Two scarcely observed anniversaries arrived with the turning of the calendar to 2014. It was 20 years ago that the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect. Considering NAFTA's utterly disastrous results, it's not surprising that the cheerleaders who fought wallet-and-lobbyist to squeak it through Congress two decades ago would be silent now. Perhaps the acronym should read, Not All it's Framed To Achieve.
But there were a few keen observations from Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, organizations that specialize in economic reality, particularly when it's necessary to counter the neoliberal fantasies of "free trade" charlatans who bend politics and the truth to their greedy will.
NAFTA was pitched as a major job creator, but instead it resulted in a net loss of a million American jobs as corporations rushed to take advantage of sweetheart investment privileges and move production out of the country to low-wage locations. That's not just a squishy statistic—Public Citizen actually tracked the specific pre-NAFTA promises of corporation cheerleaders, and how those promises were subsequently broken.
General Electric said it would add 10,000 jobs if NAFTA passed, but it eliminated nearly 5,000 instead. Chrysler promised 4,000, but eliminated nearly 8,000. The list goes on. Trade Adjustment Assistance, a government program set up to deal with the explosion of vanishing jobs under NAFTA, certified that these unfortunate American workers were displaced as a direct result of free trade's true impacts: production fleeing the country and rising imports further depressing domestic production.
U.S. farmers and ranchers were promised the rewards of robust new export markets, but that didn't play out like the cheerleaders said it would, either—food imports rose four times as much as exports. Even the limited benefits of cheaper imported food have been far outpaced by the downward pressure NAFTA exerted on U.S. wages. Maybe the acronym should mean Not Anything Favorable To Americans.
So, if it didn't do anything for us, then it must have helped Mexico, right? Nah. As Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research put it, "It's tough to imagine Mexico doing worse without NAFTA." One U.S. agricultural export that did flood the Mexican market—cheap, subsidized corn produced by leviathan U.S. agribusiness—single-handedly ruined the livelihoods of millions of small farmers in Mexico, forcing them from their land and into a job market that could not absorb them, as corn prices and agricultural wages in Mexico fell to a third of pre-NAFTA levels. And here's the kicker: despite plummeting corn prices, tortilla prices—a staple food, deregulated as a result of NAFTA—doubled. No surprise that immigration to the U.S. skyrocketed after NAFTA, aka North Across the Frontier To America.
In fact, the only thing NAFTA actually delivered was an increase in trade. Well, gee, somebody must have benefited from that, right? Sure—the captains of industry who promoted NAFTA because they saw it as a useful tool to increase their profits at the expense of workers and citizens in member nations.
NAFTA established a system of tribunals to adjudicate trade disputes, which is code for "evade or eliminate environmental, public safety and worker protections." Tribunal cases are judged by a rotating cast of corporate attorneys who also bring cases to those same tribunals on behalf of their corporate clients—the ultimate conflict of interest. They've awarded $360 million of taxpayer money to wealthy corporations challenging various regulations. With another $12 billion in claims pending, laws that protect us from tainted food, toxic chemicals and environmental destruction continue to be eroded.
The bottom line is a vast increase in income inequality—the true goal of NAFTA all along. The richest 10 percent now control half of this country's wealth, and the economic share of the top 1 percent has increased by 58 percent. I guess I'd go with Nefarious Aggrandizement of Fatcat Tyrannical Assholes.
NAFTA's abject failure is so obvious that not even corporate spinmeisters can cover it up. Only 15 percent of Americans still think it's a good idea. Incredibly, the U.S. Congress—whose approval ratings recently fell into the single digits—is considering expanding the NAFTA model to Latin America and Asia under the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. They just don't get it, but maybe if U.S. voters in the 2014 election change NAFTA's meaning to Never Allow Free Trade Again, it will become clear.
Oh, and that other anniversary? The Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, which exploded onto the scene the day NAFTA took effect. If governments are foolish or craven enough to continue implementing such free trade agreements, they should expect similar responses.