NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, removed many tariffs and other barriers to trade between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Since then, trade between the three countries has increased several times over. But not everyone has celebrated this development. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of NAFTA.
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Pro 1: NAFTA lowered the price of many goods.
Advocates of free trade generally point to lower prices for consumer goods as one of the main benefits that lowered tariffs can bring to U.S. citizens. The average American has profited from lower prices as a result of NAFTA, say defenders of the agreement. Lower prices are good for Americans’ budgets and increase our purchasing power.
Pro 2: NAFTA was good for GDP.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), NAFTA added 0.5%, or around 80 billion dollars, to the U.S. GDP once implemented. That works out to a few extra billion dollars of GDP each year. Opponents may criticize the distribution of those extra billions, but looked at on the macro level, NAFTA seems to have grown the U.S. economy.
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Pro 3: NAFTA was good for diplomatic relations.
One argument that’s often cited in favor of free trade in general and and NAFTA in particular is that it strengthens the diplomatic ties between countries. In other words, countries that are economically interconnected are less likely, the theory goes, to experience diplomatic or military conflict. Post-NAFTA, it is argued, the heads of state of the U.S., Canada and Mexico meet more frequently and put a higher value on their diplomatic relations.
Pro 4: NAFTA increased exports and created regional production blocs.
Certain sectors of the U.S. economy lost out as a result of NAFTA (we’ll get to that), but other sectors got a boost. According to the CFR, nearly 200,000 export-related jobs are created annually thanks to NAFTA. Those jobs pay between 15-20% more than the manufacturing jobs that moved out of the U.S. post-NAFTA. And even in manufacturing, NAFTA led to cooperation between countries, creating new, regional industries, where different parts are made in the different signatory countries. This in turn, some analysts say, has helped North America compete with Asian manufacturing powerhouses.
Con 1: NAFTA led to the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
NAFTA skeptics cite the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs as a reason to criticize NAFTA and to be wary of future trade deals. According to the CFR, the U.S. auto sector lost roughly 350,000 jobs between 1994 and 2016. Many of those jobs were taken up by workers in Mexico, where the auto sector added over 400,000 jobs in the same period.
Those who mourn the loss of good-paying factory jobs for lower-skill workers in sectors like auto and textile manufacturing are not generally swayed by statistics that cite the NAFTA-induced growth in higher-skill jobs. These NAFTA critics argue that the U.S. should always have plenty of middle-class jobs for those without a college degree.
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Con 2: NAFTA hurt the economic prospects of Mexican small farmers and small business owners.
Other criticisms of NAFTA look at the impact the trade deal has had on small farmers in Mexico, many of whom were unable to compete with larger agribusinesses in the wake of the agreement. Some of the country’s family-owned farms folded and farmers went to work in factories, where, critics argue, the workers had lower wages, less autonomy and inferior working conditions.
Con 3: NAFTA suppressed wages for non-college-educated workers in the U.S.
While the manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy suffered the heaviest job losses in the wake of NAFTA, wages decreased in many other sectors that don’t require workers to have a college degree. Competition from workers in Mexico, who earn lower wages than U.S. workers on average, exerted downward pressure on U.S. wages, too.
Con 4: NAFTA’s environmental and labor standards could have been higher.
When the U.S. makes trade deals with middle- or low-income countries, our negotiators tend to demand higher labor, environmental and intellectual property standards than those countries previously imposed. But critics of NAFTA say that the U.S. didn’t push hard enough for stringent protections for workers and the environment when negotiating the deal. Of course, those standards might change as the agreement is re-negotiated and adjusted in the years to come, but for now, opponents of NAFTA say the agreement missed an opportunity to promote the pro-labor and pro-environment agendas.
NAFTA created both winners and losers. If you think the trade agreement resulted in a net loss for the U.S., you probably oppose it and similar deals. If you think NAFTA produced a net gain for the economy, you might support NAFTA, even while criticizing certain pieces of the deal. Wherever you stand, it’s worth remembering that the trade flows that can be credited to NAFTA pale in comparison to U.S. trade with China, and NAFTA’s impact on the overall U.S. economy was relatively minor, even while certain communities really felt the pain.
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