Trade and Globalization
Business Roundtable Study Fails the Laugh Test: The U.S. Trade Deficit has Cost Millions of U.S. Jobs
The United States had a goods and services trade deficit of approximately $463.5 billion in 2013, which cost millions of U.S. jobs. Contrary to the well agreed-upon fact that trade deficits lead to job loss, the Business Roundtable (BRT) has sponsored a study which claims to show that U.S. goods and services trade (both imports and exports) supported nearly 40 million U.S. jobs in 2013. They achieve these results with a highly distorted model which looks at what would happen if all U.S. exports and imports of goods and services were eliminated “by imposing prohibitive duties against” U.S. goods and service trade.
The silliness of this approach is obvious. The BRT study arrives at its conclusions by assessing how many people would be out of work if the vast majority of workers involved in producing or using traded goods just stopped working. But that’s not how the economy works in the real world. If one assumes away 30 percent of the U.S. economy, one of course assumes away about 30 percent of the jobs. It’s irrelevant to the policy question of whether our trade should be balanced, and it falsely assumes that imports have the same positive employment impacts as exports, when, in fact, imports tend to reduce domestic employment by reducing domestic production.
Using a simple and straightforward macroeconomic model described here, I estimate that the U.S. trade deficit resulted in a net loss of 5.3 million U.S. jobs in 2013. Claims that U.S. trade deficits supported millions of U.S. jobs cannot be justified with any reasonable set of macroeconomic models or assumptions.
The BRT study also claims that two massive, proposed trade and investment deals (the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP) would benefit the U.S. economy. It supports the claim by imagining what would happen if all trade with these countries were eliminated—a proposal no one has made. Any serious debate must focus on how the deals will affect trade at the margin, whether they will do more to stimulate exports or imports, and whether they will increase or decrease U.S. trade deficits. Most other major trade investment deals, including those with Mexico, Korea, and China, have resulted in growing trade deficits and job losses, so the burden of proof is on those who support these deals to show that they will have different outcomes. The study sheds no light on these questions because its assumptions are fatally flawed.
The fact is, the United States had a goods and services trade deficit of approximately $135 billion in 2013 with the European Union and members of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. This trade deficit made up 29.2 percent of the total U.S. trade deficit in 2013, and was responsible for approximately 1.5 million of the total of 5.3 million U.S. jobs displaced by the U.S. trade deficit in 2013.
In December I showed that growing trans-Pacific trade deficits would set the stage for growing trade-related job displacement. New data released this month show that the U.S. trade deficit with the countries in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) increased to an unexpectedly large $265.1 billion in 2014, as shown in the updated graph, below. This increase is further proof that U.S. workers don’t need another job-killing trade deal, which would undoubtedly grow the trade deficit even more.
In addition, new developments are likely to increase opposition to the deal being crafted behind closed doors by negotiators from the United States and 11 other countries. In a remarkable op-ed in the Washington Post, Senator Elizabeth Warren identifies a key way in which the proposed TPP is a dangerous and unnecessary corporate giveaway. The TPP would create special tribunals, or dispute resolution panels, that would allow corporations and foreign investors (but not public interest groups or unions) to challenge U.S. laws “without ever setting foot in a U.S. court.” These deals give corporations special rights to force countries to roll back critical regulations. Right now, for example, Philip Morris is using the process to try force Uruguay to halt new anti-smoking regulations that are designed to improve public health. As Warren concludes, if these dispute panels are included in the final TPP, the only winners will be giant, multinational corporations.
The TPP would also do nothing to combat currency manipulation, which is a major driver of U.S. trade deficits with TPP countries including Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore. Ending currency manipulation could reduce U.S. trade deficits and increase GDP—creating between 2.3 to 5.8 million jobs—but U.S. Trade Representative Froman has said that it has not been discussed in TPP negotiations.
It’s increasingly clear that the TPP, like past trade and investment deals, would be a bad deal for U.S. workers. The president should not try to push this deal through, and Congress should not approve it.
The 69th Economic Report of the President (ERP), released this week, has much to recommend it—especially its focus on policies needed to rebuild middle-class economics, including raising the federal minimum wage and increasing job-creating investments in infrastructure, science, and technology. However, the report runs off the road when it turns to trade. The official summary of the report features a chart on trade which claims that “export intensive industries report 17 percent higher average wages than non-export intensive industries.” As I pointed out in a recent blog post on trade and wages, this frequently repeated claim is less than half the story. Wages in import-competing industries (not shown in the ERP chart) are also much higher than in non-traded industries, and also substantially higher than the jobs supported by exports. Worse yet, growing trade deficits have eliminated many more good jobs in import competing industries than are supported by exports. So, on balance, U.S. trade has eliminated many more good jobs than are supported in exporting industries. For middle-class working Americans, trade and globalization has indeed caused a race to the bottom in jobs and wages.
As I’ve written before, a good illustration is provided by U.S. trade with China, which was responsible for nearly half (46.5 percent) of our $736.8 billion goods trade deficit in 2014. Jobs in industries exporting to China did pay well in 2009–2011 (the last years for which we have complete wage data)—an average of $872.89 per week, or 10.3 percent more than workers making non-traded goods and services (who earned only $791.14 per week), as shown in the figure below. However, workers in import-competing industries were paid even better—an average of $1,021.66 per week, or 29.1 percent more than workers in non-traded industries.
Average weekly wages* in different industries affected by U.S. trade with China
|Average weekly wages*|
* Average wages by education group are from a 3-year pooled sample of workers by industry from 2009–2011.
Source: Author's analysis of Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group microdata
Examined in isolation, jobs in industries supported by exports look good (at least when they are compared to jobs in non-traded industries). But those jobs come at a huge price to workers displaced by imports, and to all workers forced to compete with the growing surge of imports from low-wage countries.
Trade is a hot topic on Capitol Hill this year. President Obama has asked members of Congress for “fast track” trade promotion authority in order to finalize proposed trade deals with Asia and Europe that set the stage for growing, trade-related job displacement. One of the president’s core, frequently repeated arguments for these trade and investment deals is that “our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages.” But that’s less than half the story. Trade is a two-way street, and talking about exports without considering imports is like keeping score in a baseball game by counting only the runs scored by the home team. It might make you feel good, but it won’t tell you who’s winning the game. Sadly, when it comes to trade and wages, trade is driving down the average wages of American workers because the United States runs large trade deficits with the world as a whole, including many countries in Asia and Europe—the regions targeted in current trade negotiations.
