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Attacking NAFTA--More Like a Contact Sport Than a Debate

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The proposed North American Free Trade Agreement is so complicated--with more side agreements than you can shake a stick at--that even well-informed people can disagree about it. Even if they like the fundamental goal--lowering tariffs and other trade barriers in the United States, Mexico and Canada to promote economic growth--they can differ on how to get there. We understand that. We also understand that politicians need to get elected, or stay viable, or stay in the news. Hey, that’s political life. We also understand that NAFTA is not like health care reform, which gets everyone’s attention, and that some unions hate it, a fact that gets Democratic politicians’ attention. But in this society, public debate is supposed to help inform people about the nuances of complex issues. Alarmingly, that’s not happening with NAFTA. It has become a punching bag. And that’s truly sad.

Opponents of NAFTA should be looking for ways that a mutually beneficial trade agreement can be modified and amended down the road, instead of trying to prod Congress to kill it now with worn-out arguments, knee-jerk rationalizations, scare scenarios and, sometimes, just plain lies. NAFTA is neither wholly evil nor wholly ideal; it would improve relations with Mexico, help U.S. exports and help the Mexican economy. It would not (a) end the recession or (b) unemploy millions of Americans.

Among NAFTA’s opponents are major political leaders who command public attention. They ought to be doing a better job of contributing to this important debate. The foes-of-NAFTA roster includes former presidential candidates like businessman Ross Perot and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, major leaders of Congress like Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and worn-out pols like Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.). Even California’s Sen. Barbara Boxer and state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, both of them smart politicians on other issues, seem unsettlingly eager to join the negativity.

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Perot’s campaign against the trade pact is the most deceitful. He is finding that his cornball protectionism keeps his profile high, and the media requests coming in. But his book attacking the pact has more half-truths than his average infomercial, and isn’t as much fun.

He claims that NAFTA would create a “giant sucking sound” carrying U.S. jobs south to be taken by Mexican workers paid one-fifth the wages of U.S. workers. He forgets to tell you that that output per worker there is roughly five times less than in this country, which balances the equation. Moreover, if wage differentials were as important as Perot claims, high-wage U.S. jobs would have fled to Mexico--or countries where workers are paid even less--long ago. Nothing NAFTA will do adds to any of the reasons why jobs here might go south--but the pact could help both the Mexican and American (and Canadian) economies by spurring trade, and thus high-value U.S. exports.

One of the few members of Congress who has tried to link himself to Perot’s anti-NAFTA campaign--appearing at public rallies to call for the political defeat of anyone who votes for NAFTA, even fellow Democrats--is Sen. Riegle. Politically weakened by his links to the Keating S&L; scandal and personal problems. Riegle has decided not to run for reelection next year. But his views reflect, line by line, those of Michigan’s labor unions.

Despite their declining membership nationally, unions still have clout, and the AFL-CIO has pulled out all the stops to prod its political friends to come out against NAFTA. That is what got Gephardt, the No. 2 House Democrat, to break ranks with President Clinton on the issue. And that is one reason that liberals like Jackson and Boxer are against the pact.

Boxer, in a recent article on these pages, criticized NAFTA because “no steps have been taken to ease Mexico’s transition toward partnership with the United States or Canada.” Where has Boxer been while President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and other committed young Mexican political leaders have been opening up and modernizing their nation’s economy in one of the most dramatic such turnarounds ever accomplished?

For her part, Treasurer Brown has adroitly, and honorably, tried to avoid the immigrant-bashing that Gov. Pete Wilson and other state officials have succumbed to in frustration over California’s economic problems. Instead she has focused on jobs, not welfare, as the magnet that draws immigrants here. So how can she utterly ignore the logical next step?: Reduce illegal immigration from Mexico by creating jobs down there.

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Labor’s opposition to NAFTA is based less on what the trade pact would or would not do for U.S. workers than on what it symbolizes to unions deeply frightened by the epochal changes taking place in the economy--runaway plants, layoffs, lower wages, the decline of U.S. manufacturing. But defeating one trade agreement won’t change that. As Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich told a congressional hearing, NAFTA is “a very, very tiny element with regard to the huge tide of change that is sweeping over America.” He went on to describe it as one of many steps this country must take to build up international trade, thereby building the nation’s future economy.

Exactly. NAFTA will make historic changes already well under way more orderly, to the benefit of workers and consumers in all three nations. It may not be the last word in trade relations, but it surely is a first step.

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