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The New and Not Improved NAFTA

Summary:
US President Donald Trump has called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which succeeds NAFTA, “the single greatest agreement ever signed." In reality, it is not as good as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which Trump withdrew the US upon taking office, nor is it particularly better than the agreement it replaced. CAMBRIDGE – US President Donald Trump acts as if he has pulled off a smashing victory by replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – supposedly “the worst trade deal ever” – with the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. But the truth is that, while this outcome is better than an end to free trade in North America, the USMCA is no improvement over the status quo. NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty

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US President Donald Trump has called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which succeeds NAFTA, “the single greatest agreement ever signed." In reality, it is not as good as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which Trump withdrew the US upon taking office, nor is it particularly better than the agreement it replaced.

CAMBRIDGE – US President Donald Trump acts as if he has pulled off a smashing victory by replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – supposedly “the worst trade deal ever” – with the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. But the truth is that, while this outcome is better than an end to free trade in North America, the USMCA is no improvement over the status quo.

Of course, this is Trump’s modus operandi: threaten to do something catastrophic, so people are relieved when things get only a little bit worse. That is what he did with North Korea, when he insulted its leader, Kim Jong-un, and threatened to rain down “fire and fury” on the country. Compared to nuclear conflict, his eventual meeting with Kim seemed like a triumph, even though it produced little actual progress.

Trump’s own mischaracterization of that meeting’s outcome – the problem of a nuclear-armed North Korea, he falsely asserted, had been “solved” – is another standard Trump tactic. He calls the USMCA “the single greatest agreement ever signed.” For Trump, all NAFTA really needed was a new name – one that, as Eswar Prasad points out, literally puts “America First” – to enable him to pretend for his supporters that he achieved something positive.

To be fair, the name is not the only difference between the USMCA and NAFTA. Four changes in particular have drawn attention.

The first change is the introduction of two measures pertaining to the auto industry. The agreement requires that, to avoid tariffs, 75% of an automobile’s content originate within North America – an increase from 62.5% – in order to reduce imports of components from Asia. It also requires that by 2023, 40-45% of production come from workers who are paid an average of more than $16 per hour, well above Mexican wage levels.

This will bring some benefits to some American autoworkers, at the expense of everybody else. Not only will consumers face higher costs for autos; the disruption of existing efficient supply chains may even leave the US auto industry as a whole worse off, as it undermines the international competitiveness of North American output. Increased costs for steel and aluminum inputs as a result of Trump’s tariffs (leaving aside foreign retaliation) only exacerbate the industry’s problems. The auto provisions in the USMCA are a step...

Jeffrey Frankel
Jeffrey Frankel, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, previously served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. He directs the Program in International Finance and Macroeconomics at the US National Bureau of Economic Research, where he is a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee, the official US arbiter of recession and recovery.

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