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The Wind and Free Markets


We aren’t calling the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) agreement a trade-agreement, but whatever we’re calling it, it’s better than nothing. After just three days in office, President Trump tore up the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If her campaign promises were anything to go by, Hillary Clinton would have done the same thing if she’d been given a chance. They were both wrong.


The glory of the post-WWII order was, essentially, open shipping lanes and market access. Actually, that’s the glory of any economic boom. If recent proof were needed, just look at what the semi-intentional (but deniable) shipping chokepoints and bottlenecks have down to the global economy. But this, gentle reader, is nothing new.


If old drawings, etchings and deductive reasoning is to be believed, then people have at least been floating here and there almost since man realized that he didn’t float. For most of human history this amounted to little more than lakes and rivers, or at the most hugging coastlines so that you were never really out of sight of land.


Eventually the Romans mastered the Mediterranean enough to call it mare nostrum: Our Sea. Still, these were smallish coast-huggers. Even sailing to North Africa, which you can almost see from parts of Spain, we’re still only talking about a few hundred miles. They only sailed from May to September mostly because winter seas are fussy and with celestial navigation, the cloud cover made it difficult to keep your course sorted.


The Vikings still used the big square sails of the Romans, were great innovators in maritime transport in their own way. On the rivers of eastern Europe, where they used rowing slaves to power boats. Not only could you go without wind, when you came to the end of the navigable water you emptied the boat of its human cargo, and made said cargo carry the damn thing. From a moral perspective, the innovation was problematic, but it got you to the slave markets in Constantinople, which is where you went if you wanted to make some money in 7th Century because it got a trader access to the Black Sea and northern Europe, as well as the Mediterranean and, easy access to the Red Sea and the Indian Oceans.


Still, the issue was the big square sail: which was a beautiful thing if the wind was blowing the direction you needed to be going. If not, you were out of luck. Soldiers coming back from the crusades where bring back into Europe goods: spices and silks, from the east, and the increase in wealth do to the shipping, meant that there was the money with which to buy these luxuries. In 1453, with the fall of Constantinople, Europeans decided they needed another way to the Far East, and the Portuguese started heading around Africa.


To tackle the ocean, sailors needed something else. The Europeans, thinking that it came from the Arabs (but they very well might have gotten it from the Chinese), called it a lateen sail and it changed everything. It’s the triangular sail you see that acts less like a kite and more like what we’d identify as an airplane wing. This enabled sailors to move perpendicular to the wind from almost any angle except directly against it. If the wind was blowing entirely against you, you solved the problem by tacking – where you sail slightly off course so that you get forward motion, then change directions in a zig zag.


What this meant was that a sailor could get beyond the pesky coastal waters whenever he felt like it without have to wait for the wind to blow a certain direction. Then hoist the old square rig to capture the trade winds, which blew in (somewhat) predictable patterns.Shipping exploded and the boats got bigger, and adopted (another Chinese import via the Arabs) the fixed rudder for steering which replaced a rear steering oar. And so you’d actually know where to steer at night, or on a cloudy day, sailors picked up another Chinese invention, the compass.


As we know, Christopher Columbus went the long was around, not only to discover the all-inclusive Caribbean vacation, but that the compass didn’t actually point north. Of course, this terrified the crew, because no one knew that there was such a thing as magnetic north. By that point they’d already gotten where they were heading.


Where global markets are heading now, however, is a resurrection of the bad Imperial or Cold War “blocs” which is going to be a great leap backward for the simple reason that they close off markets. Which is a shame because the evidence that free trade raises the tide everywhere, is as old as the wind.