The debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement intensified appreciably in the last week even as the quality of it on some fronts continued to descend beyond the adolescent and toward the infantile.
What a nation of ninnies we must seem to our European trading partners, who embraced intracontinental free trade 36 years ago in the Treaty of Rome and who more recently swallowed into the European Community their relatively poor, low-wage neighbors to the south -- Portugal, Spain and Greece -- without injury to the economies of the richer states. And here is the United States, this nation that boasts it can win two major wars at the same time, quaking like an aspen before the notion of free competition with the Mexican beast penned up beyond the Rio Grande.
Now, if you're trying to make up your mind about NAFTA -- and polls show most Americans haven't even gone as far as tentatively understanding it -- begin by forgetting that Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas; Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.; economist Milton Friedman, and former Under Secretary of State and Iran-Contra figure Elliott Abrams support it. Hell, they all agree the Earth's round, last time I heard. Some things they get right.
And do not suppose that because former California Gov. Jerry Brown, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the AFL-CIO and consumer advocate Ralph Nader have joined the opposition to NAFTA that it is the side where the liberal angels congregate to confront the greedy forces of money, privilege and reaction. I give you Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who are among NAFTA's stoutest bashers.
Bashing the free-trade agreement has become the all-purpose, one-size-fits-all posture that any politician can assume to prove anything. For the far right, it affirms their America First manhood while demonstrating they aren't pliant tools of the big companies dying to join the giant sucking sound toward cheap Mexican wages. For liberals, it shows the yahoo set that proletarian sympathies do not mean you're soft on foreigners. For hard-to-pin-down centrists like House Majority Leader Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., it proves they too have convictions, even backbones, while ingratiating themselves with both the left and the right. For people in love with the sound of their own voice, like Ross Perot, it's a chance to chant "giant sucking sound" on the weird theory that repetition is the mother of wisdom.
To make some sense out of this piebald choir and its atonal
anti-NAFTA screech, you might consult the nation's economists. The trouble is, of course, nobody trusts them anymore because they can't even agree on whether Reaganomics was revealed wisdom or revealed drivel.
They do, however, display a remarkable degree of agreement on NAFTA. Twelve American winners of the Nobel Prize in economics -- which is all but one of those still breathing -- have signed a letter which says that the giant sound you may hear is Americans being suckered by their fears. Both the liberals and conservatives in this group, who usually spend their time savaging each others' theories, concluded to a man that NAFTA will be a "net positive for the United States both in terms of employment creation and overall economic growth."
This does not mean being against NAFTA makes you a bad person, only that you are easily scared. And all politicians who oppose it are not necessarily people of vile motive. The problem is that if you're a member of Congress who wants to be re-elected, being for NAFTA will get you on the New York City subway. That and $1.25.
Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.