By this question, I mean the American people, not America, our country, nor American corporations. There can be diplomatic benefits to trade agreements, such as strengthening our relationships with countries that are allies in the world’s political arena. There can be benefits to American-based global corporations to open doors to new markets in specific countries. These are two of the reasons touted by “free trade” proponents as benefits to negotiating trade agreements.
To discern the answer to the title’s question, let us examine whether the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has benefited Americans as a whole. NAFTA was negotiated under President Bill Clinton and went into effect in January 1994. The agreement was supposed to reduce market barriers to trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico to reduce the cost of goods, increase our surplus trade balance with Mexico, reduce our trade deficit with Canada, and create 170,000 jobs a year. Twenty years later, the fallacy of these supposed benefits is well documented.
According to the report “NAFTA at 20” released this month by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, “More than 845,000 specific U.S. workers have been certified for Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) as having lost their jobs due to imports from Canada and Mexico or the relocation of factories to those countries.”
Major corporations such as General Electric, Caterpillar, and Chrysler announced they would add jobs for increased sales to Mexico; instead they eliminated jobs. For example, General Electric testified before Congress saying, “We are looking at another $7.5 billion in potential sales over the next 10 years. These sales could support 10,000 jobs for General Electric and its suppliers. In reality, “General Electric has eliminated 4,936 U.S. jobs since NAFTA due to rising imports from Canada and Mexico or decisions to offshore production to those countries.”
The report also documents the fact that “the small pre-NAFTA U.S. trade surplus with Mexico turned into a massive new trade deficit and the pre-NAFTA U.S. trade deficit with Canada expanded greatly.” According to Census Bureau data, in 1993, the non-inflation adjusted U.S. trade surplus with Mexico was $1.6 billion, and in 2013, the U. S. trade deficit had grown to $50.1 billion. The non-inflation adjust U. S. deficit with Canada grew from $4.4 billion in 1994 to $7.4 billion in 2013. Together the Mexico and Canada inflation-adjusted trade deficits “have morphed into a combined NAFTA trade deficit of $181 billion.”
Most people do not understand how trade deficits hurt them. They do not realize that when our country imports more goods than it exports, we go in debt as a country to pay for these goods. We then have to borrow money or increase taxes to have enough money to run our government. This is why we now have a nearly $17 trillion national debt. As individuals, we would soon go bankrupt if we did not earn enough money to pay our bills and had to keep borrowing money, but the government can just keep printing money. The problem with printing more money is that the value of the dollar keeps going down, so each of us has to work harder to make more money to try to keep our pay equal to what we earned previously.
According to the Coalition for a Prosperous America, trade deficits also diminish the U. S. Gross Domestic Product since GDP equals the sum of Consumption, Investment, Government Procurement, and Net Exports (Exports – Imports). Our trade deficit in 2011 alone shaved an astounding 4% from overall U. S. GDP.
Our efforts to keep our earnings of equal value have not succeeded because the report states, “NAFTA has contributed to downward pressure on U.S. wages and growing income inequality.” What this means is that as Americans lost their higher paying manufacturing jobs, they had to compete with the glut of other Americans for the non-offshorable, lower paying, low-skill jobs, in retail, hospitality, and food service. “According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, two out of every three displaced manufacturing workers who were rehired in 2012 experienced a wage reduction, most of them taking a pay cut of greater than 20 percent.” The result is an increasing gap between the rich and the poor and a shrinking middle class.
Manufacturing jobs are the foundation of the middle class; these jobs raised the average daily wage between 1900 and 2000 from $2.50 a day to $96.00 a day. If we lose the majority of our manufacturing industry, we will lose our middle class.
We were supposed to realize the benefits of lower prices as consumers, but in contrast, the report states, “Despite a 188 percent rise in food imports from Canada and Mexico under NAFTA, the average nominal price of food in the United States has jumped 65 percent since the deal went into effect.”
As a result, our “average annual U.S. agricultural trade deficit with Mexico and Canada under NAFTA stands at $800 million, more than twice the pre-NAFTA level.” American ranchers and cattlemen have been hurt by the 130 percent increase of beef imports from Mexico and Canada since NAFTA took effect, “and today U.S. consumption of “NAFTA” beef tops $1.3 billion annually.” U.S. food processors moved to Mexico to take advantage of low wages, resulting in a loss of jobs for Americans at U. S. food processing plants.
The report was a revelation to me about an unintended consequence of NAFTA ? the dramatic increase of illegal immigrants to the U. S. in the past 20 years. According to the report, the increased export of subsidized U. S. corn to Mexico resulted in the destruction of “…the livelihoods of more than one million Mexican campesino farmers and about 1.4 million additional Mexican workers whose livelihoods depended on agriculture.”
The report quotes an exposé, “Trade Secrets,” by John Judis in the April 9, 2008 issue of New Republic, which stated. “Wages dropped so precipitously that today the income of a farm laborer is one-third that of what it was before NAFTA. As jobs disappeared and wages sank, many of these rural Mexicans emigrated, swelling the ranks of the 12 million illegal immigrants living incognito and competing for low-wage jobs in the United States.”
As a result, “The desperate migration of those displaced from Mexico’s rural economy pushed down wages in Mexico’s border maquiladora factory zone and contributed to a doubling of Mexican immigration to the United States following NAFTA’s implementation.”
Prior to NAFTA, jobs at maquiladora factories were responsible for a growing middle class in cities such as Tijuana and Tecate in Baja California, Mexico. The report states that “Real wages in Mexico have fallen significantly below pre-NAFTA levels as price increases for basic consumer goods have exceeded wage increases. A minimum wage earner in Mexico today can buy 38 percent fewer consumer goods as on the day that NAFTA took effect.”
The lower wages at Mexican maquiladoras since NAFTA explains why Mexico is now benefitting from “nearsourcing,” which is returning manufacturing from China where wages have risen 15-20% year over year for the past five years. Taking into consideration the other costs and hidden costs of doing business offshore that comprise a Total Cost of Ownership analysis; Mexico is now more competitive than the coastal areas of China’s manufacturing industry.
Of course, the influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico is another factor in the downward pressure on wages in the United States. Today, only 1.9 million hourly workers make $20 per hour, which is a marker for jobs that provide a middle-class standard of living, down 60% since 1979, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In conclusion, we can clearly see from the well-documented evidence that NAFTA has not benefited the American people. It may have benefited American corporations that expanded their sales in Mexico or moved manufacturing to Mexico to increase their profits. However, I am sure that none of the American company owners of the more than 60,000 manufacturing firms that have closed since 1994 or the nearly one million American workers who lost their jobs because of NAFTA would say they benefited from this trade agreement.
The last thing we need is another free trade agreement such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that has been negotiated behind closed doors by the Obama Administration for the past three years. We can’t afford the loss of more American jobs. What we need are trade policies that will help American manufacturers and address the predatory mercantilist policies of China, Japan, Korea, and other countries with regard to government subsidies, currency manipulation, product dumping, and intellectual property theft. We need to have balanced trade as recommended by the Coalition for a Prosperous America (CPA) in their issue paper, “21st Century Trade Agreement Principles.” As chair of the newly formed California chapter of CPA, I would welcome your support and involvement to rebuild American manufacturing, create more higher-paying manufacturing jobs, and reduce our trade deficit and national debt.