I can’t sleep, and I’ve got NAFTA on my mind. I won’t claim that the two are correlated, but when did that ever stop someone writing a blog post?

I am a little worried, however. Like just about everyone to whom I’ve talked, I’m hoping for a Democrat in the White House next year, and I’ve been following the primaries intently. But some of the recent pronouncements on trade have troubled me a little. So I’m hoping that, by writing something so naïve and ill-informed as this, someone will come out of the woodwork and tell me where I’m going wrong. Okay, here goes.

Let’s start by assuming that we’re all liberals. We probably want Barack Obama to be the next president, but maybe we’d rather it was Hilary Clinton. Either way, for the purpose of this discussion, it doesn’t matter.

We want things to be better for people in developing countries. To a first approximation, this could mean raising the standard of living in these countries by alleviating poverty. One way of doing this would be to spend more money in these countries. (Is this not why we’re all drinking fair-trade coffee, and eating fair-trade chocolate? Actually, scratch that, as I’m not convinced that the fair-trade movement doesn’t suffer from the exact same problems as what I’m about to describe. And sorry for the double-negative there.)

We are more likely to spend money in a country if we have free trade with that country, than if prices for goods from that country are inflated by duties or tariffs. We ensure free (or, perhaps more accurately, “freer”) trade by making free trade agreements with other countries.

So it’s heartening that, sometimes at least, both Obama [1] and Clinton [2] have supported NAFTA, which enables free trade between the US, Canada and Mexico.

Except, there’s a problem: free trade can cost jobs, especially manufacturing jobs in countries where the standard of living is so high that it is uneconomical to pay workers a living wage, when the same output could be obtained at a fraction of the price from one of our trading partners.

Especially jobs in traditionally blue-collar states like Ohio, where voters go to the polls today. And, therefore, both Clinton [3] and Obama [4] have attacked the other for supporting NAFTA, at the expense of American jobs.

So I have three questions:

  • Which of the above assumptions is incorrect?
  • I’d like to believe in Obama’s message of hope and change, but does this change stop at US border?
  • If, as is now being reported, at least one of the candidates is engaging in disingenuous political posturing when making these statements [1] (and I’d be surprised if his opponent wasn’t also doing the same), then why should we believe in the rest of the rhetoric that goes along with it?

Now, I’m not an idealist, but I don’t particularly enjoy being cynical. Indeed, I hope I’ve made a mistake somewhere above, and someone will come along and correct me. However, it seems that, in an election that will probably be won on the strength of aspirational oratory, we should be especially critical of what is said.

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