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September 12, 2012

Let Them Eat Steak: How Costco Totally Makes Up for NAFTA's Sordid Legacy

On Monday, the Washington Post published an article extolling NAFTA for bringing Costco to Mexico.  The article profiled the expansion of the bulk goods behemoth across the Rio Grande as an example of how NAFTA has allowed “Made in USA” products to sweep through Mexico, to the delight of U.S. workers and Mexican consumers.  It’s a happy, albeit misleading, narrative. 

The Post article missed nearly two-thirds of the NAFTA story.  It reported that “trade between the United States and Mexico is surging” thanks to NAFTA.  Indeed.  But 65% of the surge has been in Mexican products imported into the U.S., not U.S. products heading to Mexico.  While U.S. exports to Mexico have more than doubled since NAFTA, imports from Mexico have more than quadrupled (after controlling for inflation).  The net impact on U.S. workers has been the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of jobs as the small pre-NAFTA trade surplus with Mexico has crashed into 17 consecutive years of trade deficits.  Last year the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico topped $100 billion for the first time, accelerating the job atrophy.

Meanwhile, the article portrayed the comparably small rise in U.S. exports as a gift to Mexican consumers, who can now, according to the article, stroll Costco’s wide aisles for “marbled slabs of steak” and “sacks of russet potatoes.”  Really?  The populace that perfected a delectable, corn-based diet should thank NAFTA for steak and potatoes?  While Mexico's small upper-middle class may well enjoy the southward march of Costco, the 51% of Mexicans who now live below the national poverty line—a higher share than at any point in the last decade—are not loading carts with “Made in USA” steak. 

Indeed, for many Mexicans, Costco has meant fewer tamales sold, not more steak bought. The article notes that the NAFTA-encouraged proliferation of megastore chains is “challenging, for better or worse, the traditional mom-and-pop stores doling out soda, eggs and tortillas.”  Let’s see—is that “better” or “worse?”  NAFTA displaced approximately 28,000 small and medium-sized Mexican businesses in just its first four years.  Those who support small business as a means of creating jobs and overcoming poverty will find that NAFTA trend decidedly “worse.”

When newspapers perpetuate narratives that obscure NAFTA’s failures for the majority of workers at home and abroad, policymakers are more prone to replicate the failure.  And replicate they did with last year’s passage of the NAFTA-style deals with Korea, Colombia, and Panama.  With the Korea FTA now in effect since March, we are already starting to see results that all too closely resemble NAFTA’s legacy.  On Tuesday, the U.S. International Trade Commission released data for another month of FTA trade with Korea, revealing a whopping $1.9 billion trade deficit with the country in July alone, 30% above last year’s July deficit.  Overall, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea has risen to $6.8 billion under the first four months of the Korea FTA, as mounting imports have surpassed exports and eroded U.S. jobs. 

Even so, maybe the NAFTA-style deal has at least allowed Korean consumers to enjoy a new influx of Costco’s.  That is, assuming they’ve been willing to jettison small businesses in exchange for steak and potatoes.  

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