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Intellectual Suicide at the New Republic
(How Fair Play Lost Out to Neo-Liberal Passion)
Copyright 1994 by Bill Becker

In the last crucial month before the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), while spirited opposition from odd bedfellows Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, Ross Perot, and Pat Buchanan still fed the illusion that NAFTA might not pass after all, there appeared in the New Republic magazine a pro-NAFTA article-cum-editorial in which the editors pretty much accused NAFTA opponents either of being in league with the devil, or of suffering severe intellectual and moral deficits.1 By way of contrast, other NAFTA supporters admitted to an opposition that was nonetheless moral, and many could even admit to NAFTA's morally troublesome aspects.

The question that naturally arises here, then, is whether The Editors have themselves given us a work of intellectual and moral excellence. According to reasonable assumptions about their knowledge of hemispheric political and economic history, does the editorial make sense? Are their charges against NAFTA's opponents fair? Is the reader, if not more surely informed about NAFTA after reading the editorial, at least challenged to inquire further? Would the editorial earn The Editors an "A" in Journalism 101, or win them a Red Rider 200-shot repeating BB gun?2

In the following essay I propose to show that this editorial fails badly as an example of The Editors' implied intellectual standards, and, thereby, casts doubt upon their implied claim to moral superiority as well. Because they interweave economic information with moral judgements and conclusions, I first present the substance of the editorial itself, organized roughly about the economic and moral themes. I then discuss each major theme in more detail: first, toward an assessment of its contribution to the editorial's internal coherence; second, where possible, I compare it with the work of NAFTA opponents Lori Wallach and the editors of the National Catholic Reporter.

In this analysis, we will take each of the protagonists seriously, meaning first, that in the absence of specific information to the contrary, we assume the truth of "factual" statements made by each of them. This is necessary for deciding whether the respective opinion pieces are internally sound. Second, we must assume that each of them "means well," even though the meaning of "meaning well" is far from clear. This protocol is also necessary for determining the coherence of the arguments, although its primary purpose is to foster civilized discussion of controversial subjects. (Here, we treat The Editors better than they treat those who disagree with them on NAFTA.)

I do consider it fair, however, to draw on relevant information which, if not known by The Editors specifically, at least should come as no surprise to them. After all, they are worldly purveyors of news and opinion, and can be expected to have a reasonably high degree of knowledge and understanding of important issues. I leave it to the reader to judge the integrity and appropriateness of my "external" resources for the purpose of this analysis.


The Editors set the tone early by suggesting that much more than America's economic health depends on NAFTA's passage:

"even its post-cold war moral character is very much at stake here."

NAFTA's defeat

"would be the first step in precisely the wrong direction—an America looking inward rather than outward, governed by fear rather than reason ..."

Following this introductory material are statements about the effect NAFTA per se will have on the U.S. economy:

"A very small number of jobs will be lost, maybe 150,000 over a decade; a probably larger number of (generally better paying) jobs will be gained; and consumers will benefit, though slightly, from lower prices; GDP [Gross Domestic Product] will rise by a blip."


"even by myopic utilitarian calculus, NAFTA makes (mild) sense for the nation."

This is the simple message of NAFTA. "Why have people worked so hard to obscure it?" The Editors ask. The "people" here are Perot, Buchanan, Jackson, and Nader, who loom congenially in The Editors' imagination as a "heavy metal band," much as Calvin's beloved monsters lurk under his bed.3

Next, The Editors reveal the central truth about NAFTA:

it "will tear down walls mostly around the Mexican, not the U.S., economy."

This truth is followed by some numbers on Mexican tariffs (high) versus U.S. tariffs (low), and a frank admission of the uncertain effect the eventual leveling of tariffs will have on one sector of the U.S. labor force:

"So whether American auto workers would, on balance, benefit is hard to say."

Because AFL-CIO chief Lane Kirkland is neither stupid nor a hysteric, "protectionism writ large" is the broader agenda The Editors see behind labor's opposition to NAFTA. Labor recognizes in Mexico (accurately, they say)

"a tiny token of the sweeping trend that has hurt low-skill workers and will keep hurting them: the flood of low-wage foreign competition as technology, free trade and the triumph of capitalism make the labor market truly global."