A case in point is provided by U.S. trade with China, which was responsible for nearly half (46.5 percent) of our $736.8 billion goods trade deficit in 2014. Jobs in industries exporting to China did pay well in 2009-2011 (the last years for which we have complete wage data)—an average of $872.89 per week, or 10.3 percent more than workers making non-traded goods and services (who earned only $791.14 per week), as shown in the figure below. However, workers in import-competing industries were paid even better—an average of $1,021.66 per week, or 29.1 percent more than workers in non-traded industries.
As discussions surrounding the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) heat up, there has been a new push to include provisions within the agreement to keep countries from managing the value of their currency for competitive gain vis-à-vis their trading partners. This push got an unexpected (by me, anyhow) boost recently when former U.S. Treasury Secretary and former Obama administration National Economic Council Director Larry Summers called for it (see page 22 in the link).
This currency management is a key cause of persistent U.S. trade deficits, and it is widespread. Given that our trade deficit drags on demand growth, and given that generating sufficient demand to reach full employment is likely to be a key economic problem in coming years, this is an important issue to address. Further, given that U.S. tariffs are extremely low, it’s hard to think of any other issue besides currency management that could possibly matter more for trade flows, so excluding it from the TPP seems odd. And yet many TPP proponents are extremely reluctant to include binding tools to stop currency management in the treaty. There have been many arguments for why the United States can’t or shouldn’t stop currency management, but the latest rationale is pretty novel: the claim is that including a currency chapter in the TPP would let other countries use the provisions of the treaty to stop the Federal Reserve from engaging in expansionary monetary policy. If such a provision had been in effect during the Great Recession, this argument continues, it would have kept the Fed from engaging in the quantitative easing (QE) that it undertook to blunt the recession and spur recovery.
Tying the Fed’s hands like this would indeed be a bad thing, but there’s no reason at all to think one couldn’t define currency management in way that did not constrain the Fed or any other central bank wanting to undertake similar maneuvers.
It’s widely expected that in tonight’s State of the Union address President Obama will call for actions to boost wages for low- and moderate-wage Americans, and also for moving forward on two trade agreements—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
These two calls are deeply contradictory. To put it plainly, if policymakers—including the President—are really serious about boosting wage growth for low and moderate-wage Americans, then the push to fast-track TPP and TTIP makes no sense.
The steady integration of the United States and generally much-poorer global economy over the past generation is a non-trivial reason why wages for the vast majority of American workers have become de-linked from overall economic growth. This is not a novel economic theory—the most staid textbook models argue precisely that for a country like the United States, expanded trade should be expected to (yes) lift overall national incomes, but should redistribute so much from labor to capital owners, so that wages actually fall. So, it can boost national income even while leaving the incomes of most people in the nation lower than otherwise.
The intuition on how is pretty easy. Take the most caricatured example of how expanded trade works: the United States produces and exports more capital-intensive goods (say airplanes) and imports more labor-intensive goods (say apparel). By focusing on what we’re relatively better at producing (capital-intensive airplanes)and trading this extra output for what our trading partners are relatively better at producing (labor-intensive apparel), we can see national incomes rise in both countries. This specialization in the United States requires shifting resources (i.e., workers and capital) out of apparel production and into airplane production. But each $1 in apparel production lost requires more labor and less capital than the $1 in airplane production gained—causing an excess supply of labor and an excess demand for capital. Capital’s return rises while labor’s wage falls.
The United States failed to achieve a doubling of exports between 2009 and 2014, as promised in President Obama’s National Export Initiative (NEI). It wasn’t even close. Total U.S. goods and services exports increased by less than 50 percent ($766 billion, or 48.4 percent) between 2009 and 2014 (estimated), as shown in the figure below. Meanwhile, imports increased by an even larger $883.8 billion, and as a result, the U.S. trade deficit increased by $117.0 billion.
Expanding exports alone is not enough to ensure that trade adds jobs to the economy. Increases in U.S. exports tend to create jobs in the United States, but increases in imports lead to job loss—by destroying existing jobs and preventing new job creation—as imports displace goods that otherwise would have been made in the United States by domestic workers. Between 2009 and 2014 the growth in imports more than offset the increase in exports, resulting in a growing trade deficit, as shown in the figure. Growing trade deficits have eliminated millions of jobs in the United States, and put downward pressure on employment in manufacturing, which competes directly with most imported products. For example, growing trade deficits with China alone have displaced 3.2 million U.S. jobs between 2001 (when China entered the WTO) and 2013, with 1.3 million of those jobs lost since 2009 alone.
U.S. exports, imports, and trade balance change, 2009 –2014
Sources: EPI's analysis of U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. International Trade in Goods and Services
Next year, we are going to see lots of debate over trade policy. And, like clockwork, when trade policy rises to the top of policy debate, lots of bad arguments start getting thrown around on behalf of more trade agreements. Ed Gresser submits the latest round of bad ones in a paper released last week.
Gresser goes wrong out of the gate by implying very strongly that inequality is irrelevant to the living standards of low and moderate-income households. In his own words he argues:
“But “growing apart” [editor’s note: this means the rise in inequality] appears to be a phenomenon in which wealthy people rise fastest, not one in which they rise while the middle class and poor lose ground. Americans have actually grown more affluent at all income levels.”
This implicit claim is deeply wrong—the rise of inequality over the past generation has in fact been the primary drag on living standards growth for low- and moderate-income families. Gresser arrives at his irrelevance conclusion by essentially noting that cumulative income growth for low- and moderate-income households has exceeded zero over multiple decades. Well, congratulations to us, I guess. But very few countries outside of maybe North Korea have ever posted negative income growth over decades for the majority of their population.
It’s especially ironic to get this interpretation of rising inequality wrong when discussing its with expanded trade. The standard trade theory that links falling trade costs and rising inequality in rich countries like the United States is clear that this rise in inequality is accompanied by absolute (not just relative) income declines felt by the losing group. In the United States, the losing group is generally proxied by either production and nonsupervisory labor, or workers without a college degree—in either case the majority of the workforce. And while these trade-induced losses (which I estimated to be roughly $1,800 annually for a full-time worker without a college degree) do not explain all, or even the majority, of the rise in inequality over the past generation, they’re not trivial. Gresser claims to have cast doubt on these results (which are based on off-the-shelf standard trade models), but as I’ll show below, his analysis of them is completely irrelevant.
