Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Unconventional Wisdom on NAFTA and Immigration

John Judis has a piece in the New Republic on NAFTA, the Dems and immigration. It pretty much blows the conventional wisdom out of the water.
Many Democrats courting workers blame NAFTA for the loss of manufacturing jobs. The article makes it clear that that isn't true.
That's not to say that American manufacturers have not suffered. From 2001 to 2007, Ohio lost more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs, while the United States as a whole lost well over 3 million. But there is no evidence that NAFTA drove this job loss. In fact, for the nearly eight years after NAFTA took effect, Ohio's manufacturing employment remained fairly constant, at about 1.1 million workers. But, in 2001, a recession began to squeeze the U.S. economy. And, that same year, Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization accelerated competition from low-wage Chinese manufacturing. Alan Tonelson, a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industrial Council Educational Foundation who has been an outspoken critic of NAFTA, says, "We have 1,500 member companies, and I can't remember the last time anyone mentioned Mexico as a problem. China is the main problem." The Alliance for American Manufacturing, established last year by the United Steelworkers and U.S. steel companies, toured Ohio during the primary "trying to make sure that a convenient fixation on nafta does not preclude debate on the very real problem of China." In other words, the people most affected by the loss of jobs don't blame the treaty that Clinton and Obama have scapegoated.

However, this is not to say that NAFTA is a faultless treaty. Indeed, the real critique of NAFTA is far more intelligent than the one peddled by Clinton and Obama in Ohio. The article it makes the crucial connection between NAFTA and illegal immigration. NAFTA led to a flood of immigration, and the article explains why.
[B]y phasing out government protections for the country's 3.2 million small farmers, NAFTA drove many of them northward. According to Laura Carlsen of the Center for International Policy, as cheap American foodstuffs flooded Mexico's markets and as U.S. agribusiness moved in, 1.1 million small farmers--and 1.4 million other Mexicans dependent upon the farm sector--were driven out of work between 1993 and 2005. Wages dropped so precipitously that today the income of a farm laborer is one-third that of what it was before NAFTA. As jobs disappeared and wages sank, many of these rural Mexicans emigrated, swelling the ranks of the 12 million illegal immigrants living incognito and competing for low-wage jobs in the United States.

The problem is, I haven't heard any major candidate from either party make this connection. When Democrats talk about NAFTA, it's to blame it for shipping our jobs to Mexicans. When both parties talk about illegal immigration, they talk about the best way to spend money to safeguard the border to keep Mexicans out, but don't think about addressing the underlying dynamics. I wish that both parties could look at this from a less America-centric (and nativistic) lens.
Of course, the rise in U.S. agricultural exports has delighted American farmers, even as it has infuriated their Mexican counterparts (on January 31, hundreds of thousands of them poured into Mexico City to protest NAFTA). That may be why the presidential candidates have not complained about this aspect of the treaty. Instead, Clinton and Obama have promised to renegotiate NAFTA's associated labor and environmental agreements, claiming that they can save U.S. manufacturing jobs by making Mexico live up to international standards. "I would immediately have a trade timeout, and I would take that time to try to fix NAFTA by making it clear that we'll have core labor and environmental standards in the agreement," Clinton said during the candidates' February 26 debate in Cleveland. Obama concurred, "I will make sure that we renegotiate, in the same way that Senator Clinton talked about."

It's hard to see how this would provide a big boost to American workers. Mexico's--and Canada's--labor laws are actually more progressive than U.S. laws. Mexico, for instance, has ratified 78 of the International Labor Organization's core labor standards, while the United States has ratified only 14. Besides which, in an interview with Kevin Hall from the McClatchy newspapers, representatives from neither the Clinton nor the Obama campaign could name a single dispute in which tougher labor or environmental regulations would have benefited American workers and manufacturers.

Still, the treaty could be improved. For 15 years, policy experts have suggested that, instead of seeking a trade arrangement aimed solely at benefiting U.S. companies in the short run, the United States should do for Mexico what the European Union did first for Spain, Portugal, and Greece and is now seeking to do for Eastern Europe: use development aid and temporary protections to upgrade dramatically its economy and infrastructure, particularly its educational system, thereby making Mexico more attractive to Mexicans. Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey has argued that, "if the money devoted to U.S. border enforcement were instead channeled into structural adjustment in Mexico, as was done by the EU for Spain, unauthorized migration would likely disappear as a significant demographic and political issue in North America." And that would ease pressures on American workers.

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