THE North American Free Trade Agreement now being pushed by President Clinton has become one of the most important issues in the country.
If it is passed, NAFTA will change the way America does business with the world.
Both Canada and Mexico stand to benefit from it, but opponents maintain that the U.S. worker will suffer.
Those who are in favor of the agreement and those who are against it are manning the barricades.
Phil McKinney, a strong opponent of NAFTA, came into my office and said, "Do you realize that the way the treaty is written someone from Mexico might soon be writing your column?"
"It's that bad?"
"There are writers down there who can do what you do for 10 cents a page."
"Yeah, but not with the same flair," I said defensively.
"That's what you think. Just give them an unabridged dictionary and you won't be able to tell one of your columns from one written by a sheepherder in Guadalajara."
"If what you say is true, why would President Clinton and ex-Presidents Bush, Carter and Ford be for it?"
"Because they maintain that even though one American columnist might lose his job, in the long run the person from Mexico who writes it will be able to buy a dozen Harley Davidsons from the United States."
To make his point, Phil showed me a column in Spanish which he said had been written in Cancun.
Then he told me, "It's no worse than one written by you and the newspaper syndicate didn't have to pay the Mexican writer health benefits or pension money, or give him leave when his wife was going to have a baby."
I examined it carefully. "But is he funny?"
"Most editors couldn't care less. All they know is that Mexican columns can be produced at a price they can afford."
I was starting to get nervous.
He continued, "If you think that's bad -- I heard that the Mexicans are now training pottery makers to write in 500 words what the President should do about NATO defense cutbacks. You might as well face it, the American column as we know it will soon be no more."
In order to persuade me that he was right, Phil flew me to Tijuana to visit a syndicated columnist factory. It was located in a back alley, and when I opened the door, it turned out to be nothing more than a sweatshop for writers.
At each table a man or a woman was bent over a 1940 Smith Corona typewriter turning out copies of stories by George Will, William Buckley and William Safire for one-tenth the price.
"How can we columnists possibly compete with Mexico when they don't pay them any wages?" I asked Phil.
Phil handed me a Mexican version of a Russell Baker column. "This is a fake," I protested. "Baker would never misspell the Baltimore Oriowles."
McKinney said, "So what? Nobody outside of Baltimore would know the difference."
Art Buchwald is a syndicated columnist.