Call It NAFTA 1.1, Not 2.0

[ Posted Monday, September 2nd, 2019 – 16:51 UTC ]

First of all: Happy Labor Day to everyone!

On yesterday's Sunday morning political shows, you might not have even realized it was Labor Day weekend. There was a big hurricane to cover, and yet another shooting to argue about. What with all of that going on, Labor Day was barely mentioned, except on one network. Much to my surprise, Fox News Sunday was the only show to have an actual Union leader on as a guest. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, spoke on all sorts of topics near and dear to Labor's heart: the trade war with China, the plight of farmers who are paying the price, the minimum wage, health insurance, and the politics surrounding all of them.

Trumka was also asked about trade agreements, and he didn't have any warm words for the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which he called "unenforceable." But this reminded me of something I've been meaning to write about for a while, and Labor Day seemed to be a good time to do so. While the U.S.M.C.A. has been negotiated between the three countries, it has yet to receive congressional approval here. At some point during the next few months (or even next year), the White House will be making a big push to get a vote on the new agreement in Congress. So sooner or later, it'll be what people are talking about inside the Beltway.

Since we aren't quite yet at that point, I'd like to take the time to make what might at first seem to be a highly technical and pedantic point. Because I believe that the critics of the new agreement are making a large error in how they're framing the issue. Those who are dismissive of the U.S.M.C.A. have taken to deriding it as "NAFTA 2.0." In one sense this is smart political framing, because few people (and even fewer blue-collar workers) have any love left for the North American Free Trade Agreement any more. So "NAFTA" is a very negative label to slap on the new agreement. This part of the argument is fine, and works precisely as intended.

But here's where we get pedantic and overly technical. Because "2.0" is not the right term to use here. It should really be called "NAFTA 1.1," not 2.0. For both technical reasons and for political framing reasons, this is a far better label to use.

Allow me to get geeky, for a moment. The designation "numeral-decimal-numeral" to describe things comes from the technical world. Most people have run into this nomenclature when dealing with computer software. In this context, the first version sold to the public is usually "version 1.0." That makes sense, right?

Of course, wise computer consumers have a general rule of thumb which bluntly warns: "Don't buy the 1.0 version of anything." This is because most companies rush their products to market, and doing so means not enough time spent adequately debugging the program. There will be glitches in version 1.0, almost without exception.

But there are two ways a software company can improve their version 1.0. The next release could be "version 2.0" or "version 1.1." There is -- or there should be, by the naming rules -- a big difference between those two options. Version 2.0 -- or any new X.0 version -- is supposed to be a major upgrade. The software often goes through a comprehensive redesign, and the user interface is almost always changed after the company gets user feedback on the first attempt. It's a big step forward, in other words.

Version 1.1 -- or any X.1 version -- represents a much smaller change. For the most part, a version 1.1 is released as a bug-fix version of the first attempt. Small changes have been made, but for the most part a 1.1 release is done merely to fix the big problems the 1.0 version had. The user interface is almost never redesigned, except in very minor ways.

Now, pulling back from such raw geekiness, if you wanted to disparage a free trade agreement as being insufficiently different from the previous (much-hated) one, which is the obvious choice here? "NAFTA 2.0" might actually be a good thing, if the agreement has been totally redesigned from top to bottom. But that's not what the U.S.M.C.A. does, and that's not why its detractors are trying to tie it to NAFTA in the first place. What the Trump team did was to hastily negotiate a few changes in quotas, while leaving the bulk of NAFTA intact. That is what its detractors are trying to point out.

Which is why the choice is obvious, even if it is pretty technical and pedantic in nature. To belittle Trump's U.S.M.C.A., call it "NAFTA 1.1," because both parts of that label are dismissive and derogatory. Calling it "NAFTA 2.0" gives far too much credit to Trump, because no sweeping redesign has, in fact, taken place.

Maybe this is too wonky or subtle for most people. I freely admit the possibility. But I've always been a student of political framing, and so I feel duty-bound to offer up this suggestion on Labor Day. When the Unions (and plenty of others) gear up to fight the ratification of the U.S.M.C.A., they should use the term which fully exposes the weak and insufficient nature of the changes. Calling it "NAFTA" with a version number is a good way to do so, because it reminds everyone of what they hated about the original NAFTA -- much of which remains unchanged in the new version. But this point should be driven home even further, by always calling it "NAFTA 1.1" rather than "NAFTA 2.0." In fact, it's even got a built-in explanation, because if the term NAFTA 2.0 ever comes up (in political conversation or in an interview with the media), the best way to respond would be: "It's not even NAFTA 2.0 -- that's the problem. In actual fact, it's only NAFTA 1.1."

