I’m doing my best to work through the text of the new NAFTA, now called YMCA, I mean CAMUS, no…wait…USMCA!
Trade agreements make for a dense read…here’s a snippet from the Ag chapter, one of the 34 chapters, followed by “annexes” and “side letters”:
“Parties recognize that under Article XI:2(a) of the GATT 1994, a Party may temporarily apply an export prohibition or restriction that is otherwise prohibited under Article XI:1 of the GATT 1994 on foodstuffs to prevent or relieve a critical shortage of foodstuffs, subject to meeting the conditions set out…”
It’s just saying that in a food emergency, a party to the agreement can restrict food exports and remain in compliance, but I print that little example to make a larger point: There is no such thing as “free trade” and there are no “free trade agreements.” FTAs are mythical creatures.
In the real world, agreements exist between trading partners that comprise hundreds of pages of rules by which they will engage in trade. These rules can be straightforward, like the one above, or seemingly obscure (have a look at the side letter on cheese names; as far as I know, I’ve never had Emmentaler cheese, but if this deal becomes law, I can enjoy it free of tariffs!).
Trade rules can favor workers, like the new language in support of independent Mexican unions, or investors, like the dispute settlement procedures that are somewhat weakened in the new agreement. It’s all about who got a seat at the table when the deal was drawn up.
Before getting into some weeds on the new deal, I underscore this point so you don’t confuse trade deals with trade, and especially with the trade balance (I’m talking to you, Trump). The CBO, which certainly doesn’t have a protectionist thumb on the scale, recently pointed out that estimates of the impact of “trade agreements on the U.S. trade balance are very small and highly uncertain.” The flows of goods, services, money, and financial assets will continue apace whether or not this deal is approved.
That doesn’t mean trade deals don’t matter. Instead, it means they have a lot more to do with who wins and loses from trade than whether cargo ships continue to sail the seas and trucks go back and forth across the borders of North America.
Is this really that different a deal than the NAFTA? There are, as noted, differences, but they are not big enough for Trump to credibly claim that NAFTA was a horrible disaster while the USMCA is incredible. As noted, I don’t see the deal, should it become law, changing the flows of goods, services, money, or people in ways that would change economic outcomes. New rules for Mexican auto production, including requirements for a) more production in the trade zone and b) a subset of Mexican auto workers to get paid $16 per hour (2-3 times their current wage), have led some to predict higher car prices.
It’s possible, but nothing is that simple in international trade. Auto exporters trying to sell cars here in the US can forgo the duty-free benefits of the trade deal and pay the existing (WTO) auto tariff amounting to a mere 2.5 percent. And exchange rate movements can eventually swamp such price differences, especially as the $16 is not indexed to inflation.
It also must be underscored that Mexico has a lousy record of implementing and enforcing labor rights, so these changes—ones I view as clear improvements in the deal—will require close monitoring. I don’t trust this administration to follow through on that.
What’s good, what’s bad in the deal? Some of the auto requirements just noted are intended to reduce the trade-induced wage arbitrage opportunities that have long hurt production workers exposed to export competition.
The new rules on Mexican unions are also a positive change. It’s not just that these rules potentially make it easier for Mexican workers to form unions. It’s that the unions could finally gain some true independence, as too often, Mexican unions have been Potemkin unions, fronts for management to impose harsh labor conditions with impunity. Again, this is where enforcement is especially crucial.
Though Canada got to keep one part of the dispute system they wanted—the one they use to fight over dumping and countervailing fees—the ISDS process (investor state dispute settlements) will be phased out for Canada and limited in Mexico. Trade expert Lori Wallach and I have discussed the serious problems with ISDS, as it provides a mechanism by which corporate rights could preempt sovereign rights at the expense of taxpayers. But before we get too excited about this change, we need to learn more about the carve-outs from the new rules. If it’s too easy for favored industries to prosecute investment cases using the old NAFTA and TPP tribunals, then this change won’t be meaningful.
What’s bad in the new deal is the same stuff that was bad in the old one (same with TPP): protectionist measures that further belie the idea of “free trade.” I’m talking here about patent and IP extensions that American lobbies like Big Pharma insist on as the price of their support (Dean Baker has some details here). Surely those complaining about higher car prices based on labor protections should be lodging the same complaints here.
Will Congress Approve the Deal?
Which Congress are you referring to? If the D’s take the majority in the House, look for a whole lot of activism around improving enforcement and blocking ways for countries to get around any labor-friendly rules in the proposed deal. For one concrete example, they’re want to raise that 2.5 percent tariff on auto imports to block companies from skirting the new, higher origin requirements in the USMCA.
But aside from those details—and who knows, I could see Trump and his trade rep, Bob Lighthizer, getting behind the House D’s on preserving those protections—and based on what we know now, I suspect a majority in both chambers will want this deal to go through.