GOLDEN AGE OR DOOMSDAY? Claims for and against NAFTA not marked by restraint NORTH AMERICAN FREE TRADE AGREEMENT


WASHINGTON -- Whatever claims have been made for or against the North American Free Trade Agreement during the national argument over its passage, one thing is certain: None has been understated.

To hear each side tell it, we are either on the verge of a golden dawn of global opportunity with an accelerating economy and higher-paying jobs, or a grim return to depression with wages and work standards dragged ever lower by an unequal partnership with an impoverished neighbor.

Hyperbole has become humdrum as the charges and counter-charges have escalated: Images of the Last Supper have been invoked, the Louisiana Purchase recalled, and comparison made with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

There is likely to be more of the same today when the House of Representatives agonizes aloud over whether to create the world's largest free trade zone among the United States, Canada and Mexico. "The problem is," said Larry Birns, of the anti-NAFTA Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "that you never know who is telling the truth on this, even when people believe they are telling the truth."

There is no question that NAFTA is a defining issue for the Clinton presidency and the nation's trade policy. But if today's vote isn't one of the most important of the 20th century, then we have all been misled by the cataclysmic sweep of the rhetoric surrounding what essentially is a decision on whether to eliminate most trade barriers among three countries over the next 15 years.

Since the United States accounts for 85 percent of the total wealth and economic activity in the group, life here is hardly likely to be shaken with or without NAFTA.

This is particularly true because the United States and Canada already have a bilateral free trade agreement, which has been in effect for four years. NAFTA will add to the mix Mexico, which accounts for less than 5 percent of the economic total. Simple mathematics suggests a limited impact. But neither simplicity nor limits have been much in evidence over recent weeks.

Pro-NAFTA Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat, was hardly restrained in describing the historic nature of the vote.

"You can parallel this to when Thomas Jefferson decided to buy Louisiana, when Seward and Johnson [President Andrew Johnson and William H. Seward, his secretary of state] bought Alaska, when Harry Truman decided to reject isolationism and engage the world with greater trade and higher living standards around the world," he claimed.

Vice President Al Gore added the creation of NATO to the list, and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III saw the whole thing as "a moment that ranks with America's entry onto the world stage in the 1940s to lead the alliance of democracies."

But Rep. David Bonior, the Democratic majority whip from Michigan, who is herding the opposition in the House, saw the stakes far differently -- though in no less apocalyptic terms.

"We are going back to the robber barons of the 19th century; we're going back to the authoritarian regimes that have been overthrown in the last several years in the world," Mr. Bonior warned.

If NAFTA has been put in historical context, it has also been given biblical reference.

This week Ross Perot, the vociferous NAFTA opponent whose "giant sucking sound" of jobs rushing to Mexico first escalated the rhetoric, invoked the Last Supper to describe Mr. Clinton's summons last weekend of 40 wavering lawmakers to the White House for an evening of wining, dining and deal-making.

"Billions of dollars were laid on the table," he said, accusing Mr. Clinton of "buying" the votes he needs for victory today. "Thirty pieces of silver had nothing on this."

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