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Free trade slurping jobs around the world.

Ross Perot had a piece of the truth when he said the North American Free Trade Agreement would create a great slurping sound as Mexico sucked in U.S. jobs. But even as we wait for the slurp, we hear the slosh of jobs casting off for Asia.

Slurp or slosh, jobs are going somewhere. Supporters of NAFTA admit it and urge us to enjoy it. Detractors of President Bush's delayed-action bomb hate it but offer no live alternatives.

Capital is stateless. It crosses borders at the speed of an electronic impulse without clearing customs. Jobs move a little more slowly, but jobs follow the capital as trade used to follow the flag. Human beings move much more slowly or not at all.

In Harper's last year, Walter Russell Mead made this projection: "Either Mexican wages will move up or American wages will move down." But a third option is possible: They will move toward each other.

A publicist sent by multinational sponsors to teach us to stop worrying and to learn to love NAFTA put it this way: "There's a big hue and cry in the United States about disparity in income. Well, what about disparities worldwide? Trade will make incomes more equal - which seems to be what everyone wants."

Too simplistic? Yes. Labor Secretary Robert Reich argues that Americans - aside from those who will lose jobs because of NAFTA - should do better. "Today only one Mexican in 16 owns a car," he said. "One in two U.S. citizens owns one. But through more open trade and other liberalizing measures, Mexican incomes have begun to rise, causing greater demand for U.S. exports and more job creation in the United States."

The Mexicans may buy American cars under NAFTA, but who will build the cars? It may be $11-an-hour American workers or $1-an-hour Mexican workers, but if that's the choice, you can guess which it will be. It also could be $6-an-hour workers in both countries - in which case all U.S. budget estimates are in the tank.

If that's the difference, we may assume we'll split the difference with Mexico on health care, Social Security, environmental protection and a host of other things Congress thinks it has some control over.

The two-way barrel that aims at markets but hits jobs applies in other areas of free trade. "Trade can bring greater prosperity and improved quality of life if properly managed," writes Hilary F. French, "but if not it can become an engine of enormous destruction."

French worries about the effect of free trade on environments for 61 pages in A Worldwatch paper ("Costly Tradeoffs"). She comes to the conclusion that environmentalists must intervene to ensure that the environmental declarations proudly signed by governments become part of their trade treaties.

French shares the assumption of national trade negotiators that economists and lawyers know enough to codify economic principles for the good of all.

Excuse me while I disagree. I don't think anyone is that smart. I have seen Carla Hills, who negotiated NAFTA for the United States, in action, and she is very good. She's tough. She's smart. She also won't be at the border to impose NAFTA's phylosanitary regime - the system to make sure imported food doesn't make us sick. The border won't be watched by lawyers and economists but by fallible humans who don't always act according to the experts' models for behavior.

I'm not even sure why we are talking about free trade between democractic middle-class United States and Canada on one hand and contagiously poor, one-party Mexico on the other. The income differential is 11 to one. In uniting Europe (and look at how long that has taken) the biggest difference, between Portugal and Germany, is five to one.

With NAFTA we will get a commission of unelected experts to pass on differences over interpretation. That takes NAFTA out of politics and leaves it in the hands of an elite like the negotiators.

As a harbinger of what to expect, the Mexican government took the United States to court - and won - over its complaint that our ban on tuna caught in nets that kill dolphins is an illegal restraint on trade under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

As a treaty, NAFTA will supersede the laws of Congress. We will be able to elect all the supporters of net bans and other environmental and safety laws we wish. Their views, and ours, will qualify as "interesting" or "quaint."

All that having been noted - and it goes widely unremarked - capital already goes its own way, and jobs slosh or slurp along behind without the new trade treaties.

French hopes that a measure of control over events can be gained through good treaties. At her most hopeful, she talks of the potential for a global interstate commerce clause like our own "on the grounds that it is necessary to leveling the playing field for trade between states."

That's some comfort. But it's cold.

Even as we huddle around it, economists and lawyers with their presumed expertise are chasing capital - which pays taxes where taxes are low and erects plants where workers are cheap and regulators can be ignored.
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Title Annotation:North American Free Trade Agreement
Author:Blackburn, Thomas E.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:May 21, 1993
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