Friday, March 07, 2008

Educating Obama on NAFTA

Philip Levy explains why Obama is so far off on NAFTA. He also tackles one of the basic misunderstandings about trade agreements -- that they have an effect on employment.

If we want to find the true consequences of NAFTA, we need to disentangle this mess of events. We could be guided by the wisdom of economic theory, but it says, loud and clear, that trade agreements have no impact on overall employment. Trade substitutes better jobs for worse jobs, but leaves the job total unchanged.

This is the type of answer that drives politicians berserk. Economic policies are loved or loathed by the public on the basis of how many jobs they create. How can trade policies not affect overall employment?

The number of jobs in an economy is set by the size of the work force, the health of the labor markets, and macroeconomic fluctuations. Trade can certainly create new jobs with export opportunities or cheaper inputs. It can also destroy jobs when firms succumb to import competition. Lots of job creation and destruction occurs every year in the U.S. economy. In an average year, 17 million jobs are created and 15 million are destroyed, with a net job creation of 2 million. When net job creation matches growth in the labor force, the unemployment rate stays constant.

He explains in greater detail why Obama's claim of 1 million jobs lost does not hold water -- because unemployment has been so low that the Fed would have taken steps to slow economic growth:

What of Obama’s claim that NAFTA cost the United States 1 million jobs? Imagine this were right. Then, without NAFTA we would have had 1 million more jobs. In the year 2000, this would have made the unemployment rate just under 3.3 percent, rather than the 4 percent we actually enjoyed. But Federal Reserve governors would have been in a panic long before we got down to that level and would have raised interest rates to slow the economy. They would have known they had gone far enough when unemployment increased to a level they were comfortable with – the same as with NAFTA.

Then what happened to those US manufacturing jobs? Simple: they continued to migrate to lower-cost locations -- as they had been doing, and as they will do even if NAFTA were to be repealed:

But what about the factory workers in Ohio? Are they just imagining those lost jobs? Of course not. Manufacturing employment in the United States did hit a peak and then begin a steady decline. The problem is that the peak was in 1979, 15 years before NAFTA came into force. The long-term decline of American manufacturing jobs has much more to do with technological change than with trade. We’re producing more stuff with fewer workers.

An excellent summary of an issues that will never be discussed honestly in a presidential campaign.

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