There is a relatively heated policy debate about the relative impacts of trade and automation on job creation. It’s an argument with rather obvious implications for policymaking, not to mention politics: one of Trump’s most successful campaign themes (a deviation from a longstanding GOP position) was his promise to “renegotiate” or terminate the trade agreements to which the U.S. was a party.
That attack on trade pleased many working-class voters who were–and remain–convinced that changes to America’s workforce and the disappearance of well-paid manufacturing jobs can be attributed to those trade agreements. The reality is more nuanced, to put it mildly.
Whatever the relative impact of trade vis a vis automation, Trump is dangerously wrong about NAFTA, as the Brookings Institution has recently documented. (And yes, I know he’s “dangerously wrong” about pretty much everything, but this post is a discussion of trade policy.)
The title of the post is fairly self-explanatory: The trade deficit isn’t destroying jobs, but tearing up NAFTA will.
Here’s the reality: All advanced economies, regardless of changes in their trade balances, lost manufacturing jobs. The figure below shows the change in the share of workers in industry (which includes mostly manufacturing) versus the change in the trade balance as a share of total output for all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries between 1995 and 2010. The data point for the U.S., indeed, fits the White House narrative: During that period, the U.S. lost manufacturing jobs while its trade balance deteriorated (as all other countries in the lower left panel). However, that is not the story for most countries. In fact, Mexico increased its share of workers in manufacturing even though its trade balance also deteriorated during that same period. But most, importantly, most countries—in the lower right panel of the figure—lost jobs in manufacturing even if their trade balance improved. In short, the White House is trying to sell a fallacy that the trade deficit has destroyed American jobs.
Other research suggests that approximately 100,000 net job losses are attributable to NAFTA; that’s equivalent to about 0.1 percent of the U.S. labor force. On the plus side of the ledger, NAFTA has allowed U.S. companies to access new markets for their exports and reduce their costs of production. That has created more jobs, not fewer.
As the author of this report points out, there are better ways to help American workers–a more robust safety net facilitating transition to other jobs, or to early retirement, for example. We can argue about the approaches most likely to be helpful; what we shouldn’t be doing is basing policy on inaccurate data and (sorry!) “fake facts.”
After this round of negotiations, the likelihood of NAFTA overall surviving this process keeps decreasing. The U.S. government is walking on thin ice by keeping their focus on wrong facts. And if NAFTA collapses, it will bring down those who the administration is allegedly trying to protect: American workers.