The President’s 2014 Trade Policy Agenda, released today by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), violates the first law of holes: when you are in one, stop digging. Instead, it sticks to the first rule of PR, when the data is against you (e.g. when export growth under last year's trade agenda amounted to zero percent), distract.
In the face of large U.S. trade deficits with Free Trade Agreement (FTA) partners, the report declines to count imports and counts exports when convenient. It tries to camouflage the damaging track record of past deals (“forget about the hole”) to sell to the U.S. Congress and public yet another round of FTAs (“just keep digging”).
The report states that the administration is “working with Congress” to gain Fast Track authority to enact two sweeping and controversial new FTAs – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA). It neglects to mention that, having seen the hole created by past Fast Tracked FTAs, members of Congress have stated in overwhelming, bipartisan fashion that they have no interest in handing the administration another shovel labeled “Fast Track.”
Much of the 2014 agenda is a copy and paste of the 2013 agenda, reiterating USTR’s stock set of talking points, such as the tired, counterfactual promise that a more-of-the-same trade policy will boost exports. In 2013, this is how USTR put it: “The Obama Administration’s trade policy helps U.S. exporters gain access to billions of customers beyond our borders to support economic growth in the United States and in markets worldwide.” This year they invert the sentence: “We seek to…strengthen our economy by…negotiating high standard agreements that help U.S. exporters gain access to billions of customers beyond our borders.”
But repetition does not make the argument any truer. Under the array of FTAs that have served as a template for the Obama administration’s trade policy agenda, U.S. exports grew by a grand total of 0% last year. The year before that, they grew by 2%. At the abysmal export growth rate seen in the last two years, we will not reach Obama’s stated goal to double 2009’s exports until 2054, 40 years behind schedule. (The authors of this year’s Trade Policy Agenda opt not to highlight the ill-fated goal.)
Also omitted is the inconvenient fact that the overall growth of U.S. exports to countries that are not FTA partners has exceeded U.S. export growth to countries that are FTA partners by 30 percent over the last decade.
Even more glaring is the report's lack of any mention of how exports to Korea have fared under the Korea FTA, which has its second anniversary in less than two weeks, despite detailing export performance to other countries. Under the Korea FTA, which served as the administration’s opening offer for the TPP negotiations, U.S. goods exports to Korea have fallen below the average monthly level seen before the FTA for 20 out of 21 months. Rather than deal with this reality, the report tries to hide it.
The data simply do not support the oft-parroted pitch that more-of-the-same FTAs are the ticket to boosting exports.
But data is not the report’s strong suit. In defending existing deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Korea FTA so as to advocate for expanding on their model via the TPP and TAFTA, the report simply ignores the deals' track records. For example, on manufacturing, the report states: “to support the growth of advanced manufacturing and associated high-quality jobs here at home, in 2014 the Obama Administration will continue to pursue trade policies aimed at keeping American manufacturers competitive with their global peers.”
But official government data show that our manufacturing trade deficits have increased dramatically under the very trade policies that the administration vows to “continue to pursue.” Last year, we had a $52.4 billion manufacturing trade deficit with our 20 FTA partners. In 1993, before NAFTA was implemented and before 18 of these 20 countries had an FTA with the United States, we had a $30.1 billion manufacturing trade surplus with these same trade partners. In the intervening 20 years, during which the United States implemented FTAs with all of these countries, the U.S. manufacturing trade balance with these trade partners fell by $82.6 billion. According to the administration’s own figures, that amounts to a loss of more than 446,000 U.S. jobs in manufacturing alone.
When directly addressing NAFTA, the report chooses to ignore one half of the trade flow equation and focus only on exports. It fails to mention that imports from Mexico and Canada under NAFTA have swamped exports, causing the NAFTA trade deficit to soar 556 percent, reaching $177 billion last year.
And while the report claims that “the agricultural sector has been a bright spot for exports,” that has not been the case under recent FTAs. The average annual U.S. agricultural deficit with Mexico and Canada in NAFTA’s first two decades reached $975 million last year, almost three times the pre-NAFTA level. Over the last decade, U.S. food exports to Mexico and Canada actually fell slightly while U.S. food imports from Mexico and Canada more than doubled.
Food exports have fared even worse under the Korea FTA – in the first year of the deal, U.S. beef, pork, and poultry exports to Korea fell by 8 percent, 24 percent, and 41 percent respectively.
While ignoring the sluggish exports and deep deficits occurring under existing FTAs (“what hole?”), the 2014 Trade Policy Agenda advocates for the TPP by claiming it would deliver where its predecessors have failed. The report states, “TPP will expand U.S. trade with dynamic economies throughout the rapidly growing Asia-Pacific region.”
Even if one ignores the disappointing export legacy of the deals serving as the TPP’s template, this sales pitch comes across as hollow. The United States already has FTAs with six of the 11 TPP negotiating countries, for which increased market access is largely not up for negotiation. Of the remaining five TPP countries, Japan is the only major economy, and its growth rate last year was a tepid one percent – hardly the sought-after “dynamism.” The remaining four countries include Vietnam (with an annual per capita income of $1,550), Malaysia (with an annual per capita income of $9,820), New Zealand (with a population the size of metro D.C.), and Brunei (with a population the size of Huntsville, Alabama). Are these the markets on which the administration’s history-defying promise of TPP-led export growth hinge?
Members of Congress aren’t buying it. Most House Democrats and a sizeable bloc of House Republicans have said no to Fast Tracking the TPP. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have also voiced their opposition. So has 62% of the U.S. voting public. Their message to the administration is simple: we’re in a hole. Stop asking for shovels. Find a ladder.