Since the 2016 presidential campaigns began over a year ago, there has been plenty of talk about walls — both for limiting free trade and for stopping immigration. The first casualty of the presidential campaigns has been the declining public support for free trade agreements; this is very unfortunate for economic reasons and for our future well-being. The plan for an impervious wall on the border between Mexico and the United States is not only unfortunate, but ironic since the influx of Mexican immigrants has been decreasing; in fact, the Pew Research Center, according to the Migration Policy Institute, reports that since the end of the Great Recession in 2009, more Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico than have migrated to the USA.
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
One reason why immigration from Mexico has declined is that NAFTA helped to improve the economy in Mexico, so workers have less incentive to come north. This should somewhat assuage the fears of those who feel threatened by Mexicans crossing into the United States through our southern border.
The Anti-Defamation League reports that immigrants, regardless of their status — documented or undocumented — are less likely to commit crimes and become incarcerated than native born US citizens. Immigrants are twice as likely as those native born to start businesses and thereby create jobs. States with large numbers of immigrants report higher employment for everyone. Yes, we do need greater control of our borders with better oversight, documentation, and security, but it is simply not the crisis that some people imagine or claim.
The American Trade Wall
The April 2, 2016 issue of The Economist reports that if the US were to cancel all trade agreements, median income earners would lose 29% of their purchasing power, and the lowest income earners would lose 62%, because they spend more on goods from trade. Because of our existing trade agreements, clothing costs are actually the same as they were in 1986, and furnishing a home costs the same as it did 35 years ago. The improvement in cost of living from trade agreements is not something the anti-trade parties talk about. The globalization of manufacturing is well-established and here to stay. We can learn to manage globalization and trade agreements to our advantage, or the rest of the world will fill the void and make us poorer.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)
This trade agreement among 12 Pacific-rim countries, excluding China, is losing support from the national conversations and presidential campaigns. The TPP has three major priorities: to protect intellectual property, which is now largely unprotected overseas; to liberalize trade in services, not just manufacturing; and to enforce stricter labor and environmental standards. The Economist concludes that all of this will likely help American workers. In a win/win situation, our trading partners become stronger and able to afford US goods and services; and global competition helps motivate American innovation, which creates good jobs at home and abroad. We need to do a better job enforcing our trade agreements, and the TPP is a step in that direction.
Free Trade Hurts Some People
The unstoppable advance of technology and trade has replaced so many jobs that educational achievement and skills training continue to become more and more crucial. Michael Bloomberg asserts that technology has hurt workers far more than trade.
During the summer following my high school graduation, I stayed in Germany with two different families, one rural and one urban. I was impressed by the German educational system and its ability to appropriately direct students toward trades and skills education or toward universities, based on their preferences and abilities. We Americans are too biased toward four-year college degrees. There are so many students who are well-suited to become trained electricians, plumbers, carpenters, welders, and chefs. In some of these trades, we have serious shortages. We need to catch up to Europe and support workers where they will be happy and successful. Our community colleges are beginning to fill the gap with effective vocational training, but we need to catch up to Germany, which is so effective in upgrading the skills of its workforce through its established system of apprenticeships.
The UK vote to wall off the European Union has severely alienated British youth, who see the world where it is and where it is going. We will now all be forced to observe the consequences of the UK vote for their version of creating a wall between the UK and the rest of Europe. Following the vote to leave the EU, hate crimes, racism, and racial violence in the UK spiked from an average of 60 per week to 330 in the week following the vote to dis-unite the kingdom.
Isaac Newton had it right when he said, “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”