By Donella Meadows
–November 11, 1993–
Sending a pair of gladiators like Al Gore and Ross Perot into the ring is not the way to illuminate a complex issue like NAFTA. There are more positions, theories, dreams, hopes, and fears about NAFTA than could be represented by any two people, even if they were polite to each other.
That variety of opinion, which is scattering Republicans and Democrats, economists and ecologists, Mexicans and Americans on both side of the debate, comes about because no one really knows what NAFTA would do. It would be only the second case in the world of the deliberate weakening of a border between a large, mainly rich economy and another that is mainly poor. (The first was the sudden elimination of the border between East and West Germany.)
So in the absence of certainty, we argue about theories, dreams, hopes, and fears.
Blue-collar workers fear NAFTA, and understandably so, because they bear the greatest risk if the experiment doesn’t work. They see themselves competing for jobs against 40 million Mexican workers who have no unions and no benefits and who consider it a privilege to work for $5 a day. To our workers it makes no difference whether the border dissolves to let immigrants in or to let factories out. In either case their jobs go to the lowest bidder.
Corporate managers are putting million-dollar ad campaigns behind NAFTA, because it would give them unrestricted access to those cheap workers. And because it would allow them to escape the environmental, workplace safety, anti-trust, and banking laws of the United States. And because even if they have no intention of moving their operations to Mexico, they hope and pray that NAFTA will produce a spurt of general economic growth.
Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and many other politicians of both parties are for NAFTA because they get more campaign contributions from corporations than from labor unions. And because they too are desperate for economic growth, preferably before the next election.
Politicians from Michigan and other strong-labor states are against NAFTA for obvious reasons.
Pat Buchanan and friends of the far right oppose NAFTA because it means foreign involvement, weakening of national sovereignty, and new layers of international bureaucracy.
Jerry Brown, Ralph Nader and fellow-travelers of the left dislike NAFTA because it increases the power of multinational corporations and decreases the power of citizens, small businesses, and democratically elected governments.
Heaven only knows why, really, deep in his heart and his business dealings, Ross Perot is against NAFTA.
The Mexican government, corrupt, anti-democratic, anti-worker, and anti-environment (at least until the NAFTA negotiations made it sound a different tune) is pouring its treasury into pro-NAFTA lobbying because it represents the rich of Mexico, who expect NAFTA to make them richer, and because it hopes to consolidate its power by promising economic growth to the poor.
The Mexican middle class is largely pro-NAFTA, in the belief that pressure from outside will force democratic and environmental reforms that have been impossible to get from inside.
Mexican dissidents oppose NAFTA, hoping that its failure will bring down the ruling party.
Large U.S. environmental organizations such as the Audubon Society and the World Wildlife Fund, after many in-house fights, are supporting NAFTA, because it puts pressure on the Mexican government to enforce its impressive-only-on-paper environmental laws. They hope their support will win them enough favor in the Clinton Administration to let them into further NAFTA negotiations, so they can push to make the weak “side agreements” stronger.
Smaller, grass-roots environmental groups oppose NAFTA with a vengeance because they believe it will set up a three-nation competition in weakening environmental laws to attract or keep jobs. Unlike the establishment enviros, these small groups don’t see any way their voices can be heard in international negotiations.
Liberals concerned about the poor in Mexico lean toward NAFTA in the belief that it will hasten economic development there.
Bigots hope NAFTA will bring about enough action in Mexico to keep the Mexicans at home.
Traditional economists cheer NAFTA, because of their 200-year-old theory of comparative advantage, which says that free trade always enriches all sides of the trading partnership.
Dissident economists say comparative advantage is a dead theory, valid only if products, not factories or workers, cross borders. They point out that of 19 major NAFTA economic forecasts, 18 ASSUME AT THE OUTSET that no capital investment, no factories, and therefore no jobs will move south. The only study that does not make that assumption concludes that NAFTA would shift $2.5 billion of investment and 75,000 jobs from the U.S. to Mexico every year.
Even more dissident economists doubt not just the holy icon of comparative advantage, but the even holier one of perpetual economic growth. Some kinds of growth help only the rich, not the poor, they say. Some kinds of growth cost more in environmental or social damage than they are worth. This NAFTA was written by the wrong people to promote the wrong kinds of growth.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who knows? You can decide for yourself. But do notice that the people who have the most to lose if pro-NAFTA theories are wrong are not those who designed it, or those who will run it, or those who are making the most noise supporting it.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993