Is NAFTA a Bad Deal for America?

by John Brian Shannon | Reposted from Letter to Britain

There seems to be only one man in all of America who thinks the NAFTA agreement between the three North American economies is a bad deal for the United States. Which would be a very ordinary thing except that man happens to be the president of the United States of America. At least for now.

The one great thing about the American electoral system is that U.S. presidents can serve only two concurrent terms in office, so no matter how bad or popular a U.S. president is, he or she can stay in office for a maximum of 8 years. Although nothing prevents them from running for their old job once another president has served, other than the fact that American voters have never returned a previous two-term president to office.

That law is a tiny part of what makes the United States exceptional in the world. The most meritorious or most popular presidential candidates rise to the top — but unlike other countries where leaders can serve several terms in office — the American system is refreshed by new leadership every 4 or 8 years. And that’s what makes America great.

‘New blood’, a ‘new vision’, a ‘breath of fresh air’, or however you wish to describe it, occurs at regular intervals. No wonder America is exceptional! It’s too bad they don’t do the same thing with members of the Senate and Congress — and yes, even the office of Mayor in every U.S. city. If they did, the United States would be twice as exceptional on account of all that new blood and fresh enthusiasm.

Alas, because only one office in the land is refreshed regularly, America is great from the top down only — not up and down and in the middle — at least where governance is concerned.


Where Donald Trump is Wrong

President Trump arrived on the scene 13 months ago and with no particular government experience behind him, declared that many things are wrong with America and he’s just the man to fix it. And he may be that man, but only time will tell.

Yet, we’re seeing a man who sees symptoms and sincerely wants to treat the symptoms instead of wanting to solve the underlying condition that created the symptoms in the first place.

Certainly no one can fault Donald Trump for being enthusiastic about America, about America’s history in the world, and no one can deny he’s a breath of fresh air to the Oval Office.

But we need to have a conversation about the present symptoms in order to ascertain what the underlying condition may be in present-day America, and for that, we must travel back in time to see how America lost its way.


When Henry Ford was right: Creating the American middle class by filling a transportation need

Henry thought that ‘everyman’ should own an automobile, instead of only railway barons with their obscene personal wealth able to afford motorized transportation. During a downturn in Ford company fortunes, Henry decided to increase the pay of his workers to $5.00 per day, and was thereafter able to cherry-pick whatever workers he wanted from Louis Chevrolet, Buick, General Motors, Cord, Packard, and others.

Once Henry had created a whole new economic classification which later came to be called ‘the American middle class’ so many people bought Ford vehicles that 16.5 million Model T’s were produced in less than 20 years of production.


The moral of this story? Paying higher wages created ‘the middle class’ — a growing cohort of workers earning good wages and able to afford a car, which catapulted Ford’s fortunes into the stratosphere.


The Post-war Boom

Early in the 20th-century, the U.S. became the most powerful manufacturing nation in the world and surpassed even longtime patent leader Germany as the country that received the most annual patent applications.

This occurred only because of strong patent law in the United States. Any inventor with a worthwhile invention brought their idea to America for one reason — because out of all the countries in the world only the U.S. offered the maximum level of legal protection for their idea, design, system, or machine.

Even German scientists brought their ideas to America to have them registered with the U.S. Patent Office!

For countries other than America, the existence of a strong U.S. Patent Office created a ‘brain drain’ in their own countries, meaning that all their scientists and inventors headed to America instead of registering their contraptions in their home country.

Having received their patent protection in the United States, it was a natural step to have their inventions manufactured in America. Although not its primary mandate, the U.S. Patent Office was often excellent at matching inventors with such suppliers or manufacturers as they required.

It was a clear case of the American government passing the right legislation at the right time to attract the best and brightest in the world.


The moral of this story? Not a tariff in sight!


Because the postwar economy was booming and expectations were high, the Baby Boom generation went on a buying spree that is unparalleled in history

All of which worked to make all those patent-holders and their manufacturing companies obscenely rich. And good for them! When you work hard, you should see a positive return for your effort.

The favourable consequence of powerful U.S. patent protection combined with a huge and growing manufacturing base, created a booming economy and concomitant high consumer confidence which provided an unexpected result — usually about 9 months later.

Yes, during the boom times when one family member earned enough to support an entire family, the birthrate in America skyrocketed, creating even more demand as Americans began to have more children per fertile woman.


The moral of this story? When one breadwinner could support a spouse and up to 4 children, afford a new car every 3 years, a couple could own their own home via a 10-year mortgage and enjoy a refreshing vacation every year, the American economy was operating at full output!