U.S. trade and investment agreements have almost always resulted in growing trade deficits and job losses. Under the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, growing trade deficits with Mexico cost 682,900 U.S. jobs as of 2010, and U.S.-Mexico trade deficits and job displacement have increased since then. President Obama promised that the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement would increase U.S. goods exports by $10 to $11 billion, supporting 70,000 American jobs from increased exports alone. However, in the first two years after that deal went into effect, U.S. exports actually declined, and growing trade deficits with Korea cost nearly 60,000 U.S. jobs.
This is important to keep in mind as negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) resume in Washington this week. The United States has a large and growing trade deficit with the 11 other countries in the proposed TPP. This deficit has increased from $110.3 billion in 1997 to an estimated $261.7 billion in 2014, as shown in the figure below. With trade deficits already on the rise, it makes no sense to sign a deal that would exacerbate them further.
Meanwhile several members of the proposed TPP deal are well known currency manipulators, including Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan—the world’s second largest currency manipulator (behind China). Eliminating currency manipulation could reduce U.S. trade deficits, increase GDP, and create 2.3 million to 5.8 million U.S. jobs. The United States would be foolish to sign a trade and investment deal with these countries that does not include strong prohibitions on currency manipulation. Yet U.S. Trade Representative Froman has testified that currency manipulation has not been discussed in the TPP negotiations.
Trade and investment agreements negotiated in recent decades have been bad deals for working Americans. Fast track legislation would deprive Congress of the opportunity to amend proposed trade deals, leading to growing job displacement and downward pressure on American wages. It is time for Congress to take notice and assert its rightful role in providing advice and consent in the governance of U.S. trade and investment with other nations.
This week, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman announced a “breakthrough” agreement between the United States and China to expand the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Information Technology Agreement (ITA), which eliminates tariffs among 54 countries in high-tech products. Froman enthusiastically noted that the ITA was last amended in 1996, when “most of the GPS technology… [and] high-tech gadgetry that we rely on in our lives didn’t even exist.” The United States has a massive and rapidly growing trade deficit in computers and electronic products and related electronic “gadgets.” The proposed expansion of the Information Technology Agreement will open the door to a massive increase in job-destroying imports of Chinese high-tech products.
The U.S. trade deficit in computers and parts increased from $19.9 billion before China entered the WTO in 2001, to an estimated $160 billion in 2014, as shown in the figure below. Job-destroying imports exceed job-supporting exports in this industry by more than 15 to 1. Further opening of the U.S. market to Chinese high tech products will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. Growing U.S. trade deficits in computers and electronic products eliminated more than 1 million U.S. jobs between 2001 and 2011 alone. Currency manipulation by China (and other countries) acts as a subsidy to all of China’s exports of computers and other products, and as a tax on U.S. exports to China, and every country where U.S. firms compete with Chinese products. Froman is giving away access to U.S. hi-tech markets and seems unaware that the U.S. computer manufacturing and parts industry has been decimated by cheap, subsidized Chinese imports.
The U.S. Treasury announced today, for the 12th time, that the Obama Administration has determined that neither China, nor any other “major trading partner of the United States met the standard of manipulating the rate of exchange between their currency and the United States dollar for purposes of preventing effective balance of payments adjustments or gaining unfair competitive advantage in international trade…”
This political document ignores the fact that China purchased $681 billion in total foreign exchange reserves between December 2012 and June 2014, and more than $2 trillion since this Administration took office. Currency manipulation by China and approximately 20 other countries has increased the U.S. trade deficit by $200 to $500 billion. Elimination of currency manipulation would create 2.3 million to 5.8 million U.S. jobs, without raising public spending at all (indeed, reducing the trade deficit through currency re-alignment would reduce the federal budget deficit).
Earlier this year, we showed that an increase in illegal steel dumping was putting up to half a million U.S. jobs at risk, in a study I co-authored with the law firm of Stewart and Stewart. On Friday, the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) determined by a vote of 5-0 that companies from South Korea, along with five other countries (India, Turkey, Ukraine, Vietnam, and Taiwan) are dumping Oil Country Tubular Goods (OCTG) into the U.S. steel market. Countervailing duties will also be assessed on OCTG imports from Turkey and India. OCTG is a high-value steel product used in the rapidly growing U.S. oil and gas fracking industry. U.S. imports of OCTG products from the subject countries more than doubled between 2010 and 2013. South Korean imports, which represent more than half of all U.S. OCTG imports, were being shipped to the United States at prices far below fair value.
The USITC vote follows on the heels of a decision by the Commerce Department that it would impose punitive tariffs on manufacturers of OCTG from Korea and the other countries involved in this case. As I noted last month, Commerce’s decision (today endorsed by the USITC) to assess duties on OCTG imports from Korea and other countries is a victory for steel workers, U.S. steel producers, and the millions of people whose jobs depend on the U.S. steel industry.
In the run-up to the decision, U.S. steelworkers mounted a “nationwide call to action” to “ensure that our trade laws are fully enforced.” This campaign featured rallies in six of the major steel-producing states, which were supported by bipartisan letters signed by more than 150 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and by 57 members of the U.S. Senate. As Steelworkers President Leo Girard pointed out, this national campaign “should not be necessary to ensure that our trade laws are enforced.” U.S. officials should enforce U.S. fair trade laws to the fullest extent allowable under U.S. and international law. And the time has come for a complete reassessment of U.S. trade laws to close loopholes and ensure that the law is promptly and effectively enforced to the full extent intended by Congress and the president.
A Step in the Right Direction: OMB Will Not Implement Plan to Include “Factoryless Goods Producers” In Manufacturing
Last week, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced that it was cancelling plans to reclassify factoryless goods producers (FGPs) such as Apple and Nike—most of which are now in wholesaling or management of companies (both service industries)—into manufacturing. The FGP proposal is part of a broader set of changes to the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) that were scheduled to take effect in 2017. The FGP plan would have also required government agencies to move trade in goods made by manufacturing service providers (MSPs), such as China’s Foxconn (which builds Apple products) into services. The OMB proposal was highly controversial, and more than 26,000 comments were submitted for the record. In addition, more than 40 members of the House and Senate signed letters to the OMB raising objections and requesting clarification on a number of unresolved issues regarding the proposal.
In a recent policy memo, I noted that the proposal would artificially inflate manufacturing output and employment by treating outsourced production as part of domestic manufactured output, while artificially suppressing the reported U.S. goods trade deficit, with offsetting reductions in the services trade surplus. The proposal would also require manufacturing firms to begin reporting trade and manufacturing activities on a value-added basis, which would introduce a new level of distortion in U.S. international trade statistics that would undermine enforcement of U.S. fair trade laws. Finally, adoption of the FGP proposal, as initially formulated, could undermine U.S. Buy American Laws and U.S. Export-Import Bank policies.
