Is NAFTA good or bad for US Workers and the US Economy?

With Democratic Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama tussling over the relative  merits of the North American Free Trade Agreement, this Boston Globe column, in which Canadian Trade Minister David Emerson is quoted, is useful as quick background reading.  NAFTA, signed by former President Bill Clinton and ratified by the US Congress in teh mid-1990s, sought to bring down trade barriers amongst the Mexican, Canadian, and United States’ economies.  A common lament amongst those in rust-belt states and along the Mexican border is that the agreement has sent millions of jobs formerly held by Americans to Canada and Mexico.  Emerson cautions us to be wary of this claim, parsing the logic:

I strongly believe that the growth in protectionist sentiment is somewhat misplaced and irrational. It’s people who are concerned about the loss of jobs over the last 10 years which largely — analytically — has been shown to be driven by technology,” he told reporters.

“To the degree that it’s the result of liberalized trade, it’s more to do with the Asian dynamos like China and India and Vietnam, and countries like that. It’s not NAFTA that is hurting the North American worker. It’s not,” Emerson said.

“In fact, NAFTA is probably the friend of the North American worker because it enables us to achieve a level of efficiency and competitiveness that helps us take on the real competitive threats.”

Emerson said he had urged his counterparts in Canada’s 10 provinces to stress this message in dealings with the governors of U.S. states and members of the U.S. Congress.

“When you recognize that 39 out of 50 states have Canada as their number one export market, you start to realize governors and congressmen at the local level have an awful lot at stake, and we need to make sure they understand that,” Emerson said.

“Premiers and provincial ministers are very good, they have lots of contacts. The federal government cannot do it all.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has expressed confidence that, despite the rhetoric, the North American Free Trade Agreement will not be reopened. Emerson was not quite as confident.

“We’ve all been hearing the comments of presidential candidates, of congressmen. Protectionist forces have been gathering steam for some years and they’re showing no signs of abating,” he said.

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