In the Arena

The Nafta Debate

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The Clinton campaign is going slightly berserk today over the news that an Obama adviser really did tell the Canadians that:

“[Obama’santi-NAFTA] messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans.”

At least, according to a Canadian memo recounting the meeting. This is, obviously, an embarrassment for the Obama campaign–although it’s entirely possible that the advisor, Austin Goolsbee, was simply stating his own opinion.

On the other hand, Goolsbee’s position makes perfect sense. There isn’t all that much that can–or should–be done about a 15-year-old trade deal that has had only a peripheral impact on the economy creating about as many new jobs as were lost, according to most economists. In fact, both Clinton and Obama have been blowing smoke about NAFTA and trade, in general. A week ago, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland–a Clinton supporter–told me as much:

“NAFTA is a symbolic target upon which all of the anger can be focused. It’s not saying those jobs are going to come back. It’s just a way to acknowledge the frustration and anger that people feel.”

The manufacturing job losses were a consequence of technological progress and globalization, not trade. Any attempt to wish this away, or turn back the clock, represents the cruelest sort of demagoguery–the raising of false hopes among those who are suffering. To their credit, when pinned down on this in the MSNBC debate last week, both Clinton and Obama were careful not to make unsubstantiated claims–although the worker and environmental standards that both say they favor are very difficult, if not impossible, to enforce in unilateral trade deals with countries that are as big as China, India or even Mexico. What makes more sense–and what really needs to be reviewed, according to James Galbraith, the University of Texas economist–are special provisions written into the trade deals to benefit individual U.S. companies. In other words, the U.S. trade code is beginning to look a lot like the U.S. tax code. Galbraith also favors a far more robust social safety net, education system and stronger unions to protect U.S. workers who’ve been displaced. Those are good ideas even if not another manufacturing job is lost.

Then again, as unwilling as Clinton and Obama have been to tell hard truths about NAFTA, they are pillars of rectitude compared to Lou Dobbs, who seems to have slipped off the deep end in recent weeks, fearmongering about the nonexistant North American Union and NAFTA Superhighway. This is dangerous conspiracy theorizing that has no place on a reputable news network. The Washington Post addressed this myth here. Dobbs, outraged as always, demanded that the candidates “address” this burning issue in their Texas debate. Happily, they didn’t. Perhaps CNN–which, earlier this year, took apart the scurrilous rumor that Barack Obama had attended a madrasa–can address this paranoid fantasy on one of its non-Dobbs programs.