The stakes here are higher and more immediate than the rehash of an old ideological dispute. This is not so much about the past as about the future. Corporate lobbyists are pushing President Obama and congressional Republicans to pass the NAFTA-like eleven-country Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP)—right after the November election.
Since it took effect in 1994, NAFTA has been the template for the subsequent series of trade agreements that have accelerated the globalization of the U.S. economy. But its failure to deliver as promised has soured the public and many in Congress on so-called “free trade.” Getting lawmakers to swallow the TPP will be easier if its promoters can somehow make lemonade out of the NAFTA lemon.
To start with, DeLong fails to tell the reader that he is evaluating a law he helped to produce. He worked on NAFTA when he was a deputy assistant secretary in Bill Clinton’s Treasury Department.
There are two parts to DeLong’s critique. One is his attempt to prove NAFTA was a success. The other is a series of gratuitous remarks about me and what he calls the “American left” that he sprinkles from his lofty pinnacle of ignorance about both.
Writing at the Equitable Growth blog, Brad DeLong takes on Jeff Faux’s assessment of NAFTA. DeLong tries to make a “cosmopolitan” argument for NAFTA; he claims that NAFTA cost the United States fewer than 350,000 jobs, and says that Faux got “the analysis wrong” when he reported that NAFTA resulted in a net loss of 700,000 jobs. But DeLong’s “analysis” is based on faulty data. He then goes on to assert that the jobs gained through increased exports pay more than the jobs lost due to growing imports, which also turns out to be wrong. Lastly, he ignores the larger and much more important negative impact of growing trade with low-wage countries on the wages of all U.S. workers without a college degree.
President Bill Clinton and the economists he relied on built their case for NAFTA on the assertion that the United States would gain jobs as a direct result of the agreement. He claimed that NAFTA would create an “export boom to Mexico” that would create 200,000 jobs in two years and a million jobs in five years, “many more jobs than will be lost” due to rising imports. This is the central argument used to justify NAFTA by its proponents, so it’s entirely appropriate to evaluate its impact by examining its net impacts on U.S. employment.
The economic logic behind Clinton’s argument was clear: Trade creates new jobs in exporting industries and destroys jobs when imports replace the output of domestic firms. Exports support domestic jobs and production, and imports displace domestically produced goods, displacing existing jobs and preventing new job creation. Clinton assumed, without much evidence, that the net employment effect would be positive. But unfortunately, it wasn’t.
DeLong begins his jobs analysis by noting that trade would have grown with or without NAFTA. But this ignores the status quo ante. U.S.-Mexico trade was roughly balanced in the pre-NAFTA period. If exports and imports had both doubled, our bilateral trade would still have been balanced. Instead, imports grew faster than exports, so the United States developed a significant, job destroying trade deficit with Mexico. We differ over the size of this effect, which I’ll get to in a moment, but the key question is why that trade deficit developed. As I’ve shown elsewhere, the growth of outsourcing, and a near-tripling of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Mexico, were the principle causes. NAFTA created a unique set of investor protections that encouraged multinationals to shift production from the United States to Mexico. The growth of FDI in Mexico overshadowed any impact of tariff cuts (which were larger in Mexico than the United States).
DeLong develops ballpark estimates of the numbers of jobs gained and displaced by U.S. trade with Mexico after NAFTA, using gross trade data from the St. Louis Fed for total U.S. exports and imports of goods to and from Mexico. I have estimated that trade deficits with Mexico displaced 682,900 U.S. jobs in 2010 (the United States had a small trade surplus with Mexico in 1993, before NAFTA took effect, so our best estimate is that growing trade deficits displaced about 700,000 U.S. jobs between 1993 and 2010, as noted by Faux). Our analysis is based on trade data from the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) and an employment requirement matrix from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
My estimates of the jobs supported by U.S. exports are based only on U.S. domestic exports to Mexico—goods produced in the United States with U.S. labor. Total exports also include a growing share of transshipments, or foreign exports (aka re-exports), goods produced in other countries (e.g., China) that are imported into the United States and re-exported to other countries (e.g., Mexico). Foreign exports do not support domestic employment. Data on transshipments are almost always excluded from analyses of the impacts of trade and trade agreements, such as those prepared by the USITC, as noted by agency economists. And the exclusion of transshipments makes a big difference in NAFTA trade, as shown in the graph below (my jobs analysis is also based on imports for consumption rather than general imports, but this distinction has no significant impact on job loss estimates).
U.S. exports to Mexico, both total and domestic, have increased since NAFTA took effect, but the gap between them (i.e., foreign exports) has increased much more rapidly. Imports (not shown) have also increased faster than exports, and as a result, the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico has increased steadily since NAFTA took effect.
The U.S.-Mexico trade deficit in 2013 (and hence the jobs displaced by trade) when properly calculated, using domestic exports, was $96.2 billion, nearly twice as large as the deficit estimated with total U.S. exports ($54.4 billion). The difference in estimated trade balances largely explains why my estimate of the jobs displaced by NAFTA (700,000) is twice as large as DeLong’s (350,000). The centerpiece of his critique of Faux’s analysis is based on faulty data, but that’s just where the problems begin.
Job losses are just the tip of the iceberg for domestic workers
DeLong asserts that even if NAFTA did result in job losses, some workers gained because the jobs gained through increased exports are “better jobs with higher pay” than the jobs lost due to higher imports. But this assertion is not backed up with any data. I have compared jobs created and displaced by NAFTA and found that the facts do not support this assumption. In a 2006 report I showed that jobs displaced by imports from Mexico paid $813 per week, while jobs supported by exports to Mexico paid only $799 per week, 1.8% percent less. More importantly, with respect to the 700,000 net jobs lost, even when re-employed in non-traded industries, workers earned only $683 per week, 19 percent less than the jobs displaced by imports. Wage losses associated with trading good jobs in import-competing industries for lower paying jobs in exporting and non-traded goods industries cost U.S. workers $7.6 billion in 2004.
My results for Mexico trade are not anomalous. I found similar and even stronger results for U.S.-China trade. Average weekly wages of jobs displaced by imports from China between 2001 and 2011 were 17.0 percent higher than average wages in jobs supported by exports to China. Workers in non-traded industries earned 9.4% less than workers in exporting industries. Growing trade deficits with China cost 2.7 million jobs between 2001 (which China entered the WTO) and 2011, resulting in $37 billion in lost wages in 2011 alone.
