The thing about free trade is that it makes markets more efficient. One country doesn’t have to depend upon itself for all of the things that it needs. This lowers costs all around and makes the world richer. In theory, I’m all for free trade. In practice, I’m against it. This is because as trade barriers have been taken down over the last four decades, the economic gains have not been shared; they have gone overwhelmingly to the already rich. This is what happened with NAFTA in the US: it did increase profits, but it didn’t help the American worker. But we hear a lot that it was at least good for Mexico.
There is a certain strain of liberalism that likes this idea very much. From their vantage point, the poor here in the US may have it bad, but they should shut up because the poor in Zimbabwe have it even worse. I discussed this in an article last year, Data Journalists Don’t Know Anything About the Poor Anywhere. The problem is that these journalists are usually in the top quintile of income in this country and so the poor everywhere are abstractions to them. So they are the kind of people who would argue that damage done to US workers would be acceptable for the sake of the even more poor people in Mexico.
Part of the problem here is that this whole globalization game isn’t much different in other countries than it is here. The greater trade might lead to more GDP, but its all captured by those at the top. But sadly, we don’t even have to make that argument. The truth is that since NAFTA, Mexico’s economy has done really poorly. Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) wrote two years ago, NAFTA: 20 Years of Regret for Mexico. And he summed up what the first two decades brought Mexico:
If you want to take a deep dive into the subject, check out the CEPR document, Did NAFTA Help Mexico? An Assessment After 20 Years (PDF).
Weisbrot’s colleague at CEPR, Dean Baker, has been documenting the way that The Washington Post consistently exaggerates how well the Mexican economy has done. This is entirely typical of mainstream US news coverage. And it is in direct contrast to its coverage of official US government enemies like Venezuela, where nothing that they do will ever be seen as good.
The truth of the matter is that trade deals like NAFTA are created by the rich for the benefit of the rich. And even economists who once thought they were wonderful (for theoretical reasons), are now backing away. As Weisbrot noted, “When economists who have promoted NAFTA from the beginning are called upon to defend the agreement, the best that they can offer is that it increased trade.” But no one cares about trade as a goal; it is a means to a goal: shared prosperity. And Mexico has not shared in that prosperity.