As Fast Track for the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) moves to the Senate, where its path is fraught at best, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has just stated that if she were in the Senate today, she'd probably vote "no" on Fast Track. She adds that she "certainly would not vote for it" if she was not "absolutely confident" that a separate bill to assist workers who lose their jobs to trade (Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA) would be enacted.
Today's Senators should have no such confidence. Many of them say "no" outright to the notion that it's a fair deal to Fast Track trade pacts that would offshore the jobs of middle-class workers in exchange for a small amount of assistance for some of those laid off workers. (Know what's better than handing someone some cash after you eliminate their job? Letting them keep their job.)
But even those Senators who might be willing to vote yes on Fast Track in exchange for TAA would have to take a huge gamble that TAA would actually become a reality. If they would vote for Fast Track before TAA passes both houses of Congress, Republicans - many of whom deeply oppose TAA - would have little incentive to help Democrats pass TAA. Greg Sargent of The Washington Post explains, "But there’s no way to be certain Republicans will deliver on TAA, because many of them don’t really care about worker assistance and they’d already have achieved the Fast Track they want."
The lack of "absolute confidence" on TAA has already pushed some fence-riding Senate Democrats to make the same calculation as Hillary Clinton and declare that they do not intend to vote for Fast Track.
Just the day before the presidential candidate stated her opposition to Fast Track, her husband attempted to defend the legacy of past Fast Tracked trade deals that he helped usher into existence. In an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Bill Clinton got his facts wrong in his defense of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and NAFTA expansion pacts - the unpopular status quo trade model that Fast Track would expand. (At the same time, Clinton offered a few critiques of provisions in pending trade agreements that ironically came from the NAFTA-style pacts he was defending - see below.)
Some correcting of the former president's misstatements is in order:
Clinton implied that our huge NAFTA trade deficit is due primarily to oil: “They [Mexico] were one of our biggest oil suppliers before we were self-sufficient in oil. So we did have a trade deficit there.
The surge in the U.S. trade deficit with NAFTA partners Mexico and Canada was not due to oil, according to U.S. government trade data. Even after removing oil, the U.S. non-oil goods trade deficit with Mexico and Canada went from an average of $2.3 billion in the five years before NAFTA to an average of $43.5 billion in the five years after NAFTA (adjusted for inflation). In 2014, the U.S. non-oil goods trade deficit with NAFTA partners topped $95.7 billion, more than 42 times the pre-NAFTA level.
Clinton stated: "And the analysis of all of our trade agreements with countries with lower per capita incomes than we have shows that on balance the countries that we have trade agreements with, we tend to have balanced trade."
Not according to the government data from the U.S. International Trade Commission. The United States actually had a $177.5 billion combined goods trade deficit with its 20 Free Trade Agreement (FTA) partners in 2014. That FTA trade deficit has increased by about $144 billion, or 427 percent, since the FTAs were implemented. Using Clinton’s comparison to only those FTA partners “with lower per capita incomes than we have” would eliminate Australia and Singapore, making the FTA trade deficit even higher, at $201.3 billion.
Clinton also claimed: "What happened is that in general our trade deficits have been bigger with countries we don’t have trade agreements with.”
It’s unclear what Clinton means by this. If he means the aggregate U.S. trade deficit with our 20 FTA partners is smaller than our total trade deficit with all other countries in the world combined, then yes, that is obviously true, as our 20 FTA partners constitute just a fraction of the global economy. If he means that the United States has a larger trade deficit with individual non-FTA countries than with individual FTA countries, that is only true for China. After China, our two largest goods trade deficits are with NAFTA partners Mexico and Canada.
Indeed, Clinton offered China - the outlier - as proof of his argument, saying, "we have no trade agreement" with China but "we have a humongous deficit" with China. Stewart interjected, "but some would say the larger problem was not NAFTA, but China joining the WTO.” Clinton responded, "Well the larger problem, whether they joined it or not, we had a huge trade deficit before they joined the WTO. And at least when they got into the WTO, they had to agree to rules and if we vigorously enforced the trade deals, we had a forum to resolve it…"
Stewart was right to point out to Clinton that we actually do have a different kind of trade agreement with China, thanks to China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, which precipitated a massive increase in the U.S. trade deficit with China. Since China's WTO entry, the U.S. goods trade deficit with China has increased $237 billion or 211 percent. While the U.S. trade deficit with China grew 90 percent in the five years before China’s WTO entry, it expanded 146 percent in the five years thereafter, notwithstanding Clinton’s claim that the WTO offered a “forum” to force China to comply with certain rules.
In addition, the former president repeated an Obama administration talking point by implying that the TPP would "not just let China write all the rules for Asia." Never mind that the TPP rules were written to advance narrow special interests that would undermine the broader U.S. national interest. Or that China appears to actually like the TPP's rules, as China has expressed interest in joining the pact. Or that the track record of past U.S. FTAs defies the notion that the establishment of a trade deal would affect China's rising influence.
Stewart also slipped up at one point in the interview in stating that "NAFTA has been very beneficial, I think, for Mexico." Actually, many economists agree that NAFTA has been a disappointment for Mexico. Mexico’s average annual growth per capita in NAFTA’s first two decades ranked 18th out of the 20 countries of Central and South America, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. And NAFTA's agricultural provisions contributed to the loss of livelihood of an estimated 2.5 million Mexican farmers and agricultural workers, which fueled a doubling of immigration from Mexico to the United States in NAFTA's first seven years.
Despite Bill Clinton's errant defenses of the NAFTA model he helped birth, he also offered a few surprising critiques of provisions that were part and parcel of that model. For example, he said "we shouldn't have a trade enforcement mechanism where a group we don't know picks the lawyers." Is this a reference to the controversial investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) system, included in NAFTA? The TPP would dramatically expand this system by newly empowering thousands of foreign corporations to bypass domestic courts, go before tribunals of private lawyers that sit outside of any domestic legal system and challenge the laws we rely on for a clean environment, essential services, and healthy communities. It's a little late for Bill Clinton, whose signature trade pact was the first major ISDS-enforced U.S. deal, to criticize ISDS. But if he is indeed opposed to its expansion via the TPP, let's hear it.
Clinton also acknowledged, implicitly, that status quo trade deals have led to the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs, stating, "But it’s also true that there have been a lot of independent studies which show that we have a net loss of manufacturing jobs at the low end." Indeed, nearly 5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs – one out of every four – have been lost on net since NAFTA took effect, and more than 57,000 U.S. manufacturing facilities have closed. Again, Clinton is about two decades late in raising this concern. Even so, it's timely, as the TPP would extend NAFTA’s special protections for firms that offshore U.S. jobs, while forcing U.S. workers to directly compete with workers in Vietnam making less than 60 cents an hour.
Clinton then emphasized the recent stagnation of middle class wages, but did not connect this to the status quo trade model that, according to an academic consensus, has contributed to downward pressure on median wages. A recent National Bureau of Economic Research study confirmed this linkage, concluding that "offshoring to low wage countries and imports [are] both associated with wage declines for US workers."
Clinton even implied that new trade deals should not be enacted until middle wage stagnation has been fixed, stating, "so we've got to first make sure that our people are going to be alright and that we have a sensible economic policy at home." Ironically, the enactment of such deals contributed to the downward pressure on wages in the first place. If the wage gap is actually to be bridged, it will require not only new domestic efforts, but a new trade model.
Bill Clinton is an unlikely advocate for that model. Hillary Clinton, if she continues to speak against Fast Track, has a chance to be a better one.