Responses from our May 2014 TRIP Snap Poll of international relations (IR) scholars present an interesting contrast to public opinion on NAFTA’s effect on the U.S and Mexican economies over the past 20 years. Scholars overwhelmingly agree that NAFTA has been good for both the U.S. (79 percent) and Mexican (71 percent) economies. The public’s assessment – from a 2013 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs – of NAFTA’s effect on the Mexican economy is similarly optimistic (70 percent good) but is split on its effect on the U.S. economy (49 percent good, 46 percent bad).

One reason that scholars may be so bullish on the economic benefits of NAFTA and free trade more generally is that they tend to be familiar with economic teachings, which show that  free(r) trade and international trade agreements tend to be welfare enhancing. The educated public may be similar. Indeed, Jens Hainmueller and Michael Hiscox, two prominent scholars of trade and public opinion, argue that those who have attended college are “likely to be far more informed than others about the aggregate efficiency gains associated with expanded trade, especially if they have had any contact at all with economics courses and with the theory of comparative advantage.” Thus, they claim, college education is not correlated with pro-trade sentiment among the public for material reasons but because, at least in the United States, students are generally taught that trade has beneficial impacts.

If Hainmueller and Hiscox are right, we would expect college-educated individuals to look more like IR scholars than those who did not attend college. To make this comparison as clear as possible, we focus our attention on respondents in the public and scholarly samples who view NAFTA as zero sum (bad for U.S. and good for Mexico) and those that view NAFTA as mutually beneficial (good for both U.S. and Mexico). We see these two groups as representing protectionist and free-trade factions of the public. In this sense, we are comparing those who see NAFTA as something of a beggar-thy-neighbor policy, benefiting the Mexican economy at the expense of Americans, to those who see NAFTA as a means to grow the economic pie.

The graph below shows the proportions of individuals at each level of education who said NAFTA has been good for Mexico but bad for the United States in the top panel and those who said NAFTA has been good for both United States and Mexico in the bottom panel. The black lines represent 95 percent confidence intervals.

Scholarly Opinion

IR scholars — as highly educated and economically literate individuals — look a lot like the kind of people Hainmueller and Hiscox describe. Just 3 percent of scholars view NAFTA as a zero-sum game that benefits the Mexican economy but not the US economy. Additionally, a large majority of IR scholars view NAFTA as being good for both the U.S. and Mexican economies. In the overwhelming view of IR scholars, the rising tide of NAFTA has lifted all boats.

Notably, we find relatively little variation across scholars in different subfields and/or paradigms. While IPE scholars (71 percent) do fall slightly above their colleagues (65 percent) in terms of viewing NAFTA as being beneficial to both nations, the gap is not statistically meaningful. With a crude proxy for income, an individual’s rank in their department, we find no systematic difference across full professors, associate professors, assistant professors or visiting/adjunct professors and other non-tenure track instructors. What variation we do find comes from respondents’ theoretical priors. Those who characterize their research as paradigmatically liberal or realist are more likely (75 percent and 74 percent, respectively) than those with other paradigmatic commitments (64 percent) to see NAFTA as a win-win.

Public Opinion

The most educated members of the public (those with a PhD, MD or JD) see NAFTA as increasing the size of the pie. Among the broader public, however, the findings are less clear. Again, consistent with Hainmueller and Hiscox’s expectations, the proportions in the good-good portion of the population are trending upward with education level. That said, those who have attended college are more, rather than less, likely than those with at most a high school education to view NAFTA as bad for United States but good for Mexico. (This effect does not disappear once we account for the fact that college attendants are somewhat less likely to answer “don’t know”).

Beyond the more intuitive crosstab above, we find that, in a multinomial logit regression model predicting the four potential combinations of economic assessments, education is not a systematically meaningful determinant after controlling for income, age, gender and party ID. Just the act of attending college does not seem to make individuals in the public less likely to view NAFTA as a zero-sum game [See results]. Only the possession of a PhD or professional degree has a consistent and statistically significant, negative effect on an individual’s likelihood to see NAFTA as bad for either country’s economy. It may be that holding a PhD or professional degree is simply an indicator of working in a non-tradeable, relatively high-paying sector of the economy. This group of highly educated individuals stands to gain economically from more open trade, and their demographics map very closely with our sample of scholars.

The results above suggest that many college-educated Americans are not internalizing the implications of free-trade models that they were presumably exposed to in their course work or that other considerations are more salient when it comes to NAFTA in particular. With close to 20 years of news coverage touting both extremes of the NAFTA story, perhaps it is not surprising that substantial portions of the educated American public are skeptical of NAFTA and its implications for the U.S. economy.

Daniel Maliniak is a PhD candidate at University of California at San Diego. Ryan Powers is a PhD candidate at University of Wisconsin at Madison. Maliniak and Powers are co-PIs on the Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) project.