Director, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch
My New Year’s celebrations this year were haunted by memories of January 1, 1994 — the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. I remember crying that day, thinking about the proud men and women in union halls across America, the Mexican campesinos and the inspiring Canadian activists I had met during the fight against NAFTA, and hoping desperately that our dire predictions would be proved wrong.
They were not. In short order, the damage started. And, we started to document it.
For NAFTA’s unhappy 20th anniversary, Public Citizen has published a report that details the wreckage. Not only did promises made by NAFTA’s proponents not materialize, but many results are exactly the opposite.
Such outcomes include a staggering $181 billion U.S. trade deficit with NAFTA partners Mexico and Canada and the related loss of 1 million net U.S. jobs under NAFTA, growing income inequality, displacement of more than one million Mexican campesino farmers and a doubling of desperate immigration from Mexico, and more than $360 million paid to corporations after “investor-state” tribunal attacks on, and rollbacks of, domestic public interest policies.
The study makes for a blood-boiling read. For instance, we track the specific promises made by U.S. corporations like GE, Chrysler and Caterpillar to create specific numbers of American jobs if NAFTA was approved, and reveal government data showing that instead, they fired U.S. workers and moved operations to Mexico.
The data also show how post-NAFTA trade and investment trends have contributed to middle-class pay cuts, which in turn contributed to growing income inequality; how since NAFTA, U.S. trade deficit growth with Mexico and Canada has been 45 percent higher than with countries not party to a U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and how U.S. manufacturing exports to Canada and Mexico have grown at less than half the pre-NAFTA rate.
NAFTA’s actual outcomes prove how damaging this type of agreement is for most people, demonstrating why NAFTA should be renegotiated or terminated. The evidence makes clear that we cannot have any more such deals that include job-offshoring incentives, requirements we import food that doesn’t meet our safety standards or new rights for firms to get taxpayer compensation before foreign tribunals for laws they don’t like.
Given NAFTA’s record of damage, it is equal parts disgusting and infuriating that now President Barack Obama has joined the corporate Pinocchios who lied about NAFTA, recycling similar claims to try to sell the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is NAFTA on steroids.
As Americans have lived with NAFTA’s effects since its Jan. 1, 1994, start, public opinion has shifted dramatically, from a narrow divide during the 1993 NAFTA debate to overwhelming opposition today. A 2012 Angus Reid Public Opinion poll found that 53 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should “do whatever is necessary” to “renegotiate” or “leave” NAFTA, while only 15 percent believe the U.S. should “continue to be a member of NAFTA.” That opposition cuts across party lines, class divisions and education levels, perhaps explaining the growing controversy over the proposed deepening and expansion of the NAFTA model through the TPP.
This transpartisan public opposition to NAFTA-style pacts is what underlies the growing transpartisan opposition in Congress to President Obama’s request that Congress delegate away its constitutional authorities through Fast Track trade authority. Were it not for Fast Track’s creation of a legislative luge run through Congress for NAFTA, the deal would not have been implemented.
Fast Track was an extreme scheme cooked up by Richard Nixon that was only ever used 16 times, including for NAFTA. It empowered a president to sign a trade agreement before Congress voted on it with a guarantee that the executive branch can write legislation not subject to committee markup that would implement the pact and alter wide swaths of existing U.S. law. Fast Track guaranteed House and Senate votes on this bill within 90 days, with all floor amendments forbidden and a maximum of 20 hours of debate.
In the 19 years since NAFTA and the agreement establishing the World Trade Organization were passed under Fast Track, Congress has woken up to the fact that these pacts rewrite wide swaths of non-trade laws, and Democratic and GOP presidents have had a hard time convincing Congress to put on the Fast Track handcuffs. Fast Track has only been in effect for five years (2002-2007) since then. The same coalition of chronic U.S.-job-offshorers, agribusiness monopolists, Big Pharma, oil and gas giants and the think tanks they fund are gearing up a big push to revive Fast Track because they know that is the only way the TPP could get through Congress.
Among the findings of the NAFTA at 20 study:
Given NAFTA’s devastating outcomes, few of the corporations or think tanks that sold it as a boon for all of us in the 1990s like to talk about it, but the reality is that their promises failed as millions of people were severely harmed.
Now the same interests that dished out lies to sell NAFTA are at it again to push the TPP, but the difference is that 20 years of the NAFTA experience has turned Americans against these sorts of deals.
If there is any upside to NAFTA, let it be that its 20 years of damage helps to build the activism outside, and the sense of political liability inside, Congress that are needed to ensure that Fast Track is permanently dust-binned and the NAFTA model is not expanded through TPP.