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What Trump Gets Wrong About NAFTA

The Deal Is Not the Source of America’s Problems

U.S. President Donald Trump, surrounded by schoolchildren, speaks at the White House, May 2017. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump campaigned (and is now attempting to govern) on the premise that NAFTA was “the worst deal ever.” Economists say it wasn’t. Workers say it was. Both are answering the wrong question.

The structure of the NAFTA debate has always been a trap. In the political hothouse of the early 1990s, as the agreement was negotiated under Republican President George Bush and then signed under Democratic President Bill Clinton, observers seemed to want an easy “yes” or “no” answer to whether the bill was going to end (or save) the world. There was no patience for the kind of winding replies that I would give, such as “it’s really about figuring out the high road toward good wages and strong, sustainable growth.”

During the original NAFTA debate, it was easy to mock the silliness of “NAFTA Math,” as Carl Levin, then Democratic Senator from Michigan, called it. Or, in a reference to Secretary of DefenseRobert McNamara’s blindly mathematical pursuit of the Vietnam War, the “the jobs body count” logic of the debate. Hundreds of thousands of jobs created or hundreds of thousands destroyed? Booming employment in a new economy or burnt-out wasteland of postindustrial despair? Giant sucking sound or brave new world? Answer: none of the above.

The story remains the same 25 years after NAFTA was negotiated: the economic impact of the trade deal is far more ambiguous and

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