The analysis of wages paid to workers in import, export and non-traded industries holds everything else constant. It does not reflect the much more important, economy-wide impacts of trade on the wages of working Americans, the well-known Stolper-Samuelson effects. Direct wage losses for workers displaced by NAFTA and China trade are just indicative of the larger impact of trade on wages for working Americans. Most traded goods are manufactured products, production of which disproportionately employs non-college-educated workers. Trade with low-wage countries like Mexico and China puts manufacturing workers, and everyone with a similar skill set, into competition with low-wage workers abroad.
Josh Bivens has shown that growing trade with less developed countries (LDCs) has been responsible for large shares of the rapidly growing college–non-college wage gap. That overall wage gap increased 22.0 percentage points between 1979 and 2011. Bivens’ model estimates the broad impacts of trade on all non-college educated workers in the United States, who number about 100 million. His study shows that growing LDC trade “lowered wages in 2011 by 5.5 percent—or by roughly $1,800—for a full-time, full-year worker earning the average wage” for such workers. Trade with low-wage countries can explain roughly a third of the overall rise since 1979 in the wage premium earned by workers with at least a four-year college degree relative to those without one. However, trade with low-wage countries explains more than 90 percent of the rise in this premium since 1995. China and Mexico are the United States’ two largest low-wage trade partners.
It’s important to note that trade was not the only cause of growing inequality over the past three decades or so (since the late 1970s). Growing inequality in this era was the result of policy choices on behalf of corporate interests including macroeconomic policy (e.g., too-tight monetary policy leading to an increase in average unemployment levels), trade agreements, deregulation of the financial sector, attacks on the legal foundations of organized labor, declines in the real minimum wage, deregulation of many industries and privatization of the public sector, and other policies that have helped some workers and hurt others. Many economists and policy makers blame technology instead (more specifically, skill biased technical change), but there is mounting evidence against this view. Rapid technological progress has been a hallmark of the American economy for generations, but massive growth in inequality began only in the late 1970s, and is strongly correlated with the policy choices noted above.
DeLong argues that the United States, as a “hyperpower,” has a “strong moral obligation to the world” as a whole to support trade and investment deals like NAFTA. We can certainly agree that NAFTA was a much bigger deal for Mexico than it was for the United States. But it was a bad deal for Mexico. DeLong asserts that NAFTA “boosted employment in Mexico by 1.5 million” (3 percent of the Mexican labor force). But most of the jobs gained must have been in manufacturing, since about 80% of Mexico’s exports are manufactured products. However, Mexico only added about 400,000 manufacturing jobs between 1993 and 2013, and this is probably an overestimate of the employment gains from trade because it doesn’t take into account job losses in Mexican agriculture due to opening of grain trade. Furthermore, rates of growth in per capita GDP in Mexico fell from 3 percent per year in the period between the 1940s and the 1970s to 1 percent after it liberalized trade in the late 1980s and then joined NAFTA. Again, the data conflict with DeLong’s theoretical assumptions. If NAFTA was a bad deal for workers in Mexico, why should policymakers in the United States support trade and investment deals that cost jobs and reduce wages for most working Americans?
DeLong expresses consternation at the “energy the American left poured and pours into the anti-NAFTA cause.” He, of course, is energetically still trying to defend policies that he supported while serving as a deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury between 1993 and 1995, when NAFTA (and the WTO) were created. But it’s clear that NAFTA failed to measure up to the claims on which it was sold to the American people and to Congress and has been a significant contributor to growing inequality, one of the most pernicious problems of the past two decades. Furthermore, DeLong does not dispute the fact that NAFTA cost jobs in the United States, and only quibbles about the numbers. This only raises the question, if trade hurts the domestic economy, why should we supercharge it?
DeLong also argues that if NAFTA increased unemployment and lowered wages, then we should just fix our macroeconomic policies, including “exchange rate policies” to change them. But this illustrates just how flawed NAFTA was—a two thousand page document that allowed corporations to sue host governments over any laws that might possibly threaten their profits, without regard to national interest. Somehow, nothing was included in the NAFTA, WTO, or other major, U.S. trade and investment deals about exchange rate policy, perhaps the single most important determinant of trade balances (and imbalances), resulting in the loss of millions of jobs due to growing trade deficits with Mexico and China, alone.
The continued opposition of “the American left” to NAFTA and similar deals is easily explained. It’s because the self-styled technocratic center insists on shoving these agreements through the system every chance they get. In 2009 and 2010, in the absolute teeth of the Great Recession (or as DeLong calls it, the Lesser Depression) we got the Korea, Panama and Columbia trade and investment deals shoved down the throats of Congress and “the left.” And it’s well to recall that in 1993, Clinton decided to make NAFTA, rather than health care, the centerpiece of his policy agenda for what became a notably unproductive 8-year term. Despite the well-known failures of past trade and investment deals like NAFTA, the Obama Administration has made negotiating new, job killing agreements like the U.S. Korea Free Trade Agreement Free Trade Agreement and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership a centerpiece of its economic policies, based on its claim that such deals will create tens of thousands of “American jobs through increased exports alone.”
NAFTA has had real and significant costs for the vast majority of working Americans, and it never delivered the promised benefits for Mexico. Working Americans and “the left” have very good reasons for opposing such deals and should continue to do so.
On May 22, 2014, the Office of Management and Budget solicited comments on a proposal for changes to the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) that would take effect in a 2017 revision. The revision would reclassify factoryless goods producers (FGPs) such as Apple and Nike, most of which are now in wholesaling or management of companies, as manufacturers, and move trade by manufacturing service providers (MSPs), such as China’s Foxconn (which builds Apple products) into services. In What is manufacturing and where does it happen?, I show that this proposal would artificially inflate U.S. manufacturing production and employment and deflate U.S goods trade deficits with many countries. It would also irrevocably change U.S. balance of payments accounting. I recommend that OMB should withdraw its NAICS 2017 proposal regarding FGPs and MSPs, and remand the issue to the OMB committee that handles trade statistics policy for reconsideration.
NAICS is used by the myriad federal statistical agencies that collect, analyze, and publish economic data, including data on trade. The OMB proposal was developed to respond to the rapid growth of establishments that design products but outsource most or all of the production process.
