A better deal for Ohio than NAFTA?

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal that’s bunched up dozens of Dockers in Washington, is supposed to be an even better deal for Ohioans than NAFTA’s been.

You remember NAFTA — the North American Free Trade Agreement? Congress OK’d it in 1993. NAFTA transformed the United States, Canada and Mexico into one giant outlet mall reaching from Canada’s Arctic north to Mexico’s southernmost jungles.

Both Ohioans who were in the U.S. Senate in 1993, Democrats John Glenn and Howard M. Metzenbaum, voted “no” on NAFTA. At the time, Ohio sent 19 people to the U.S. House. (Ohio sends 16 now.) Ohio’s 1993 House delegation split over NAFTA: Nine Ohioans voted “yes” (seven Republicans, two Democrats). Ten voted “no” (eight Democrats, two Republicans).

Among the NAFTA “yesses” were future Gov. John R. Kasich, future Sen. Rob Portman, future Speaker John A. Boehner, all Republicans, and Democratic then-Reps. David Mann of Cincinnati and Tom Sawyer of Akron. (Also voting “yes” was future Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.) Among the NAFTA “noes” were another future governor, Ted Strickland, another future U.S. senator, Sherrod Brown, both Democrats, and Republican then-Reps. Martin Hoke of Cleveland and Ralph Regula of Navarre.

As with everything else in economics (the religion that tries to pass as a science), the free trade crowd ballyhoos claim after claim about how NAFTA has nudged the United States closer to heaven, if you define heaven as a Walmart crammed with cheap merchandise. But today’s crowded store shelves merely preview the tidal wave of goods that will flood American markets when the Trans-Pacific Partnership full-throttles China’s factories. ‘Course, American need all the cheap goods they can get, because the drop in real wages — thanks to union-busting and the like — means Americans can’t afford better.

NAFTA was crafted on Bill Clinton’s watch, the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Barack Obama’s. Historically, Democrats were a free trade party, but “New Democrats” really bought in. For instance, William M. Daley is a son of Chicago’s Democratic boss-mayor, the late Richard J. Daley, brother of another Chicago Democratic mayor, Richard M. Daley. William Daley served Clinton (as Commerce secretary) and Obama (as chief of staff). Daley helped Clinton get NAFTA passed. In a recent New York Times op-ed, William Daley wrote that “when (trade) barriers disappear, we prosper.” Daley, be it noted, isn’t driving truck in Ohio or waiting table. He’s now associated with a Swiss hedge fund.

What dividends has Washington’s romance with free trade paid blue-collar Ohio? A Development Services Agency compilation of Census data shows that about 26 percent of Cleveland’s residents were poor in 1999. By 2013, two decades after NAFTA, about 35 percent of Clevelanders were poor, according to 2009-2013 data from the Census’s American Community Survey.

The pattern’s statewide. The percentage of poor people in Akron was 17.5 percent in 1999; by 2013, it was 27.5 percent. In Youngstown, the proportion of poor people was 24.8 percent in 1999; by 2013, 36.4 percent. In Dayton, the poverty proportion was 23 percent in 1999; by 2013, it reached 34.7 percent; and in Springfield, the proportion of poor residents, 16.9 percent in 1999, was 30.4 percent by 2013. Even in comparatively prosperous Columbus, the proportion of people in poverty, 14.8 percent in 1999, reached 22.4 percent by 2013. Free trade enriches someone, or Congress wouldn’t pass it, but “someone” isn’t Jane or Joe Ohio.

The Wall Street Journal, which editorially backs the Trans-Pacific Partnership, recently opined that, “The (TPP) vote is … a watershed about the kind of country America wants to be.” It sure is.

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