WASHINGTON -- The economy's emergence as the main issue in this year's presidential election means that the voters will be pounded by a lot of persistent myths about trade and jobs.
The worst myth asserts that trade agreements, particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement (signed, sealed and delivered by Bill Clinton), are to blame for the decline in manufacturing jobs in America. I wrote about this recently, but the issue is worth revisiting because it is growing in political intensity and will be one of the key ideological battlegrounds in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary next month. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have said they want a "timeout" on trade and that they both plan to revisit NAFTA in an attempt to change or in some way undo the agreement with Canada and Mexico.
President Bush addressed their threats to renegotiate NAFTA last week in an address before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, saying if such a rejiggering happened, it would result in "a timeout from growth, a timeout from jobs and a timeout from good results."
I wish I could say the national news media is quick to correct mistruths, untruths and half-truths being spread about trade. But campaign reporters remain woefully uninformed about economic issues and show little interest in examining whether the Democratic candidates' negative statements regarding free trade hold up to serious scrutiny. This was notably true during the Ohio primary when Hillary and Obama waged slash-and-burn campaign attacks on NAFTA and trade.
What's difficult in debating this issue is that sometimes two seemingly contradictory results can, to one degree or another, be true at the same time. Ohio lost about 200,000 manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2003, and some of its companies have moved facilities elsewhere in the country or abroad. And we have had to compete with major foreign exporters such as China and the economic pressures that can result from such new players in the global arena. But at the same time Ohio has also benefited from NAFTA, and trade in general.
"A critical fact overlooked by politicians who blame lost jobs on NAFTA is that during those three years Ohio manufacturers actually sold more goods to Canada and Mexico ... than it took in," John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, wrote in a recent op-ed article. "If Ohio exported more to these countries than it imported ... how can these politicians argue this agreement cost us jobs," Engler argued. One out of every five manufacturing jobs in Ohio "depends on making products that are sold overseas," and its "exports to NAFTA countries increased more than 31 percent in the past five years."