33.1 Absolute and comparative advantage  (Page 3/15)

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Country Oil Production (barrels) Corn Production (bushels)
Saudi Arabia (C) 60 10
United States (C') 20 60
Total World Production 80 70

The slope of the production possibility frontier illustrates the opportunity cost of producing oil in terms of corn. Using all its resources, the United States can produce 50 barrels of oil or 100 bushels of corn. So the opportunity cost of one barrel of oil is two bushels of corn—or the slope is 1/2. Thus, in the U.S. production possibility frontier graph, every increase in oil production of one barrel implies a decrease of two bushels of corn. Saudi Arabia can produce 100 barrels of oil or 25 bushels of corn. The opportunity cost of producing one barrel of oil is the loss of 1/4 of a bushel of corn that Saudi workers could otherwise have produced. In terms of corn, notice that Saudi Arabia gives up the least to produce a barrel of oil. These calculations are summarized in [link] .

Country Opportunity cost of one unit — Oil (in terms of corn) Opportunity cost of one unit — Corn (in terms of oil)
Saudi Arabia ¼ 4
United States 2 ½

Again recall that comparative advantage was defined as the opportunity cost of producing goods. Since Saudi Arabia gives up the least to produce a barrel of oil, ( $\frac{\text{1}}{\text{4}}$  <  $\text{2}$ in [link] ) it has a comparative advantage in oil production. The United States gives up the least to produce a bushel of corn, so it has a comparative advantage in corn production.

In this example, there is symmetry between absolute and comparative advantage. Saudi Arabia needs fewer worker hours to produce oil (absolute advantage, see [link] ), and also gives up the least in terms of other goods to produce oil (comparative advantage, see [link] ). Such symmetry is not always the case, as we will show after we have discussed gains from trade fully. But first, read the following Clear It Up feature to make sure you understand why the PPF line in the graphs is straight.

Can a production possibility frontier be straight?

When you first met the production possibility frontier (PPF) in the chapter on Choice in a World of Scarcity it was drawn with an outward-bending shape. This shape illustrated that as inputs were transferred from producing one good to another—like from education to health services—there were increasing opportunity costs. In the examples in this chapter, the PPFs are drawn as straight lines, which means that opportunity costs are constant. When a marginal unit of labor is transferred away from growing corn and toward producing oil, the decline in the quantity of corn and the increase in the quantity of oil is always the same. In reality this is possible only if the contribution of additional workers to output did not change as the scale of production changed. The linear production possibilities frontier is a less realistic model, but a straight line simplifies calculations. It also illustrates economic themes like absolute and comparative advantage just as clearly.

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