in explaining this as the politicians have been in persuading voters to go along with tariff increases and import quotas. It is not easy to persuade voters in either country that Iowa farmers are really growing Toyotas, while Nagoya workers are really producing soy-beans. It is not easy for most voters to grasp the fact that the laws of physics and biology are different from the laws of economics: specifically, the law of comparative advantage.

The politician looks at the short run. “Look at all the jobs that these imports are destroying.” The economist looks at the long run: “Look at all the choices each individual can make.” Voters see unemployed workers, or read about them. They have a lot more trouble relating their increased number of affordable choices to the decrease of restraints on trade. People frequently vote in terms of short-run issues, especially visible ones. So, the politician has long enjoyed an advantage over the economist in persuading people to support restraints on trade. It takes a very good economist to make the case for long-term personal advantage for many consumers vs. short-term advantages of reduced competition for specific unemployed workers. Adam Smith was a very good economist; he made a persuasive case. But not many people read Adam Smith these days.

Not being Adam Smith, I have taken a shorter path to economic understanding: a bit of surrealism to make my point. So, I recommend that the next time you test drive a Toyota, think about that Iowa farmer and how hard he works to make your test drive economically possible. But remember: you are skipping the joys of eating several soybean burgers in order to make your test drive possible.

  • Dr. North is president of The Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas. He was FEE’s director of seminars in the early 1970s and has served as a member of the board of trustees.