The NAICS 2017 proposal—which is part of a broader, international, behind-the-scenes effort to redefine and recalculate U.S. and international trade accounts—would artificially inflate measures of U.S. manufacturing production and employment by arbitrarily moving wholesalers such as Apple and Nike into manufacturing, and changing substantial quantities of the goods we import into services. This would reduce our reported trade deficit in goods (on a balance of payments basis), with no change in our underlying balance of trade. And it would make it appear that U.S. manufacturing output has increased when, in fact, much of the actual manufacturing production has been offshored.
Suppressing measured trade deficits through statistical manipulation is no substitute for better trade and manufacturing policies. Congress should order a comprehensive review and evaluation of recent and planned changes to U.S. international trade and national accounting statistics, and of the international standards on which U.S. trade accounting systems are based.
The U.S. steel industry won an important victory late Friday afternoon when the Department of Commerce announced that it would impose punitive tariffs on manufacturers in Korea and eight other nations who have dumped steel pipes in the United States at artificially low prices (producers from India and Turkey were also hit with countervailing duties to offset illegal subsidies). The background for this decision is explained in our May report on surging steel imports, which showed that the U.S. steel industry is facing its worst import crisis in more than a decade, with more than half a million U.S. jobs at risk.
Commerce’s decision last week concerned imports of Oil Country Tubular Goods (OCTG), steel pipe that is used to build out the infrastructure needed to support the booming American oil and gas fracking industry. Imports of unfairly cheap and subsidized steel pipes have decimated domestic producers and threaten the jobs and incomes of thousands of steelworkers and their families. U.S. Steel had already announced the closure of two U.S. plants making OCTG pipe, and many more jobs and plants are at risk. Among the nine countries included in the OCTG case, Korea was by far the largest supplier of imported steel pipe sold at artificially low prices.
In a closely related development, a Wall Street Journal story published last Thursday asked “Is Korean Steel Really Chinese?” This is an important issue in the larger steel crisis. Our May report showed that the major cause of the global steel crisis is the growth of excess global steel production capacity. Chinese producers account for more than a third of total excess global capacity, which now exceeds half a billion metric tons. Much of this capacity is targeted on the U.S. market, one of the largest and most open in the world.
This past year, President Obama’s commitment to rebuilding our nation’s manufacturing sector has taken center stage. In February, he explained why producing goods here at home is important to our country:
“For generations of Americans, manufacturing was the ticket to a good middle-class life. We made stuff. And the stuff we made—like steel and cars and planes—made us the economic leader of the world. And the work was hard, but the jobs were good. And if you got on an assembly plant in Detroit or in a steel plant in Youngstown, you could buy a home. You could raise kids. You could send them to college. You could retire with some security. And those jobs didn’t just tell us how much we were worth, they told us how we were contributing to the society and how we were helping to build America, and gave people a sense of dignity and purpose. They saw a Boeing plane or one of the Big Three cars rolling off the assembly line, and they said, you know what, I made that. And they were iconic. And people understood that’s what it meant for something to be made in America.”
The president has continually called for curtailing corporate incentives to outsource manufacturing to other countries, saying “it is time to stop rewarding businesses that ship jobs overseas, and start rewarding companies that create jobs right here in America.” A White House fact sheet summarizes his plans for restoring U.S. manufacturing jobs.
Apparently, some folks in the administration haven’t gotten the message. On May 22, the Office of Management and Budget issued a notice for comments on a proposal to dramatically alter the way government keeps statistics on domestic industries. The proposal suggests “that factoryless goods producers (FGPs) be classified” as manufacturers.
The Brookings Institution’s Mark Muro and Scott Andes recently published two blog posts which claim that the problems of U.S. manufacturing demand being depressed by large trade deficits—particularly trade deficits with China—are “a manufactured chimera,” and that the problems facing U.S. manufacturing are actually just evidence of insufficient domestic innovation. By deflecting attention from China’s manufacturing surplus, and the trade and currency policies China has used to dominate the market for manufacturing exports, Muro and Andes are distracting, not educating, those genuinely concerned with giving U.S. manufacturing a chance to compete in global markets. Claiming that it’s the domestic pace of innovation that is somehow the real cause of trouble is oddly provincial, and ignores some key global facts—like the fact that China has doubled down on its currency manipulation policies in the past year, and that its manufacturing trade surplus is projected to grow in the future unless something is done about it.
The most fundamental problem facing U.S. manufacturing is a shortage of demand for U.S. manufactured products. Four years after the end of the Great Recession, real U.S. manufacturing output was 2.2 percent below its pre-recession level. Demand for U.S. manufactured products was much higher at this point in earlier business cycles: 11.1% higher in 2005 (after the end of the dot-com bubble), and 23.9 percent higher in 1995, four years after the 1990-1991 recession. In other words, our manufacturing problem today is, first and foremost, a macroeconomic problem. Without adequate demand, manufacturers will not invest in R&D, build new plants, or hire new workers. Demand for output from U.S. manufacturing can either come from domestic sources—American consumers, businesses and governments—or from foreign sources. Net foreign demand for U.S. manufacturing output is best measured simply as net exports (exports minus imports) of manufactured goods.
In a blog post, Martin Kessler and Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute claim that, contrary to popular belief, the Chinese renminbi is not undervalued. Their assertion is based on new estimates of prices and income in China relative those in the United States. The Wall Street Journal concludes that the world should “stop bugging China on the undervaluation of its currency.”
However, by failing to consider the effects of China’s purchases of foreign exchange reserves and its significant trade surplus, the Kessler-Subramanian model appears fatally flawed. China invested more than half a trillion dollars in purchasing foreign exchange reserves in 2013 alone—a new record. But for those purchases, the value of the RMB would have been significantly higher. Kessler and Subramanian claim that the RMB was “only slightly undervalued in 2011” is simply not credible, when that exchange rate is being sustained with such massive purchases of foreign exchange reserves.
In fact, China’s currency needs to rise in value every year because productivity growth in manufacturing is so much higher than in the United States and other countries. Between 1995 and 2009, China experienced manufacturing productivity growth that ranged between 6.7 percent and 9.6 percent per year. Over the same period, productivity growth in U.S. manufacturing averaged only 2.4 percent per year. Thus, China must allow its currency to rise by four to seven percent a year simply to keep its trade surplus from expanding.
Earlier this week, I estimated that up to half million (583,600) U.S. jobs are at risk due to surging imports of unfairly traded steel. A recent post by blogger Tim Worstall suggests that the number can’t possibly be that large because the steel industry employs only 150,000 people. But this misses the point—the risk to the steel industry goes far beyond the steel companies themselves, and the workers they employ. It also includes workers in iron ore and coal mines, in other manufacturing industries that support steel production, as well as lawyers, accountants, managers and other workers who supply services to the steel industry. All these jobs, 583,600 in total, are threatened by the flood of steel imports.
