I paid less attention than I might have (should have?) to NAFTA when it was passed twenty years ago. On one hand, most of the proponents were Bad Guys and many Good Guys were opposed. On the other hand, liberal economists who had thought more about the problem that I had were generally positive, even if they may be less so today. (DeLong; Krugman 1993; Krugman 2003; Yellen).
So when the Nader-affiliated Public Citizen’s analysis of the failure of NAFTA twenty years on came through my Facebook feed, I decided to read it. Well, there may be fantastic arguments that NAFTA is a failure and as a lesson we should oppose similar agreements in the future, but that isn't what Public Citizen created. They wrought a hatchet job, full of deceptive statistics, and I don't like having my intelligence insulted, even by liberals.
From the Executive Summary
Despite a 188 percent rise in food imports from Canada and Mexico under NAFTA, the average nominal price of food in the United States has jumped 65 percent since the deal went into effect. [Footnotes and internal emphasis omitted; emphasis supplied]Nominal means not adjusted for inflation. Any time you see nominal amounts in this context, you are being gulled. Do you know offhand what the increase in CPI has been over that same period? Let me Google that for you: 61.6%. In other words, the claimed increase in food prices is explained almost entirely by general inflation.
From the discussion of job losses
For example, Chrysler declared that if NAFTA passed, it would export 25,000 vehicles to Mexico and Canada by 1995, claiming that the sales would support 4,000 U.S. jobs. In reality, since NAFTA’s passage Chrysler has eliminated at least the 7,743 U.S. jobs certified under TAA as displaced by rising imports from Canada and Mexico or decisions to offshore production to those countries.For what it’s worth, Chrysler sold over 10,000 vehicles in Mexico in December 2013 alone, of which only Fiats and Rams were produced there. Given the many downs of the American auto industry, which affected Chrysler severely, it's remarkable the company is still in business, much less exporting at several times the 1995 estimate. But this entire argument has a character of Heads We Win and Tails You Lose. No one denies that some people will lose jobs as a result of any trade treaty, no matter how good it might be. Public Citizen didn’t make any attempt to determine if other jobs at Chrysler were created by increased sales, or what would have happened in the absence of NAFTA. A look at the number of USA manufacturing jobs suggests that NAFTA in 1993 is at most a small factor in the picture. In fact, manufacturing jobs rose slightly for a few years, before declining steeply, probably as a result of outsourcing to China, which is not part of NAFTA.
From the food discussion
Public Citizen argues that while food exports have risen (a claimed benefit of NAFTA), food imports have risen “more steadily and to a greater degree.” The accompanying chart:
Quiz: Did you notice that imports are measured on the right-hand axis? Which is smaller in magnitude and half-scale?! Me neither, not the first time. The impression that food imports have almost caught up to exports is a deliberate, deceptive optical illusion. I went back to Public Citizen’s government data source and recreated their data set, starting a few years earlier. Here are the export/import series I obtained in measured on a single scale.
There is no convergence of these series, and, in fact, the excess of exports over imports is smallest right before the passage of NAFTA.
Three strikes and you’re out!
I didn’t check further; why bother? Deceptive polemics like this pose multiple problems. Close readers who aren’t committed to your view already are likely to oppose you. Besides, even if you win politically, a policy based on incorrect or fudged analysis is prone to failure (cf. Iraq War). And as a moral issue, you can not hold the other side to a higher standard than your own.