Are international trade deals, such as NAFTA and the TPP, good for America, or bad for America?
The answer is yes, depending on who you ask.
What Are NAFTA and TPP?
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into force in 1994, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is still pending ratification in the U.S. and elsewhere, are examples of the type of broad-based, large-scale international trade agreements now discussed by American presidential candidates with the same tone of voice used to speak of that wet soup in street gutters. Indeed, even discussing the subject of whether they are good or bad for America may be little more than an academic argument at this point; Trump has sworn to make no new trade agreements and says he will not support the TPP. Hillary is a little cagier in her response, but, for the record, for now, says she too will not support TPP.
But let’s slow things down a bit, and look into that key question, of how things like NAFTA and the TPP might affect Americans. After all, candidates do occasionally say one thing during the campaign, and another when actually in office, right?
International trade deals are agreements between countries, often groups of countries, that are designed to promote more trade, more goods and services, and sometimes more workers, moving across borders. The deals typically reduce taxes and tariffs, change visa rules, and sometimes soften regulations that keep foreign products out. The phrase used most often is “lower the barriers.”
So, if widgets made expensively in the U.S. can be made more cheaply in Vietnam and then imported into the U.S., something like TPP can facilitate that by lowering American tariffs on widgets. Meanwhile, Vietnam might be required to change its agricultural import system to allow American genetically modified fruit to flow into Hanoi’s supermarkets.
NAFTA is a good place to start in learning more, as it involves three countries — the U.S., Canada, and Mexico — that generally get along, play reasonably fair, and already had a robust cross-border trade. Lots of non-variables there. Plus, since NAFTA’s been around for over 20 years, there should be a decent consensus on how it worked. That will provide a real world example to weigh against a newcomer like the TPP.
There are numbers. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says increased trade from NAFTA supports about five million U.S. jobs. Unemployment was 7.1% in the decade before NAFTA, and 5.1% from 1994 to 2007. But then again unemployment from 2008 to 2012 has been significantly higher.
You can find similar ups and downs on imports and exports, value of goods, and the like. Some are clearer than others; since 1993, U.S. exports to Canada and Mexico have climbed 201 percent and 370 percent. The problem is trying to attribute them. Global economics is a complex business, and pointing to a singularity of cause and effect is tough.
Want to see for yourself? Here, and here, and here, and here are articles from smart people who can’t figure out if NAFTA has been a good thing or a bad thing. It is not that simple. And NAFTA, remember, was just three countries. The TPP would draw in 12 nations.
The Latin phrase cui bono means “who benefits?,” and is used by detectives to imply that whoever appears to have the most to gain from a crime is probably the culprit. More generally, it’s used in English to question the advantage of carrying something out. In the case of things like NAFTA and TPP, the criminal context might be more applicable.
Most everyone can agree that NAFTA made certain products cheaper for American consumers, as manufacturing costs are lower in Mexico than Idaho. American companies who found new export markets abroad also saw a rising tide of new money. The problem is that for many Americans, in the words of historian Morris Berman, that rising tide lifted all yachts, and not all boats.
Allowing American firms to make things abroad and import them into the U.S. free or at low tariff cost moves manufacturing jobs out of the United States. No argument there among economists. The current celebrity case, cited by several candidates, is that of Carrier. Carrier just sent 1,400 jobs making furnaces and heating equipment to Mexico. Workers there typically earn about $19 a day, less than what many on Carrier’s Indiana assembly line used to make in an hour.
Carrier will see higher profits due to lower costs. They may or may not pass on some portion of those savings to American consumers. They have put Americans out of work.
Economists will often claim that such job losses are part of the invisible hand, how capitalism works, duh. The laid off workers need to learn to code and build web pages, migrate to employment hot spots such as California like modern day Tom Joads. But pay a visit to nearly anywhere in what we now blithely call America’s Rust Belt, and see how that’s working out.
Retraining industrial workers just does not happen overnight, even if there was free, quality education (there’s not.) Indeed, since the beginnings of the hollowing out of America, it has not happened at all. The risk is also that retraining takes unemployed, unskilled people and turns them into unemployed, skilled people. Training is only of value when it is connected to a job. Remember, as all those unemployed Carrier people somehow learn to build web pages, America’s colleges are churning out new workers, digital natives, who already have the skills. Even Silicon Valley’s needs are finite.
Patterns do emerge, and the American people know they’ve been had at the expense of corporations that do indeed benefit from international trade agreements. Many Americans see that average workers and thousands of communities have been screwed by trade agreements which put them in direct competition with low wage workers around the world.
Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us
Economist Robert Scott says he knows. He claims over the last 20 years, trade and investment deals have increased U.S. trade deficits and cost Americans their jobs. For example, the agreement allowing China into the World Trade Organization led to trade deficits that eliminated 3.2 million jobs between 2001 and 2013. Meanwhile, the United States already faces a trade deficit with countries in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership that cost two million U.S. jobs in 2015.
In his 2008 book, Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us, Josh Bivens shows that while the most privileged Americans have benefited from cost-savings due to trade, increased global integration harms working Americans. Bivens estimated that the growth of trade with low-wage countries reduced the median wage for full-time workers without a college degree by about $1,800 per year in 2011.
A Broader View
Of course there are dissenting opinions; another economist cautions “to understand how dismantling trade barriers helps the country, we also need to take a broader view of the American economy, and not focus solely on disruptions and lost jobs in particular sectors.”
And that makes sense, if you believe economics is about money.
But if one is asking whether or not international trade agreements are good, or bad, for America, one needs to think bigger. On a whole-of-society level, economics is about people. We all want American companies to make money. It’s also great that Walmart is full of low-cost consumer electronics from Asia, or Carrier air conditioners fresh from Mexico, but you need money — a job — to buy them.
Think broader, and you’ll see economics is about people. Let that answer the question for you about whether international trade agreements are good or bad for your part of America.
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