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Teaching Tip: Explaining NAFTA to Your Students

April 1, 2016
Making car mats in Mexico. NAFTA put U.S. automakers in competition with Mexican workers.

Making car mats in Mexico. NAFTA put U.S. automakers in competition with Mexican workers.

Your students have undoubtedly been hearing about Donald Trump’s threat to “break” the North American Free Trade Agreement. Auto industry workers offered up some of his loudest cheers. But there are still more than 800,000 jobs in the U.S. auto sector, and The New York Times (Mar. 30, 2016) makes the case that without NAFTA (see Chapter 2), there might not be much left of Detroit at all.  To be sure, the deals to reduce trade barriers threaten the livelihood of workers in the industries exposed most directly to foreign competition. NAFTA put them in direct competition with Mexican workers earning 1/5 of their compensation.

The American trade deficit in autos and parts tripled in the 2 decades after the NAFTA deal took effect in 1994, to about $130 billion in 2013. The industry lost 350,000 jobs, 1/3 of its workers, a massive shift in a flagship industry. Still, NAFTA itself had a relatively modest impact on the size of the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico. And autoworkers in Detroit were not just competing with cheap workers in Mexico. They were also competing with American workers in the union-averse South, where many car companies set up shop. They were competing with robots and more efficient Japanese and Korean automakers.

The integration of production across countries with complementary labor forces — cheaper workers in Mexico to perform many basic tasks, with more highly paid and productive engineers and workers in the U.S. — turned out to play a central role in reviving our auto industry. The Honda CR-V assembled in Mexico, for example, uses a U.S.-made motor and transmission– and 70% of its content is either American or Canadian. This regional integration gave the U.S.-based auto industry a competitive edge that was critical to its survival. There was a concern 20 years ago that an auto industry supply chain would develop across Asia, including China and Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Now, as Chinese wages rise, almost every car manufacturer is setting up shop in Mexico.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Explain the purpose of NAFTA.
  2. Why is this an OM issue?
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