American Foreign Policy in the Postwar Era

In the 41 years leading up to 1974, the Saudi government had been selling their oil to America for only the price of production (sans profit) as their contribution to the Cold War effort.

Interestingly, they were allowed to reinvest their cost of production payments in crude oil deliveries and refined oil products — so although they made zero profit on the crude oil as it came out of the ground — they were able to amass considerable wealth by speculating on oil stocks.

But that ended when it was perceived by the Saudis in 1973 that America was favouring Israel, a country that had never delivered billions of barrels of free oil to America.

When America’s oil supplier felt slighted, they decided that they wanted to get paid for their oil after all. ‘Oh, and, we’re pulling back on our Cold War commitment too.’

Which is why the Soviets thought they could successfully invade Afghanistan and tone the world’s opium supply down to almost zero.

When the Saudis suddenly wanted to be paid for their oil and they simultaneously lowered their Cold War commitment to America, the U.S. economy slowed.

With 20/20 hindsight, the ensuing economic disaster was only a symptom of a bungled foreign policy that caused a dramatic increase in new car registrations of foreign cars (with their better gas mileage) moving from 4% of all U.S. new car registrations in 1970 to 65% of new car registrations by 2017. Not only that, but up to 75% of the parts used in today’s American cars are made in Asia.

Therefore, the problem clearly isn’t NAFTA which came into effect in January 1994.

Here’s how that looks expressed as a math equation:
America -10 trillion dollars Japan +10 trillion dollars
(If you’re not into math, the symbol means ‘therefore’)

It could be argued that the United States took a highly principled stand on account of the people of Israel, but it was America’s decision alone, and it cost America 10 trillion dollars and poisoned relations with their oil-producing and Cold War ally, Saudi Arabia.


The moral of this story? The problem of offshoring American manufacturing jobs began in 1973 due to an American foreign policy decision which took place long before NAFTA had been created. Blaming Japan for American capital flight since 1974, or blaming NAFTA (which wouldn’t be created for 20-years) is disingenuous.


Social problems in 1960’s and 1970’s America: Racism, weak civil rights for women, and the Vietnam War worked to reverse America’s earlier gains

A lost generation occurred in the 1960’s where The People lost faith in their elected representatives, but they didn’t lose faith in the institutions of government.

President Carter worked to restore the faith the American people felt toward the executive branch of government by working on some very noble causes and meeting with some success. President Reagan moved things forward by strengthening the U.S. economy, infusing Americans with newfound confidence by offering loan guarantees to struggling American automobile manufacturers and dramatically increasing military spending.


The moral of this story? President Carter and President Reagan didn’t fix America by blaming other countries — they did it by empowering American citizens with tax changes and supporting American industry with loan guarantees to at-risk corporations, with huge defense spending increases, and plenty of positive exhortations about what made America great in the first place.


Every American, Canadian, or Mexican captain of industry wanted NAFTA back in 1994

If NAFTA was so grievous to be borne, why did almost every CEO in North America want NAFTA?

But some U.S. Congressmen and Senators were nervous prior to NAFTA on account of so many job losses in the American economy since 1974 and they were concerned that even NAFTA could go wrong. And let’s face it, some members were creating a negative stir so that new U.S. president Bill Clinton would feel compelled to direct more federal funding to their districts in advance of the accord, in case NAFTA failed.

In reality, the only U.S. and Canadian companies that lived in fear of NAFTA were ones that didn’t keep up with the times. In the booming 1980’s and 1990’s economy, some companies decided they wouldn’t modernize and consequently continued to spend millions per month on electricity costs (for example) instead of reinvesting their (then record) profits in newer, energy-efficient factories or foundries.

For other corporations in the mergers era, it seemed a time to slow capital spending in order to maintain high profit margins and pay record-high dividends to their shareholders. But when the bull market finally came to its end, many businesses were suddenly cash poor and couldn’t afford a new, energy-efficient factory or foundry. Which was brilliant tactical thinking, but abysmal strategic thinking.

So… the question is; If corporations employ poor strategic thinking, should taxpayers be forced to bail them out?


Why should U.S. taxpayers bail out industries that choose high shareholder returns over sound financial management?

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, some American automakers needed the federal government to subsidize them with billions of taxpayer dollars to save them from implosion. That’s only one example out of thousands of U.S. companies that accepted or have lobbied for federal subsidies. Canada is just as bad as the United States on this point. Governments in both countries spend more on corporate welfare than they do on citizen welfare — times two!

