In the presidential debates, Trump and Clinton referenced the NAFTA and TPP trade deals. What are they and are they good, or bad, for America?
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 international trade agreements.
Trump is unambiguously, totally, absolutely, hugely opposed to both deals and any others in the future. He has held that position from Day One.
Clinton, less so. NAFTA was pushed through by Bill, and Hillary continues to defend it. As Secretary of State she strongly advocated for the TPP. She continued that advocacy during the first part of her campaign, right up until Bernie Sanders started to score points against her by opposing it. Hillary then shifted to also opposing it. No one knows what her stance will be if she is elected.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is still hoping to force TPP through a lame duck Congress following the election. Hillary would then be free to shrug her shoulders come January and claim the TPP is not her responsibility.
The Basics Of Trade
International deals like NAFTA and the TPP 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 at a higher cost 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 into Hanoi’s supermarkets.
Looking at You, NAFTA
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, the 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 like NAFTA is tough. 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 to question the advantage of carrying something out. In the case of things like NAFTA and TPP, the criminal context might be more applicable.
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. That’s the good part (for a few.)
However, allowing American firms to make things abroad and import them into the U.S. free or cheap moves jobs out of the United States. A current case cited by Trump is Carrier. Carrier sent 1,400 jobs making furnaces and heating equipment to Mexico. Mexican workers typically earn about $19 a day, less than what many on Carrier’s former Indiana assembly line used to make in an hour.
Carrier will see higher profits due to lower costs. They 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 a 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, even if 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.
Everybody Wins, Except for Most of Us
Economist Robert Scott 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 showed 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
If one is asking whether or not international trade agreements are good 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 America.
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