CEPR | Apr. 17, 2012
NAFTA and free trade do not belong in the same sentence
Megan MaCardle turned over her blog to Adam Ozimek to spread some misinformation about NAFTA and trade policy. Ozimek headlines the piece, "4 politically controversial issues where all economists agree." While I’m pretty comfortable with three of the four, the claim that all economists agree that, "the benefits of free trade and NAFTA far outweigh the costs" is highly misleading.
First, NAFTA was not about free trade. First and foremost if was about reducing barriers that made U.S, companies reluctant to invest in Mexico. This meant prohibiting Mexico from expropriating factories and outlawing any restrictions on the repatriation of profits to the United States.
The agreement did little to loosen the obstacles facing highly-educated professionals in Mexico, like doctors and lawyers, from working in the United States. If the agreement had freed up trade in this area, it could have led to gains to consumers in the tens of billions of dollars a year.
In other areas, like patents and copyrights, NAFTA increased protection by extending the length and scope of these government granted monopolies. Mexico was forced to develop a U.S. type patent system for prescription drugs which led to considerably higher drug prices.
It is easy to see why someone who might in general support free trade would oppose NAFTA. The winners are the businesses that are in a position to take advantage of access to cheap labor in Mexico. The losers are the manufacturing workers in the United States who will now have to accept lower wages or lose their job.
It is entirely possible that an economist could agree that NAFTA did lead to net gains to the country as a whole, even if most people end up as losers (e.g. every worker loses $100 in wages, but Mitt Romney’s clique pocketed an additional $50 billion in profit). In this case, she might say the policy was bad in spite of the net gains. (Several of the economists questioned raised exactly this concern.)
The higher costs imposed by higher prices for drugs and other products in Mexico could mean that a full assessment of costs would show Mexico to be a net loser from NAFTA. While tariffs are rarely more than 20-30 percent of a product’s price, patents can raise the price of a drug by several hundred or even several thousand percent. The cost to Mexico’s consumers in the form of higher drug prices can easily outstrip the small gains that showed up elsewhere. Of course this will lead to higher profits to U.S. drug companies.
Given the predicted distribution of gains. it is entirely possible that a fully informed economist could believe that the losses from NAFTA to the poor and middle class easily swamp the gains to the rich and for that reason oppose the policy. This is not bad economics as the discussion seems to imply.
Or, to put in terms that even an economist could understand, suppose there was a trade deal that completely opened up doctors, lawyers, and economists to international competition, but maintained the protection for everyone else, and hugely increased the protection for autoworkers. It is entirely possible that many economists would oppose this deal. They certainly would not call it a "free trade" agreement.
There is one final point worth making about this exercise. The line "all economists agree" carries much less weight these days because almost the entire economics profession somehow failed to see the $8 trillion housing bubble, the collapse of which wrecked the economy. Tens of millions of people continue to suffer with the loss of their jobs, their homes, and/or their savings as a result of this incredible incompetence.
In the wake of this momentous failure it is understandable that the public would be reluctant to take the advice of economists on economic policy. (Best question to ask an economist: when did you stop being wrong about the economy?) This is unfortunate, since economists really have learned some things from their studies that may not be apparent to everyone.
However economists will have to earn back the public’s trust. As long as economists pay no price in their careers for even the most disastrous failures, this may prove difficult. After all, if there are no consequences to getting things wrong, why would the public believe that economists will get things right? That is a point on which all economists should agree.
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research