Confounding NAFTA

Jack Mintz writes in Canada’s Financial Post, which of course favors free trade, defending the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA):

The truth is that many of the economic problems faced by the United States have little to do with NAFTA. The 2007 U.S. trade deficit of US$709-billion has grown as a result of Asian and petroleum trade, rather than trade with NAFTA partners.

Mintz also points to job losses in the industrial belt of Canada; but he doesn’t consider maquiladora operations:

With an average of $25-$35 for a 48-60 hour week, maquiladora workers cannot afford to rent housing, and must build their own shacks on land near the companies. The incidence of birth defects, miscarriages, and disease has shot up in these areas where plants have dumped their toxic wastes with abandon.

These companies are largely U.S. subsidiaries, underscoring a point that blaming workers, whether they migrate to the United States or remain where they are, is blaming victims. But of the U.S. victims, Mintz writes, “The U.S. unemployment rate has been exceptionally low since 1994 and exports to Mexico alone have tripled since 1994. Recent U.S economic problems are the result of credit market difficulties, not trade.”

But the unemployment rate is heavily manipulated. I will eventually post an analysis of employment numbers (sorry, this has to be a background project); I’ve previously seen that unemployment statistics both trail and understate the magnitude of employment market changes; it is necessary to view this market as a proportion of population to gain a sense of contractions and expansions. Further, these statistics overlook people whose well-paid (often union) manufacturing jobs have been replaced with low-paid (non-union) service jobs.

Mintz goes on to advocate further free trade agreements. If NAFTA is not the problem, this seemingly exonerates all “free trade,” which of course is only free if you’re on the exploiting side of the bargain. NAFTA thus becomes a symbol, not only for those who oppose free exploitation deals, but for those who favor them. As the experience of maquiladora workers demonstrates, workers lose wherever they are seen as a cost to be cut rather than as an asset to be developed.

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