Now in 2018, President Trump wants American taxpayers to pay even more for their cars (and anything else made of steel or aluminum) via a 25% tariff on steel imports and a 10% tariff on aluminum.

For one example, Trans Canada Pipeline will be forced to pay the tariff on the steel pipe for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Although steel is a small part of the overall cost of building a pipeline, the cost of the multi-billion dollar project will now rise by 5% or more. Just for comparison, 5% on 10 dollars is 20 cents — but 5% on 5.4 billion dollars adds 270 million dollars to the overall project cost.


The moral of this story? While Donald Trump’s motives are obviously ultra-pure, tariffs are simply a de facto form of taxation that U.S. citizens will pay because a few American corporations preferred high profits/high shareholder returns over competitiveness


Is there ever a good case for tariffs?

In a word, yes. Everything that’s imported into the U.S. (or any country) should face a globally standardized 5% tariff because every government needs money to improve port facilities, to streamline customs, and to maintain the transportation corridors that are essential to trade flows.

Even countries with free trade agreements like the NAFTA countries should institute a standardized 5% tariff on every good that crosses their border — and be required by legislation to use that money to improve transportation corridors and border security.

Consumers would find that presently high tariff items would drop in price, and zero tariff items would rise by 5%, but the trade-off would be astonishingly better roads, bridges, tunnels, rail links, airports and seaports, complete with better security. Every citizen would like to spend fewer hours per week stuck on congested highways, in airports, and enjoy faster and more secure delivery of goods.

Suddenly we wouldn’t be talking about ‘trade wars’ we’d be talking about improved trade, improved infrastructure, and a complete standardization and levelization of tariffs between every country.

And instead of heated rhetoric from politicians, we’d become more efficient throughout our countries and less efficient corporations wouldn’t continue getting rewarded for not re-investing in their businesses.

A Time for Tariffs in the Globalized World?

by John Brian Shannon
(Originally published at JohnBrianShannon.com)

A long time ago when there were unicorns, there was a justifiable need for international trade agreements to spur trade, increase movement of capital flows and to promote movement of labour — but mainly to gain access to potentially larger markets in both developed and developing nations.

International trade agreements like NAFTA and even today’s TPP are throwbacks to a day when we didn’t have all of that. Many global economies then were practically closed markets, with few exceptions.

It’s almost the opposite these days — globalization has certainly prevailed — and it’s the rare country that isn’t buying or selling wares from around the world on a daily basis.

North Korea is a closed market, so is Japan (nominally) although it is a huge exporter, and only a handful of other countries could be considered ‘closed markets’ in any substantive sense.

In your home country you can probably buy a car, a music player, clothing, food, and almost anything else — and it likely wasn’t built, created, or grown, in your country.

Globalization has succeeded wildly and we now live in a globalized world.

How’s it working?

For the people in developed nations it has meant 25-years of inexpensive goods on store shelves — goods that were either built, created, or grown, in developing nations, which has been a real bonus for developed world consumers — and it has also benefited workers in the developing world.

Unfortunately, it also led to many high-paying jobs being sent overseas, resulting in higher unemployment and worse social ills than that in some developed nations.

Liberalized international trade has become all that it could be

Which is fine. It’s served it’s purpose and we now have open markets around the world with levelization of trade, capital, knowledge, labour, and general market equilibrium — if not market symbiosis.

But there isn’t much more room for globalization to grow. Other than tidying-up some intellectual and property rights regulations, we’ve arrived at our free trade destination. We’re already living in the globalized economy.

Where do we go from here?

There are a number of things that can strengthen our domestic economies without turning back the clock to the (almost) closed economics of the 1960’s.

Ten Ways to Make Our Country Better and Stronger – While Helping Citizens to Succeed and Live Happier Lives

The Ten Ways: Increasing Intellectual Rights, Increasing Government Revenue Streams, Preventing Obscene Government Debt, and Enhanced Government Services Designed to Move the Bottom Economic Quintiles Towards Middle Income Status

