The U.S. trade deficit figures heavily in the analysis of Jeff Faux's new book, The Servant Economy. Faux, the founder of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), was one of the most important voices speaking out against NAFTA when it was debated and ultimately passed by Congress in 1993.
According to EPI's 2011 Annual Report,"Presently, the United States' non-oil deficit alone costs more than five million U.S. jobs." This underscores the importance of the deficit and what is at stake. In the book, Faux points out that the theoretical benefits of free trade assume full employment, but that is hardly ever the case. Thus, he argues, the trade deficit is indeed a job killer.
Yet, as David Cay Johnston notes, the United States continues to negotiate new trade agreements while government agencies and government officials from the President down, tout them as engines of job creation. Johnston points out that the government predicted that our small pre-NAFTA trade surplus would continue, when instead we quickly went into a deficit that in 2011 reached $64.5 billion. Similarly, he says, the U.S. International Trade Commission predicted that normalizing trade relations with China would lead to a trade deficit of just $1 billion, when in fact it grew by 2011 to $295 billion!
How have these trade agreements performed? At present, according to the U.S. Trade Representative, the U.S. has free trade agreements with 19 other countries, with a 20th (with Panama) approved but not yet implemented. The 19 countries are: Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Jordan, South Korea, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Oman, Peru, and Singapore.
The U.S. Census Bureau (then click on individual countries) has the answer to this. In 11 cases, the goods trade balance has improved from the year prior to the agreements' coming into effect through 2011, in one case it's too soon to tell (Colombia, effective May 15, 2012), and only in seven cases did the trade balance worsen.
Unfortunately, that's the end of the good news, because our trade with most of these countries is relatively small: in six cases the improvement was under $2 billion dollars, which pales against the country's overall goods deficit of $727.4 billion in 2011. The biggest gains have been with Singapore ($10.7 billion) and Australia ($9.1 billion).
The losses, on the other hand, have been huge, with the culprits being NAFTA and liberalizing trade with China (not even a full free trade agreement, just making it easier for U.S. firms to offshore their production to China). In the wake of NAFTA, the U.S. goods trade balance with Mexico has worsened by $66.2 billion, while our Canadian goods trade balance has worsened by $23.7 billion. Just since 2001, when China joined the WTO, and 2011, the goods trade deficit has increased from $83 billion to $295 billion. Robert E. Scott of the EPI estimates that this massive deficit has "eliminated or displaced nearly 2.8 million U.S. jobs since 2001." In addition, our Israel free trade agreement has added about $10 billion more to the deficit.
As Faux argues, the trade deficit reduces demand for U.S. labor, and pushes wages down in the aggregate. Indeed, this is the tendency of trade in general for a labor-scarce country like the United States. Faux's vision of where this is leading us in the long term is a depressing one, which I will discuss in more detail in a future column.
Cross-posted at Angry Bear.