Obama´s Free-Trade Conundrum

WASHINGTON — IN his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama focused on reversing the growth of economic inequality in the United States and restoring the American dream. At the same time, he also announced his support for fast track authority that would limit Congress’s role in determining the content of trade agreements.

The president’s call follows on legislation introduced earlier this month to grant him fast-track authority as a way of forcing Congress to speed up its consideration of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation pact with Latin American and Asian nations.

But Mr. Obama’s desire for fast-track authority on the T.P.P. and other agreements clashes with another priority in his speech: reducing income inequality.

This month is the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which significantly eliminated tariffs and other trade barriers across the continent and has been used as a model for the T.P.P. Anyone looking for evidence on what this new agreement will do to income inequality in America needs to consider Nafta’s 20-year record.

While many analysts focus on the number of jobs lost from Nafta and similar pacts — and some estimates say upward of a million — the most significant effect has been a fundamental change in the composition of jobs available to the 63 percent of American workers without a college degree.

At Nafta’s core — and proposed for the T.P.P. — are investor rights and privileges that eliminate many of the risks that make firms think twice about moving production to low-wage countries. Today, goods once made here are being produced in Mexico and exported here for sale. Indeed, American manufacturing exports to Mexico and Canada grew at less than half the rate after Nafta than in the years before it.

As a result, our trade deficit has ballooned. In 1993, before Nafta, the United States had a $2.5 billion trade surplus with Mexico and a $29 billion deficit with Canada. In 2012, the combined Nafta trade deficit was $181 billion, even as the share of that deficit made up of oil imports dropped 22 percent. The average annual growth of our trade deficit has been 45 percent higher with Mexico and Canada than with countries that are not party to a Nafta-style pact. The companies that took the most advantage of Nafta — big manufacturers like G.E., Caterpillar and Chrysler — promised they would create more jobs at their American factories if Nafta passed. Instead, they fired American workers and shifted production to Mexico.

The Labor Department’s Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which documents this trend, reads like a funeral program for the middle class. More than 845,000 workers have been certified under this one narrow and hard-to-qualify-for program as having lost their jobs because of offshoring of factories to, and growing imports from, Mexico and Canada since Nafta.

The result is downward pressure on middle-class wages as manufacturing workers are forced to compete with imports made by poorly paid workers abroad. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly two out of every three displaced manufacturing workers who were rehired in 2012 saw wage reductions, most losing more than 20 percent.

The shift in employment from high-paying manufacturing jobs to low-paying service jobs has contributed to overall wage stagnation. The average American wage has grown less than 1 percent annually in real terms since Nafta, even as productivity grew three times faster.

But the decline in the wages of workers who lost a job to Nafta is only part of the story. They joined the glut of workers competing for low-skill jobs that cannot be done offshore in industries like hospitality and food service, forcing down real wages in these sectors as well.

And, for America’s remaining manufacturing workers, Nafta put downward pressure on wages by enabling employers to threaten to move jobs offshore during wage bargaining. A 1997 Cornell University study ordered by the Nafta Commission for Labor Cooperation found that as many as 62 percent of union drives faced employer threats to relocate abroad, and the factory shutdown rate following successful union certifications tripled after Nafta.

This is hardly news; in the early 1990s a spate of studies resulted in an academic consensus that trade flows contributed to between 10 and 40 percent of inequality increases. Indeed, since Nafta’s implementation, the share of national income collected by the richest 10 percent has risen by 24 percent, while the top 1 percent’s share has shot up by 58 percent.

Some advocates of Nafta-style pacts acknowledge that they will cause the loss of some jobs, but argue that workers will win over all by being able to purchase cheaper imported goods.

But when the Center for Economic and Policy Research applied the data to the theory, they found that reductions in consumer prices had not been sufficient to offset losses in wage levels. They found that American workers without college degrees had most likely lost more than 12 percent of their wages to Nafta-style trade, even accounting for the benefits of cheaper goods. This means a loss of more than $3,300 per year for a worker earning the median annual wage of $27,500.

The Nafta data poses a significant challenge for President Obama. As he said on Tuesday, he wants to battle the plague of income inequality and he wants to expand the Nafta model with T.P.P. But he cannot have it both ways.

David E. Bonior, a Democratic representative from Michigan from 1977 to 2003, was the House Democratic whip during the 1993 vote on Nafta.