Pull down the walls

Paul Greenberg

May 22, 1991|By Paul Greenberg

LEAVE IT to Richard Gephardt, who once made a presidential campaign out of Japan-bashing, to claim the president of the United States is exploiting racial divisions.

Gephardt, now majority leader of the House of Representatives, seized on a phrase in a speech by George Bush at Hampton Institute -- a warning that opponents of free trade with Mexico had "resorted to slurs against our Mexican neighbors." The congressman saw this comment, or at least wants the rest of us to see it, as an appeal to "racial division."

To call the congressman's reasoning nonsense is to dignify it. Everybody who has followed the debate on free trade with Mexico knows what the president meant by slurs: that Mexican labor is cheap and will undercut American wages; that the Mexicans will use a free-trade agreement to flood the American market with cars and other products they will import from abroad; that Mexico can't be trusted to care for the natural environment along the border and therefore should be denied favorable trade terms.

All of these are stereotypes but they have little to do with race. They have everything to do with protecting special interests at home against foreign competition. The slurs should be dismissed and any legitimate problems with Mexican policy dealt with in negotiations. Soon.

It is Richard Gephardt, not George Bush, who has dragged the emotional issue of race into this debate over trade. Gephardt himself favors fast-track negotiations with Mexico but he just couldn't resist a chance to score some partisan points. Those who have watched his political career may be tempted to classify his politics as opportunism, but that is much too elevated a description. Politically, Dick Gephardt is a jerk, has been a jerk, and shows every sign of remaining a jerk. This latest piece of grandstanding is part of an all too familiar pattern. Call it jerkism.

The argument over trade with Mexico isn't about race or nationality or the environment. It is about whether this hemisphere can finally get together. The same gradual lowering of tariffs that characterized the free-trade agreement between Canada and the United States can soon be expanded to Mexico -- unless emotional irrelevancies get in the way.

The European Community, now on the verge of unification, went through this same process years ago. There may still be some European holdouts -- like Norway -- but by and large, the Europeans have learned that a free market requires free trade. Protectionism, currency manipulation and bureaucracy are no substitute for open competition under the same economic rules. If Europeans can see that, surely North Americans can.

The alternative for Mexico and the United States is to watch manufacturing continue to migrate to low-wage countries while people go in the opposite direction. This kind of dislocation is not healthy for nations or their economies. Trade barriers that are supposed to protect national economies actually undermine them. In an interconnected world, prosperity is not divisible.

The trade barriers between Mexico and the United States will come down one way or another -- legally or illegally, efficiently or inefficiently, in a way that promotes stability or in a way that erodes it. Better a free-trade zone achieved openly through direct negotiations than the kind of gray market sure to develop when unrealistic tariffs and other restrictions hamper the flow of capital, people and goods. The opponents of free trade are fighting a losing battle. The only question is how long they can continue to hold back the economies of both Mexico and the United States.

Mexico is already one of this country's best customers and suppliers.

After Canada, Mexico is America's biggest supplier of farm products and the biggest of fruits and vegetables. After Japan and the Soviet Union, Mexico is our farmers' biggest export market. As Mexican tariffs come down, our exports to that country will go up. They've already doubled in the past four years, creating an estimated 264,000 new jobs in the United States. Every major economic study concludes that the United States would benefit in a big way from eliminating Mexican tariffs, which are higher than this country's.

After a Mexican-American agreement, the dream of a free trade zone as big as the hemisphere will wait to be realized. Let's remember that, before this country expanded across the Rockies to the Pacific, the Mississippi was America's second coast. Now it can become America's third coast as the rest of the hemisphere is opened to rice, wheat and manufactured goods from the United States -- and as this great American market is opened to our neighbors to the south.

A three-country, free-trade zone in North America would represent an economic union of 360 million people with an annual output of $6 trillion. It would be the largest free-trade zone in the world. At last Japan and Europe would get a trading partner their own size.

Commerce -- as international a language as music or science -- means the exchange of more than goods. Free trade means that democracy, culture, people and all the rich variations of VTC civilization would also flow more freely through the Americas.

So what are waiting for? This is too promising a vision to let any small-bore demagogue -- in the United States or Mexico -- confuse the issue.

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