NAFTA’s Broken Promises 1994-2013: Outcomes of the North American Free Trade Agreement

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In 1993, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was sold to the American public with grand promises. NAFTA would create tens of thousands of good jobs here. U.S. farmers would export their way to wealth. NAFTA would bring Mexico’s standard of living up, providing new economic opportunities there that would reduce immigration to the United States.

NAFTA was an experiment, establishing a radically new “trade” agreement model. It exploded the boundaries of past trade pacts, which had focused narrowly on cutting tariffs and quotas. In contrast, NAFTA contained chapters that created new privileges and protections for foreign investors; required the three countries to waive domestic procurement preferences, such as Buy American; limited regulation of
services, such as trucking and banking; extended medicine patent monopolies and limited food and product safety standards and border inspection.

After nineteen years of NAFTA, we can measure its actual outcomes. The grand promises made by proponents remain unfulfilled. Many outcomes are exactly the opposite of what was promised. Many U.S. firms used the new investor protections to relocate production to Mexico to take advantage of its low wages and weak environmental standards and to attack NAFTA countries’ environmental and health laws
in foreign tribunals. Over $340 million in compensation to investors has been extracted from NAFTA governments via these “investor-state” challenges.

The small U.S. trade surplus with Mexico pre-NAFTA turned into a massive new trade deficit. The preNAFTA U.S. trade deficit with Canada expanded greatly. Overall, the inflation-adjusted U.S. trade deficit with Canada of $29.1 billion and the $2.5 billion surplus with Mexico in 1993 (the year before NAFTA took effect) turned into a combined NAFTA trade deficit of $181 billion by 2012.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimated that the NAFTA deficit had eliminated about one million net American jobs by 2004. Meanwhile, U.S. food processors moved to Mexico to take advantage of low wages and food imports soared. U.S beef imports from Mexico and Canada, for example, have risen 130 percent since NAFTA took effect, and today U.S. consumption of “NAFTA” beef tops $1.3 billion annually.

The export of subsidized U.S. corn did increase, displacing over one million Mexican campesino farmers. Their desperate migration pushed down wages in Mexico’s border maquiladora factory zone and contributed to a doubling of Mexican immigration to the United States.

The U.S. public’s view of NAFTA has intensified from broad opposition to overwhelming opposition to NAFTA-style trade deals. According to a 2012 Angus Reid Public Opinion poll, 53 percent of Americans believe the United States should “do whatever is necessary” to “renegotiate” or “leave” NAFTA, while only 15 percent believe the United States should “continue to be a member of NAFTA.” Rejection of the trade deal is the predominant stance of Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. NAFTA has drawn the ire of Americans across stunningly diverse demographics. A 2011 National Journal poll showed strong rejection of the status quo trade model from both lower-educated and higher-educated respondents, and a 2010 NBC News – Wall Street Journal survey revealed that a majority of upperincome respondents have now joined lower-income respondents in opposing NAFTA-style pacts. In addition, a 2008 Zogby poll found majority NAFTA opposition across nearly every surveyed demographic group, including independents, Hispanics, women, Catholics and Southerners.