Presidential candidates of all stripes have found it convenient to scapegoat commerce and trade deals to rally voters.
The submission to populist anger, however, threatens to make the most economically vulnerable worse off by halting the benefits that expanded trade has brought the United States.
The American Action Forum, a center-right policy institute, has underscored the large benefits from NAFTA.
“NAFTA is responsible for generating 5 million jobs in the U.S., and GDP has grown by 63 percent since the agreement went into effect. This is 10 percentage points higher than the average growth rate of all OECD nations during that time,” AAF noted.
That also includes $312 billion in exports to Canada, a 211 percent increase since 1993, and $240 billion in exports to Mexico, a 478 percent increase since 1993.
The presidential candidates have been unimpressed.
“I think NAFTA has been a disaster. I think our current deals are a disaster,” Donald Trump said in June 2015 on CNN.
Trump has repeatedly blamed foreign trade for hurting American workers and causing major problems in the American economy.
Economists have been concerned at Trump’s desire to pull out of NAFTA and other trade agreements, pointing to similar actions in the 1920s that sparked a global trade war and worsened the Great Depression.
Hillary Clinton, in an effort to curry favor against Bernie Sanders, has also shifted to a more antagonistic position on trade agreements.
Much like Trump, Sanders saw many trade agreements as undermining the economic opportunities of working Americans. He made the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal among the United States and 11 Pacific Rim countries, a major issue of contention in the Democratic primary.
In 2010, Clinton told the Council of Foreign Relations that “We want to realize the benefits from greater economic integration … To this end … we’re pursuing a regional agreement with the nations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and we know that that will help create new jobs and opportunities here at home.”
By 2015, however, her stance had changed.
“I am not in favor of what I have learned about it,” Clinton told PBS Newshour. “I don’t believe it’s going to meet the high bar I have set.”
The failure of either major party candidate to defend expanded trade is a crowd-pleasing line at their rallies, but it’s an insidious sacrifice of long-term economic growth for short-term political gain.
“The TPP will decrease the cost of manufacturing in countless U.S. industries by opening up new sources of raw materials,” K. William Watson, a trade policy analyst at the Cato Institute, wrote. “The TPP will foster the creation of global supply chains that enable U.S. companies to specialize in more productive activities. All together, it means American businesses and workers will make more money that can be used to buy more stuff at lower prices.”
Though Trump and Clinton tout trade deals as raw deals for American workers, they ignore that more trade means more investment flowing into the United States, cheaper goods for consumers, and larger markets for American workers to produce and compete in.
They can also expand the United States’ sphere of influence to establish international norms on human rights, economic rules, and political actions, as Cato’s Daniel J. Ikenson noted.
Many Americans struggle to gain an economic foothold or a stable place in society, and Clinton and Trump have responded to that anxiety with various promises and proclamations. Unfortunately, they’ve relied on easy scapegoats to wish away complex problems. If the scapegoating of trade deals succeeds, Americans might get what they want, but they’ll be worse off for it.