Half of the 46 top steel companies in the world were government-owned, and they accounted for 38 percent of global production. Illegally dumped and subsidized steel products are stealing market share and jobs from domestic producers. Worstall claims that we should ignore unfair import competition because, “if we get cheaper steel then this makes us all richer.” He concludes that “the market price is the fair price” for imports.
Responding to a similar question from a reporter this week, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown said that this is “like arguing it’s OK to buy stolen TVs because they are cheaper.” Even a market economy needs rules to prevent cheating and unfair trade.
Worstall claims that we performed “some very heroic calculations” in estimating the jobs at risk due to unfair imports. He goes on to claim that “what is being done here is to assume that… steel workers buy restaurant meals so waiters are employed…and so on.” But this is exactly what we did not do.
Our model used standard data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to estimate the direct and indirect jobs supported by U.S. steel production. Indirect jobs include those in production of “input commodities such as minerals and ore, coke, and other fuels, as well as downstream services and other resources consumed in the production of and distribution of steel products.” Furthermore, we very clearly stated that our estimate did “not include respending jobs supported by the wages of workers in the steel industry.”
This Saturday is the second anniversary of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), which took effect on March 15, 2012. President Obama said at the time that KORUS would increase US goods exports by $10 to $11 billion, supporting 70,000 American jobs from increased exports alone. Things are not turning out as predicted.
In first two years after KORUS took effect, U.S. domestic exports to Korea fell (decreased) by $3.1 billion, a decline of 7.5%, as shown in the figure below. Imports from Korea increased $5.6 billion, an increase of 9.8%. Although rising exports could, in theory, support more U.S. jobs, the decline in US exports to Korea has actually cost American jobs in the past two years. Worse yet, the rapid growth of Korean imports has eliminated even more U.S. jobs. Overall, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea has increased $8.7 billion, or 59.6%, costing nearly 60,000 U.S. jobs. Most of the nearly 60,000 jobs lost were in manufacturing.
Trade deals do more than cut tariffs, they promote foreign direct investment (FDI) and a surge in outsourcing by U.S. and foreign multinational companies (MNCs). FDI leads to growing trade deficits and job losses. U.S. multinationals were responsible for nearly one quarter (26.9 percent) of the U.S. trade deficit in 2011. Foreign multinationals operating in the United States (companies like Kia and Hyundai) were responsible for nearly half (44.2 percent) of the U.S. goods trade deficit in that same year. Taken together, U.S. and foreign MNCs were responsible for nearly three-fourths (77.1 percent) of the U.S. goods trade deficit in 2011.
The second installment of the Netflix original series, House of Cards, became available recently to the delight of binge watchers everywhere. In the backdrop of Frank Underwood’s (played by Kevin Spacey) uncompromising assent to power is a very relevant debate about trade policy with China. Specifically, one of the primary sources of tension between the two countries is the U.S.’ contention that China artificially keeps the value of their currency down to gain an advantage in trade. Defining currency manipulation is an ongoing debate, but Bergsten and Gagnon laid out their own criterion and found China to be one of the “most significant currency manipulators.” The effort to label China a currency manipulator falls by the wayside in Underwood’s duplicitous schemes to push his own personal agenda, but China’s currency manipulation has real effects on trade, and the United States can take real actions to reduce the trade deficit and create jobs. In fact, EPI’s Robert Scott just released a paper which found that ending currency manipulation across 20 of the most prominent practitioners (including the linchpin, China) would create between 2.3 million to 5.8 million jobs in the United States over the next three years.
So how is “currency manipulation” defined? Bergsten and Gagnon categorize a country as a currency manipulator if it meets the following four criteria:
- They held federal exchange (FX) reserves that exceed six months of goods and services imports.
- They maintained a total (global) current-account surplus between 2001 and 2011.
- Their total FX reserves grew faster than their GDP between 2001 and 2011.
- They have gross national income in 2010 of at least $3,000 per capita, the median among 215 countries ranked by the World Bank (this criterion excludes low-incoming developing economies).
Growing trade deficits have cost US workers millions of jobs over the past two decades, (these were good jobs in manufacturing industries). Currency manipulation by more than 20 countries, of which China is by far the largest, is the single most important reason why U.S. trade deficits have not decisively reversed. Currency manipulation lowers the value of foreign currencies, relative to the U.S. dollar, which acts like a subsidy to their exports, and a tax on U.S. exports to China and every other country where the U.S. competes with the exports of currency manipulators.
In an era of fiscal austerity, ending global currency manipulation is the best way to reduce trade deficits, create jobs, and rebuild the U.S. economy, as shown in Stop Currency Manipulation and Create Millions of Jobs. Eliminating currency manipulation would reduce the U.S. trade deficit by between $200 billion and $500 billion in three years. This would increase annual U.S. GDP by between $288 billion and $720 billion and create 2.3 million to 5.8 million jobs. About 40 percent of the jobs gained would be in manufacturing.
Ending currency manipulation would not require any government spending – a key political virtue during this time of Congressional gridlock. In fact, it would reduce the federal budget deficit by up to $266 billion dollars per year as the extra economic activity and employment it creates boosts tax revenues and reduces safety net spending. Ending currency manipulation would create jobs in every state, with gains from 8,200 jobs (2.64 percent of total employment) in the District of Columbia to 687,100 jobs (4.18 percent of employment) in California. Ending currency manipulation would likely create jobs in every Congressional District, with gains of up to 24,400 jobs (7.05 percent of employment) in the 17th District in CA.
Last week my colleague, Rob Scott, published a report highlighting the impact of ongoing currency manipulation on employment in the United States. In the report, Scott explained that currency manipulation by U.S. trading partners—including China, Denmark, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland and Taiwan—distorts trade flows in two ways. It raises the cost of U.S. exports, and lowers the cost of U.S. imports.
Currency manipulation has cost the U.S. economy millions of jobs, including a disproportionately large share of manufacturing jobs. The impact of these job losses is clearly evident in the Midwest, which suffered significant manufacturing job losses. Further, the displacement of manufacturing jobs not only meant fewer job opportunities, but also the elimination of unionized jobs that pay family-supporting wages. Ending currency manipulation would likely lead to significant growth in the American manufacturing sector, a necessary step to begin rebuilding a strong middle class.
