Obama’s Free-Trade Conundrum
On Wednesday the New York Times published an op-ed by David Bonior, the House Democratic whip during the 1993 vote on NAFTA, on President Obama's stated support for Fast Tracking the NAFTA-style Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) through Congress. Here are a few pertinent excerpts:
...Mr. Obama’s desire for fast-track authority on the T.P.P. and other agreements clashes with another priority in his [State of the Union] speech: reducing income inequality.
This month is the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which significantly eliminated tariffs and other trade barriers across the continent and has been used as a model for the T.P.P. Anyone looking for evidence on what this new agreement will do to income inequality in America needs to consider Nafta’s 20-year record.
While many analysts focus on the number of jobs lost from Nafta and similar pacts — and some estimates say upward of a million — the most significant effect has been a fundamental change in the composition of jobs available to the 63 percent of American workers without a college degree.
The Labor Department’s Trade Adjustment Assistance program...reads like a funeral program for the middle class. More than 845,000 workers have been certified under this one narrow and hard-to-qualify-for program as having lost their jobs because of offshoring of factories to, and growing imports from, Mexico and Canada since Nafta.
The result is downward pressure on middle-class wages as manufacturing workers are forced to compete with imports made by poorly paid workers abroad. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly two out of every three displaced manufacturing workers who were rehired in 2012 saw wage reductions, most losing more than 20 percent.
The shift in employment from high-paying manufacturing jobs to low-paying service jobs has contributed to overall wage stagnation. The average American wage has grown less than 1 percent annually in real terms since Nafta, even as productivity grew three times faster.
But the decline in the wages of workers who lost a job to Nafta is only part of the story. They joined the glut of workers competing for low-skill jobs that cannot be done offshore in industries like hospitality and food service, forcing down real wages in these sectors as well.
And, for America’s remaining manufacturing workers, Nafta put downward pressure on wages by enabling employers to threaten to move jobs offshore during wage bargaining. A 1997 Cornell University study ordered by the Nafta Commission for Labor Cooperation found that as many as 62 percent of union drives faced employer threats to relocate abroad, and the factory shutdown rate following successful union certifications tripled after Nafta.
The Nafta data poses a significant challenge for President Obama. As he said on Tuesday, he wants to battle the plague of income inequality and he wants to expand the Nafta model with T.P.P. But he cannot have it both ways.