Free Trade Deals Will Cost U.S. Jobs

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama at General Motors' Orion Assembly Plant in Lake Orion, Michigan. Credit: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Stopping by a General Motors plant in Michigan today with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, President Obama talked up a new U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement and brushed off concerns the pact would end up hurting American workers. "I know folks that some of you here may think that with the implementation of the Korean-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, that somehow your jobs may be exported or go somewhere else," Obama told the crowd. "But let me tell you one thing: That is not true."

Well, yes and no. What is true is that free trade agreements, by opening up foreign markets to U.S. exports, can create jobs, in certain industries – such as, in this case, the auto industry – at home. Also true is that, by greasing the skids for more foreign imports, these pacts wipe out American jobs in other industries. As Robert Scott of the Economic Policy Insitute points out in this "economic snapshot," you have to keep both sides of the equation in mind. "Counting export jobs while ignoring imports is like trying to run a business while ignoring expenses—it’s a sure-fire recipe for bankruptcy," he writes.

And, sure enough, according to Scott's calculations, on balance the U.S.-Korea trade pact, along with two others approved by Congress this week, with Colombia and Panama, is likely to hurt the U.S. economy, to the tune of 214,000 net U.S. jobs lost or displaced. (This shouldn't be a surprise; the 1993 NAFTA agreement with Mexico and Canada, touted before passage as a great engine of domestic job creation, has wound up costing the U.S. nearly 683,000 jobs, he reckons.) As he drily notes, "It’s important to consider both sides of the ledger when evaluating" free trade agreements.