Some NAFTA perspective

I have been hearing a good deal of talk against NAFTA and other free trade agreements over the past couple of weeks and I wanted to offer a different perspective:

There is no question that the imbalance of trade within Nafta has soared since 2000. That deficit has almost doubled to nearly $140 billion in 2007, from $77 billion in 2000. But the deficit in manufactured goods did not displace U.S. factory production.

What the antitrade advocates have been hiding from the candidates (or maybe don’t know themselves) is that almost all of the increase in our Nafta deficit since 2000 has been in increased U.S. imports of energy from Canada and Mexico. In fact, $58 billion of the $62 billion increase in our Nafta deficit has been in energy imports. That’s 95% of the total increase.

We need that oil and gas, and we would rather get it from our friendly neighbors. Surely no one seeks to argue that America would be better off saying no to Mexican and Canadian oil and gas, advocating that we instead import that energy from less secure sources farther from our borders.

Except for energy, though, our trade deficit within Nafta has hardly grown at all – only $3.5 billion from 2000-2007. Our agricultural and manufactured goods sales to Nafta countries have just about kept pace with our imports. That’s a lot more than one can say about the rest of our foreign trade.

While the nonenergy deficit within Nafta has grown less than $4 billion since the job loss started, with the rest of the world it grew over $150 billion. Put another way, the increase in our nonenergy deficit within Nafta has accounted for only 2% of the increase in our global nonenergy deficit since 2000.

Why are the candidates so focused on 2% of our trade problem rather than on the other 98%? Our nonenergy deficit with the high-wage, high-environmental-standard European Union (with whom we have no free trade agreement) grew 10 times as much as it did with Nafta. And of course, with China the deficit grew even more.

None of this is to say that some U.S. factories haven’t closed and their production moved to Canada or Mexico. Certainly that has happened. But in the case of Nafta, that job impact has been almost exactly balanced by increased U.S. production and exports of farm and factory goods.

Suppose our trade with the rest of the world had performed as it did within Nafta. Instead of seeing our nonenergy trade deficit grow over $155 billion, it would have grown only by $25 billion. That would have put us ahead by $130 billion, which sounds pretty good. 

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