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


39 Comments on “Call It NAFTA 1.1, Not 2.0”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I call it a pretty good trade deal, before and after.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Not sure why Democrats would want to do that.

    Unless they wish to lose the WH. Again.

  3. [3] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    I have heard people describe it as “Trump’s regifting of NAFTA” — same exact gift, just in newer wrapping paper.

  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    A pretty good trade deal for whom exactly? nafta has always been a mixed bag, good for businesses but not as good for workers. And without fair migration policies, still woefully incomplete.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    For everybody, on balance.

    We can be thankful that Team Trump didn't ruin it.

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Does NAFTA prevent raising the minimum wage or other worker benefits? Speaking as a full-fledged worker, you understand.

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Bernie's opposition to NAFTA and his proud vote against the pact is one major reason why he won't win a national election.

  8. [8] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Yes liz, in the u.s. "free trade" does make it economically less practical to improve workers'wages and benefits.

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Not in Canada. What's wrong with America?

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I think I'm beginning to understand what is wrong with America …. a failure of imagination.

  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    oh, and if you try to google NAFTA, bad news in Canada, then you'll have enough reading material to last, well, for a long while.

  12. [12] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Canada doesn't have any next door neighbors with significantly poorer and more desperate labor pools. Yet.

  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Sorry for the higher than normal level of snark tonight.

    I think I'll go and have a piece of pie.


  14. [14] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:



  15. [15] 
    Kick wrote:

    CW: To belittle Trump's U.S.M.C.A., call it "NAFTA 1.1," because both parts of that label are dismissive and derogatory.

    Setting aside whether one likes or dislikes the North American Free Trade Agreement, Donald's repeated disparagement of NAFTA as "the worst deal in American history" and then simply changing a few of its terms and re-branding it as the USMCA and referring to it in glowing hyperbolic terms is one of Trump's most obvious scams to date -- USCAM.

    Calling it "NAFTA 2.0" gives far too much credit to Trump, because no sweeping redesign has, in fact, taken place.

    Exactly! USCAM is the equivalent of putting cheese on a leftover side dish and then telling your gullible vegetable-hating base: "It's the most beautiful piece of pizza you've ever seen."

  16. [16] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    It's a basic principle of economics the any and all trade benefits both parties involved. If that were not the case, the exchange would not take place in the first place.

    However, when the 'parties involved' are nations (as opposed to individuals), specific individuals or small groups within the overall group can be adversely affected.

    An example could be specif companies, or labor unions, who cannot compete with more-efficient foreigners.

    However, even when such sub-groups are negatively affected, it's ALWAYS true that the benefits of free trade that accrue to the overall population FAR EXCEED the detrimental effects to the sub-group.

    Law of Economics.

  17. [17] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Yes, billionaires stand to gain many more billions overall than working people stand to lose.

  18. [18] 
    John M wrote:

    Everyone keeps talking about American jobs being sucked to Mexico because of NAFTA.

    1.) That was happening BEFORE NAFTA.

    2.) NAFTA actually came too LATE to really help Mexico as much as it could have.

    3.) Most of the jobs (especially low end manufacturing) actually ended up going to China instead, not to Mexico. Mexico itself has even complained about this.

    4.) The USA would be a lot better off if we DID help Mexico develop. It's better all around to have a first world neighbor on your doorstep, rather than a possible failed narco-terrorist run third world neighbor on your doorstep. Better for security, better for immigration, just BETTER.

    5.) If we spent all the trillions of dollars wasted on nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan on Mexico, Central America and Colombia, so much closer to home, the USA would be a lot stronger in a geopolitical and strategic sense than it is now.

    6.) It keeps being forgotten that the European Union had a HUGE POSITIVE impact on the economic development of Ireland, Spain and Portugal, as well as the democratization of Spain and Portugal, who were both previously authoritarian dictatorships, before their membership in the European Union. There is no reason why a true North American common market led by the USA and Canada could not have a similar effect on Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

  19. [19] 
    John M wrote:

    As an interesting aside:

    1.) Those low skill and wage assembly manufacturing jobs are now moving from China to Vietnam.

    2.) Just like the clothing and shoe manufacturing jobs are moving from China to Bangladesh.

    3.) As China develops more High Tech jobs. Mexico actually really missed the boat with its timing.

