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2.3: Applications of the Production Possibilities Model

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Understand the argument for unrestricted international trade in terms of economic specialization and comparative advantage.
    2. Define economic growth in terms of the production possibilities model and discuss factors that make such growth possible.
    3. Explain the classification of economic systems, the role of government in different economic systems, and the strengths and weaknesses of different systems.

    The production possibilities curve gives us a model of an economy. The model provides powerful insights about the real world, insights that help us to answer some important questions: How does trade between two countries affect the quantities of goods available to people? What determines the rate at which production will increase over time? What is the role of economic freedom in the economy? In this section we explore applications of the model to questions of international trade, economic growth, and the choice of an economic system.

    Comparative Advantage and International Trade

    One of the most important implications of the concepts of comparative advantage and the production possibilities curve relates to international trade. We can think of different nations as being equivalent to Christie Ryder’s plants. Each will have a comparative advantage in certain activities, and efficient world production requires that each nation specialize in those activities in which it has a comparative advantage. A failure to allocate resources in this way means that world production falls inside the production possibilities curve; more of each good could be produced by relying on comparative advantage.

    If nations specialize, then they must rely on each other. They will sell the goods in which they specialize and purchase other goods from other nations. Suppose, for example, that the world consists of two continents that can each produce two goods: South America and Europe can produce food and computers. Suppose they can produce the two goods according to the tables in Panels (a) and (b) of Figure 2.12 “Production Possibilities Curves and Trade”. We have simplified this example by assuming that each continent has a linear production possibilities curve; the curves are plotted below the tables in Panels (a) and (b). Each continent has a separate production possibilities curve; the two have been combined to illustrate a world production possibilities curve in Panel (c) of the exhibit.

    Figure 2.12 Production Possibilities Curves and Trade


    Suppose the world consists of two continents: South America and Europe. They can each produce two goods: food and computers. In this example, we assume that each continent has a linear production possibilities curve, as shown in Panels (a) and (b). South America has a comparative advantage in food production and Europe has a comparative advantage in computer production. With free trade, the world can operate on the bowed-out curve GHI, shown in Panel (c). If the continents refuse to trade, the world will operate inside its production possibilities curve. If, for example, each continent were to produce at the midpoint of its production possibilities curve, the world would produce 300 computers and 300 units of food per period at point Q. If each continent were to specialize in the good in which it has a comparative advantage, world production could move to a point such as H, with more of both goods produced.

    The world production possibilities curve assumes that resources are allocated between computer and food production based on comparative advantage. Notice that, even with only two economies and the assumption of linear production possibilities curves for each, the combined curve still has a bowed-out shape. At point H, for example, South America specializes in food, while Europe produces only computers. World production equals 400 units of each good. In this situation, we would expect South America to export food to Europe while Europe exports computers to South America.

    But suppose the regions refuse to trade; each insists on producing its own food and computers. Suppose further that each chooses to produce at the midpoint of its own production possibilities curve. South America produces 100 units of computers and 200 units of food per period, while Europe produces 200 units of computers and 100 units of food per period. World production thus totals 300 units of each good per period; the world operates at point Q in Figure 2.12 “Production Possibilities Curves and Trade”. If the two continents were willing to move from isolation to trade, the world could achieve an increase in the production of both goods. Producing at point H requires no more resources, no more effort than production at Q. It does, however, require that the world’s resources be allocated on the basis of comparative advantage.

    The implications of our model for trade are powerful indeed. First, we see that trade allows the production of more of all goods and services. Restrictions on trade thus reduce production of goods and services. Second, we see a lesson often missed in discussions of trade: a nation’s trade policy has nothing to do with its level of employment of its factors of production. In our example, when South America and Europe do not engage in trade and produce at the midpoints of each of their respective production possibilities curves, they each have full employment. With trade, the two nations still operate on their respective production possibilities curves: they each have full employment. Trade certainly redistributes employment in the two continents. In South America, employment shifts from computer production to food production. In Europe, it shifts from food production to computer production. Once the shift is made, though, there is no effect on employment in either continent.

    Of course, this idealized example would have all of South America’s computer experts becoming farmers while all of Europe’s farmers become computer geeks! That is a bit much to swallow, but it is merely the result of assuming linear production possibilities curves and complete specialization. In the real world, production possibilities curves are concave, and the reallocation of resources required by trade is not nearly as dramatic. Still, free trade can require shifts in resources from one activity to another. These shifts produce enormous benefits, but they do not come without costs.

    Nearly all economists agree that largely unrestricted trade between countries is desirable; restrictions on trade generally force the world to operate inside its production possibilities curve. In some cases restrictions on trade could be desirable, but in the main, free trade promotes greater production of goods and services for the world’s people. The role of international trade is explored in greater detail in subsequent chapters of this book.

    Economic Growth

    An increase in the physical quantity or in the quality of factors of production available to an economy or a technological gain will allow the economy to produce more goods and services; it will shift the economy’s production possibilities curve outward. The process through which an economy achieves an outward shift in its production possibilities curve is called economic growth. An outward shift in a production possibilities curve is illustrated in Figure 2.13 “Economic Growth and the Production Possibilities Curve”. In Panel (a), a point such as N is not attainable; it lies outside the production possibilities curve. Growth shifts the curve outward, as in Panel (b), making previously unattainable levels of production possible.

    Figure 2.13 Economic Growth and the Production Possibilities Curve


    An economy capable of producing two goods, A and B, is initially operating at point M on production possibilities curve OMR in Panel (a). Given this production possibilities curve, the economy could not produce a combination such as shown by point N, which lies outside the curve. An increase in the factors of production available to the economy would shift the curve outward to SNT, allowing the choice of a point such as N, at which more of both goods will be produced.