In his State of the Union Address, President Obama said that because “ninety-eight percent of our exporters are small businesses, new trade partnerships with Europe and the Asia-Pacific will help them create more jobs.” This suggests that small businesses will benefit most from trade, but that is not the case. In fact, two-thirds of U.S. exports are generated by multinational companies (domestic and foreign) operating in this country, as shown in the figure below. These massive firms also generated more than two thirds of U.S. imports and an even larger share of the job-destroying U.S. goods trade deficits.
And therein lies the not so hidden underbelly of international trade and investment deals that the president has consistently refused to discuss: job displacing imports. A surge of imports from low wage countries has driven down wages for working people in the United States. In fact, imports are responsible for 90% of the growth in the college/noncollege wage gap since 1995.
Those same multinational companies were the biggest supporters of trade and investment deals with Mexico, Korea and China, deals that have cost U.S. workers nearly four million jobs in the past two decades. Now, the multinationals are demanding that the president complete trade deals with nearly a dozen countries in Asia and Latin America (the TPP), and a new trade and investment deal with Europe (the TTIP) that will open our markets to goods made by millions of low wage workers in Eastern Europe.
President Obama will deliver his State of the Union this coming Tuesday, the 28th. It seems obvious that no big new policy initiative that requires action from Congress will pass in the next year, given DC gridlock. This is a real shame, because the crisis of joblessness and failure to fully recover from the Great Recession remains the single largest economic challenge facing the country, and solving it would require a serious course correction on policy. The most reliable fix for this crisis of joblessness would be simply allowing public spending to rise to levels that characterized every other recovery since World War II. Even better would be to allow this spending to rise to levels characterizing the recovery from the similarly steep early 1980s recession. In short, what is needed is not some historically unprecedented stimulus program, but simply an end to the historically unprecedented austerity program now underway.
And it’s pretty easy to specify where the first $25 billion or so of this spending should be allocated: extending the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program for long-term unemployed workers—a program begun in June 2008 when the unemployment rate was significantly lower than today and when long-term unemployment was literally half as high. I’d be shocked if the president did not issue a forceful call to pass EUC for the upcoming year.
After this, a substantial program of public investment would be most welcome, boosting job-growth and economic activity in the short-run and boosting productivity in the longer-run. The talking point mobilized in favor of infrastructure investment—that it once was a bi-partisan priority—has the rare virtue of being true even today, so long as one listens to policy analysts and not politicians. For example, Martin Feldstein, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors under Ronald Reagan, has endorsed a deficit-financed increase in infrastructure investment (granted, he endorses plenty of other things in that column that I’m not on board with, but the point remains). And Ken Rogoff, an economic adviser to John McCain in 2008, has also noted that infrastructure investment would be hugely beneficial in the current economic climate.1
Fast track legislation is moving forward. Retiring Senator Max Baucus(D-MT) and Republican leaders introduced a bill to give trade promotion negotiating authority (a.k.a. “fast track” authority) to complete the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and a trade and investment deal (the TTIP) with the European Union. The sponsors were unable to obtain a Democratic co-sponsor in the House, and House Ways and Means Ranking Member Sander Levin introduced a strong statement calling for a better model for negotiating trade agreements.
Fast Track is a terrible idea because it’s a proven job killer. It gives the president the right to send treaty implementing legislation to Congress for a vote without any opportunity to amend or improve it. Setting enforceable job creation goals or creating effective mechanisms to deal with currency manipulation, for example, will be impossible if the legislation is fast-tracked.
NAFTA, which was fast-tracked in 1993, and which was the prototype for more than a dozen U.S. trade and investment deals negotiated over the past decade, resulted in growing trade deficits with Mexico that eliminated nearly 700,000 U.S. jobs by 2010. More recently, President Obama pushed through a new trade deal between Korea and the United States (the KORUS deal), which resulted in the loss of 40,000 jobs in the first year alone.
Fast track legislation in its current form is opposed by more than 170 Republican and Democratic House members, so this legislation might be dead on arrival. The House Republican leadership is reportedly insisting that at least 50 Democrats co-sponsor the legislation, including at least one House Democratic leader, before it will be allowed to come to a vote on the House floor. With luck, the fast track bill will die in the House. The last thing America needs is renewal of fast track and more trade and investment deals rushed through Congress.
The post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.
New Year’s Day, 2014, marks the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Agreement created a common market for goods, services and investment capital with Canada and Mexico. And it opened the door through which American workers were shoved, unprepared, into a brutal global competition for jobs that has cut their living standards and is destroying their future.
NAFTA’s birth was bi-partisan—conceived by Ronald Reagan, negotiated by George Bush I, and pushed through the US Congress by Bill Clinton in alliance with Congressional Republicans and corporate lobbyists.
Clinton and his collaborators promised that the deal would bring “good-paying American jobs,” a rising trade surplus with Mexico, and a dramatic reduction in illegal immigration. Instead, NAFTA directly cost the United States. a net loss of 700,000 jobs. The surplus with Mexico turned into a chronic deficit. And the economic dislocation in Mexico increased the the flow of undocumented workers into the United States.
Nevertheless, Clinton and his Republican successor, George Bush II, then used the NAFTA template to design the World Trade Organization, more than a dozen bilateral trade treaties, and the deal that opened the American market to China—which alone has cost the United States another net 2.7 million jobs. The result has been 20 years of relentless outsourcing of jobs and technology.
In a swift reaction to ugly publicity about suicides, injuries, and mistreatment of workers, Biel Crystal, one of Apple’s most important suppliers of touchscreen cover glass for its iPhones, reached an agreement with the Chinese labor rights group, SACOM, to take three steps toward better conditions by January 2014:
- Clear work contracts for workers that include details on terms of contract, terms of probation, position, affiliated department. The company also will not ask workers to turn in the contract when work relation ends.
- Compensation and assistance for injured workers in accordance with China’s Regulation on Work, related injury insurance and adequate measures to protect workers from work injury.
- One day off every seven working days.
These very basic protections might seem like minimal progress, but in light of the appalling conditions at Biel Crystal’s plant, even providing limited basic protections is welcome.
The fact that the company has acknowledged such significant shortcomings in these fundamental areas of labor rights shows just how far Apple is from living up to its commitments to decent labor conditions throughout its supplier chain. It should be a reminder to all who follow Apple that the recent report by its hand-picked monitor, the Fair Labor Association, was little more than a whitewash that covered up the truly horrendous labor conditions in the factories that make Apple products. The FLA’s investigation also assessed conditions for less than one-fifth of the workers in Apple’s supply chain and thus missed gross violations at other factories, such as at the Biel Crystal plant.