  20. [20] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    @john m,
    Developing central America would indeed be highly beneficial.

  21. [21] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    Yeah, it's true, "working people" do indeed have it tough.

    Their problem stems from the fact that the only thing they have to trade is their time and their talent, and in many cases that actually turns out to be only their time.

  22. [22] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    In a global economy labor has many disadvantages. Dearth of talent isn't usually one of them. When a job can move to the other side of the world in minutes, there's just no leverage to stop it going to the cheapest, least regulated place, where externalities aren't felt by consumers.

  23. [23] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    That is how the system works!! That is why the average standard of living world-wide is the highest it's ever been in all of history!! Would you prefer it to be otherwise?

    Were you happier when only Americans were well-off??

  24. [24] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:


    Were you happier when only Americans were well-off??

    When, exactly, were Americans the only people in this world who were “well-off”?

  25. [25] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    John M [19]

    Good points! If only Central America had better oil reserves, we’d be pumping tons of money into them! It is truly sad that we have done so little to help the countries closest to our borders.

  26. [26] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Listen [25]

    Most prominently, right after WWII.

  27. [27] 
    dsws wrote:

    Liz [2]
    Are you actually suggesting that there's some possible political benefit to being seen as pro-trade? Certainly not in the United States.

    John [19]
    Better to have a first world neighbor? That's what you think. It's what I think, too. But for normal people, well being is comparative. If the Joneses are worse off, that doesn't merely make you better off. It's the same thing as you being better off.

  28. [28] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Are you actually suggesting that there's some possible political benefit to being seen as pro-trade? Certainly not in the United States.

    Very funny.

    If Democrats don't choose a presidential nominee who is capable of beating Trump on the issue of the economy, in general, and of trade, in particular, then Trump will probably be re-elected.

  29. [29] 
    dsws wrote:

    There isn't even a single precinct in the entire US where a candidate would gain votes by having people think they're in favor of international trade.

    In the minds of voters, "winning" is the same as "having the other side lose". Trade (a situation where both sides gain if it happens, and both sides lose if it doesn't) is incompatible with that.

  30. [30] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    most individuals in the US aren't capable of international trade themselves, and don't get any direct benefit.


  31. [31] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    indirect benefits, such as lower prices, tend to be offset by costs such as fewer available high-paying jobs.

  32. [32] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Then your country is in worse shape than I even I thought.

    But, I don't think your analysis is quite spot on.

  33. [33] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    By the way, dsws, trade is happening now. If it isn't, then it won't matter anymore what voters think.

    You sell your fellow countrymen far too short.

  34. [34] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    Re "Favoring internation'l trade being a losing issue in every single precinct", that is sadly true, but it's also sadly stupid on the part of the voters.

    One thing to remember about the laws of Economics is, they do not recognize political borders. By the same principle that folks in MN producing iron (steel) while the folks in FL grow citrus fruit, and they then get together and trade, and both groups profit (compared to the alternative of each state producing both commodities on their own. Thats known as the "law of comparative advantage" in Econ texts), it's also true between the U.S. and China.

    If on that basis, voters are smart enough recognize the wisdom of interstate trade, it's stupid for those same voters to deny the wisdom of international trade, because the same laws and principles apply to both.

    But hey, I'm quick to admit that most voters ARE that stupid.

  35. [35] 
    dsws wrote:

    Of course international trade is happening now. Our economy couldn't function without it.

    Traditionally, politicians have mostly ignored trade while campaigning, and done what the donors want after they're elected. People with enough money at stake to care about the details of trade agreements tend to be in favor of relatively free trade, while voters have a zero sum mindset.

    It's not that voters are extraordinarily stupid. It's the nature of the political process, that all of us together are stupider than any of us.

  36. [36] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Did American voters ever see America as a global leader, of anything?

  37. [37] 
    dsws wrote:

    Voters saw the US as a leader of the Cold War. Zero-sum, big time. Part of that was the space race, where the zero-sum aspect was wrapped in a blanket of feel-good deniability. So yes, we were seen as a leader of the kind of progress that put men on the moon (and proved that our rockets were good enough to be reliable ICBMs).

  38. [38] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    So yes, we were seen as a leader of the kind of progress that put men on the moon …

    No, I want to know if the average American voter sees their own country has having a global leadership role.

  39. [39] 
    dsws wrote:

    The average voter doesn't recognize any global anything that might be led. "Leader of the Free World", yes, where "free" means pro-US. Actual global anything, no.

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