  1. We and our trade partners — should sign a simple trade agreement to protect intellectual property rights, one that includes universal patent, trademark and copyright protections. The point is to get it done now while it is still relevant. There’s no point in bothering with it if we wait, as all the secrets (the patents, trademarks and copyrights) will be ‘out of the box’ and in the general marketplace. (The rule must be that we don’t trade with nations that won’t sign and abide by those laws)
  2. We and every country we trade with — should pass legislation to allow a simple 5% tariff on every imported and exported good — from supertankers full of oil, to consumer electronics, to clothing — in short, everything. This simple tariff would replace all other import and export taxes/tariffs/levies and related charges. Billions of dollars of goods are imported and exported every month and the tariff revenue stream can be used by the federal government; To improve productivity by funding R&D, and to improve government services and infrastructure — or used to raise national GDP and quality of life for citizens, by reducing unemployment and to lower taxes on the poor and working poor.
  3. We and our trade partners that don’t already have a national Goods and Services Tax (of 7% for example) on all retail goods — should implement one immediately. This revenue can contribute to the overall economy to improve services and infrastructure, reduce unemployment, and lower taxes on the poor and working poor, and should be shared 50/50 with states or provinces — who after all, would be the parties responsible for collecting it.
  4. We, and every country we trade with — should pass legislation making deficits of more than 4% of GDP illegal, at the federal, state, and municipal level. This prevents obscene government spending and prevents the trap of eternal debt servicing costs, once interest rates rise. Which they always do.
  5. Our own country and every country that we trade with — should no longer charge income tax on those who earn less than the equivalent of $25,000. per year.
  6. We and our trade partners — should pass legislation to the effect that every worker has the right to a minimum of 25 weeks of full-time employment, per year. Yes, it would require a job-sharing programme managed at the state level. Some workers may receive layoff notices in order to accommodate unemployed workers. On the positive side, long-term unemployed people could then contribute to the economy (and to their own personal income!) for a minimum of 25 weeks per year. In countries like Sweden, this is common in industries that can’t keep all of their workers employed, and it is normal for two workers to share the same job for many years (6 months ‘on’ and 6 months ‘off’) so that over the course of a year, every worker in the country will have worked a minimum of 6 months. Which keeps their skills sharp, makes them eligible for automatic unemployment insurance benefits during their layoff, and lowers the welfare rate to near-zero.
  7. Most government unemployment insurance programmes around the world pay 66% of a worker’s salary during periods of unemployment, often after a significant wait and a worker’s claim can be turned down for any number of strange reasons. It’s inhuman. Workers pay into unemployment insurance — it’s not their fault that there are millions more people looking for work than there are jobs available — because their jobs have been sent overseas since the advent of globalization. In some countries, a brilliant solution exists whereby workers can opt to pay into a private unemployment insurance programme, one that can top-up their unemployment insurance payments to 99% of their normal salary for the equivalent of 1 or 2 cents per dollar earned. The employee merely indicates how much extra unemployment insurance coverage he or she wants to purchase, and the deductions are automatically made from their wages and directed to the private unemployment insurance company. The private insurer also begins paying unemployment benefits from the first day of a worker’s layoff. Workers no longer need subsist on 66% of their normal income while unemployed. (Imagine working in the fast-food industry, living on subsistence wages, then getting laid off due to a slowing economy, and then having to exist on only 66% of your already subsistence-level wage!) NOTE: In Sweden, both the government-run unemployment insurance plan and the private unemployment insurance plan make a respectable profit, every year. That’s how easy it is to do, when it’s done properly.
  8. Every city, town, village or county in the country should have the option to receive a free website from the federal government — for as long as certain information is continuously updated by the local jurisdiction. Simply by typing in the name of a jurisdiction into a search engine, anyone should be able to find the local time, weather, federal, state, city, village or municipal phone numbers and addresses, emergency services and other essential services (like Hospitals and Veterinary Clinics) and employment information for that city, town, or region. Standardization is key so that workers looking for work, or visitors to a region can quickly navigate to and access important services without a frustrating search (or fruitless search, because not all jurisdictions have their own site or mobile-friendly site — but you don’t know that until you do an hour’s searching and discover that there isn’t one!) Quick access to important phone numbers and addresses can save lives and help to increase productivity.
  9. Streamlined government websites for self-employed people to set-up and begin working in one day with a minimum of confusion, stress and red-tape.
  10. Legislation to require internet service providers to provide basic internet plans of $10. per month with low entry barriers — enough to check emails, find a job, find rental accommodation, and perhaps practice the preferred local language in hopes of finding a job. The internet is an essential service in our era, and those entering the workforce or returning to work after illness, etc. need to be able to start somewhere.

It’s easy to look around the world to see what’s working well in other jurisdictions and write similar legislation.

Legislators in Sweden and Norway don’t have two brains nor any other super powers, that we know of. If they can manage to get these things done, so can we. And if we can’t, we’re not half as great as we imagine ourselves to be.

But we are! Therefore, all we lack is the will to act. So let us act, and help our country to leap forward by one order of magnitude.


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