    The Sources of Economic Growth

    Economic growth implies an outward shift in an economy’s production possibilities curve. Recall that when we draw such a curve, we assume that the quantity and quality of the economy’s factors of production and its technology are unchanged. Changing these will shift the curve. Anything that increases the quantity or quality of the factors of production available to the economy or that improves the technology available to the economy contributes to economic growth.

    Consider, for example, the dramatic gains in human capital that have occurred in the United States since the beginning of the past century. In 1900, about 3.5% of U.S. workers had completed a high school education. By 2006, that percentage rose almost to 92. Fewer than 1% of the workers in 1900 had graduated from college; as late as 1940 only 3.5% had graduated from college. By 2006, nearly 32% had graduated from college. In addition to being better educated, today’s workers have received more and better training on the job. They bring far more economically useful knowledge and skills to their work than did workers a century ago.

    Moreover, the technological changes that have occurred within the past 100 years have greatly reduced the time and effort required to produce most goods and services. Automated production has become commonplace. Innovations in transportation (automobiles, trucks, and airplanes) have made the movement of goods and people cheaper and faster. A dizzying array of new materials is available for manufacturing. And the development of modern information technology—including computers, software, and communications equipment—that seemed to proceed at breathtaking pace especially during the final years of the last century and continuing to the present has transformed the way we live and work.

    Look again at the technological changes of the last few years described in the Case in Point on advances in technology. Those examples of technological progress through applications of computer technology—from new ways of mapping oil deposits to new methods of milking cows—helped propel the United States and other economies to dramatic gains in the ability to produce goods and services. They have helped shift the countries’ production possibilities curve outward. They have helped fuel economic growth.

    Table 2.1 “Sources of U.S. Economic Growth, 1948–2002” summarizes the factors that have contributed to U.S. economic growth in the past half century. When looking at the period of 1948–2002 as a whole we see that about 60% of economic growth stems from increases in the quantities of capital and labor and 40% from increases in the qualities of the factors of production and improvements in technology. In the most recent period, 1995–2002, however, these percentages are essentially reversed, with a little less than 30% explained by increases in quantities of the factors of production and a whopping 70% explained by improvements in factor quality and technology.

    Table 2.1 Sources of U.S. Economic Growth, 1948–2002

    Year Percentage contribution to growth Period growth rate
    Years 1948–2002 3.46%
    Increase in quantity of labor 21%
    Increase in quantity of capital 41%
    Increase in quality of labor 10%
    Increase in quality of capital 20%
    Improved technology 25%
    Years 1948–1973 3.99%
    Increase in quantity of labor 15%
    Increase in quantity of capital 44%
    Increase in quality of labor 11%
    Increase in quality of capital 5%
    Improved technology 25%
    Years 1973–1989 2.97%
    Increase in quantity of labor 31%
    Increase in quantity of capital 39%
    Increase in quality of labor 7%
    Increase in quality of capital 12%
    Improved technology 10%
    Years 1989–1995 2.43%
    Increase in quantity of labor 26%
    Increase in quantity of capital 33%
    Increase in quality of labor 15%
    Increase in quality of capital 17%
    Improved technology 11%
    Years 1995–2002 3.59%
    Increase in quantity of labor 19%
    Increase in quantity of capital 8%
    Increase in quality of labor 5%
    Increase in quality of capital 47%
    Improved technology 20%

    Total output during the period shown increased sixfold. The chart shows the percentage of this increase accounted for by increases in the quantity of labor and of capital and by increases in the quality of labor and of capital and improvements in technology. In the 1995–2002 period, the incorporation of information technology led to improvements in the quality of capital and technology that greatly contributed to growth.

    Source: Based on Dale W. Jorgenson, “Accounting for Growth in the Information Age,” Handbook of Economic Growth, Phillipe Aghion and Steven Durlauf, eds. Amsterdam: North Holland, 2005.

    Another way of looking at these data for the most recent period is to notice that the increase in the rate of economic growth between the 1989 to 1995 period and the 1995 to 2002 period of more than one percentage point per year is largely explained by better-quality capital and better technology. The study by economist Dale Jorgenson on which the data shown in Table 2.1 “Sources of U.S. Economic Growth, 1948–2002” are derived notes that these two main contributors to higher economic growth can be largely attributed to the development of information technology and its incorporation in the workplace.

    Waiting for Growth

    One key to growth is, in effect, the willingness to wait, to postpone current consumption in order to enhance future productive capability. When Stone Age people fashioned the first tools, they were spending time building capital rather than engaging in consumption. They delayed current consumption to enhance their future consumption; the tools they made would make them more productive in the future.

    Resources society could have used to produce consumer goods are being used to produce new capital goods and new knowledge for production instead—all to enhance future production. An even more important source of growth in many nations has been increased human capital. Increases in human capital often require the postponement of consumption. If you are a college student, you are engaged in precisely this effort. You are devoting time to study that could have been spent working, earning income, and thus engaging in a higher level of consumption. If you are like most students, you are making this choice to postpone consumption because you expect it will allow you to earn more income, and thus enjoy greater consumption, in the future.

    Think of an economy as being able to produce two goods, capital and consumer goods (those destined for immediate use by consumers). By focusing on the production of consumer goods, the people in the economy will be able to enjoy a higher standard of living today. If they reduce their consumption—and their standard of living—today to enhance their ability to produce goods and services in the future, they will be able to shift their production possibilities curve outward. That may allow them to produce even more consumer goods. A decision for greater growth typically involves the sacrifice of present consumption.