The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which lays out rules for how companies in Mexico, Canada, and the United States cross borders to do business, has become something of a punching bag. As a candidate, Donald Trump called it a “disaster.” So did Bob King, the former president of the United Auto Workers. “For countless Americans, this agreement has failed,” Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, said in a statement Wednesday morning, as he joined representatives from Canada and Mexico to renegotiate the trade deal. Among the complaints: NAFTA made it easier for companies to outsource jobs to Mexico, which led to lower wages for the American workers competing for the work that was left.
Not everyone agrees that NAFTA was bad for U.S. workers—some studies suggest that manufacturing employment would have declined anyway, and that NAFTA and other trade deals helped U.S. companies become more profitable, which in turn helped U.S. workers. Still, negotiators from the three member countries are tasked with improving the deal. And they may not be able to do much in that regard as they meet to hash out a new version of the trade agreement, which they hope to reach an agreement on by the beginning of 2018. That’s in part because failure—at least from the point of view of American workers—is baked into the format of modern trade agreements. Trade agreements are no longer just about reducing quotas or tariffs on products imported by member countries. Instead, modern trade agreements are, as Dani Rodrik, a Harvard economist, argues in a forthcoming book, “designed largely with the needs of capital in mind,” meaning that they protect investors and companies and their interests overseas, and do little to ensure that workers and consumers are getting a fair deal.