NAFTA's defeat would all but guarantee the defeat of other trade agreements, followed "very soon" by the "logical consequence" of protectionism: "very high" tariffs.

The Editors give Ross Perot credit for broaching the issue of a "social tariff" against Mexico, but reckon that most NAFTA opponents "keep quiet about the deeper meaning of their cause," because they know

"consumers naturally favor free trade (contrary to the writings of reporters who consider Ralph Nader a true proxy for the common man)."

The Editors then warn of a shrunken market wherein only Americans would buy American products, and of retaliatory tariffs against the U.S. by developing countries. These countries "are the export markets of the future—indeed of the present;" thus,

"protectionism in the long run is a horrible mistake, even for many of the people it at first protects."

This is only the economic half of what makes NAFTA's passage critical at this juncture in the nation's history. The moral half is in danger from American unions, who, if they were

"honest and representative ... would be ambivalent about NAFTA" instead of opposing it.

Ambivalence is called for because

"...though apparel workers will probably, on balance, suffer from NAFTA, textile workers ... will probably, on balance, gain."

Moreover, say The Editors,

"even if you agree that more low skill jobs will be destroyed than created—and they almost surely will— [labor's] response is disproportionate; the net losses—a few thousand a year for a decade—are a drop in the bucket of overall layoffs, and are dwarfed by the fallout from other policies, such as Pentagon downsizing."

A moral nation cares for the "casualties of competition" in a free trade environment, say The Editors, providing

"aid and retraining of at least the magnitude envisioned by Labor Secretary Robert Reich."

"Republicans take note," they say, as if to suggest that Democrats are more moral than Republicans. The Editors also see a possible need for

an "immigration policy that limits competition for non-exportable service-sector jobs (in, say, restaurants)."

But this "last resort" is

"a real sacrifice of liberal internationalist principle, and justified only as the lesser of evils if some such sacrifice is unavoidable."

While protectionism and isolationism are not logically connected, the linkage is a fact, say The Editors. Both grow in the same soil, and

"thrive, if not on xenophobia, then at least on disregard for the welfare of foreign peoples. The moral failing in such disregard is clear. Less obvious is the intellectual lapse."

The Editors make haste to instruct the intellectually dull. With uncanny perception, they note that the interests of Americans and foreigners are becoming increasingly intertwined, and that prosperity, national security, and a clean environment are impossible for any nation without being realities for all. So, too, has "the line between internationalism as moral vision and as national self-interest" become more blurry. In other words, "what's good has become what's savvy."

Nevertheless, liberal internationalists who oppose NAFTA are not bad and dumb. Instead, they are "sadly perverse." American unionists, for example,

"have spent much time and sweat organizing workers around the world in the name of international brotherhood, and suddenly they deem Mexicans unworthy of concern."

Rather than admit it, though, "they insist that NAFTA will be bad for Mexican workers." The Editors are amazed:

"After contending, against the bulk of theory and evidence, that NAFTA will massively send American jobs south of the border, it is a little awkward to start talking about how NAFTA will do more harm than good to Mexicans."

It is time to take the gloves off:

"For sheer disingenuousness, this claim is matched only by the proposed cure: sharply and immediately rising Mexican wages. What American unionists want here, of course, are Mexican wages high enough to forestall any loss of American jobs."

High wages mean fewer workers hired. Thus, say The Editors, due to Mexico's 20 percent unemployment rate,

"for Mexicans, the only thing worse than being 'exploited' is not being exploited."

Having warmed up on NAFTA's liberal opponents, The Editors turn to Pat Buchanan, who, fearing the supranational, sees in NAFTA

"an insider's deal among the international elites ... a ship that carries in its cargo the virus of globalism and the bacillus of statism."

"Yikes," say The Editors, wincing at Buchanan's "bad writing." The antidote, of course, is good writing:

"In truth, the supranational bodies set up by NAFTA side agreements are fairly well proportioned to their tasks. The intrinsically and immediately international problem of pollution warrants what it got: a tri-national commission with real teeth. The less potent commission on labor standards, to be sure, could have used a bit more in the way of muscle and scope; but by and large, high wages and good working conditions can come enduringly to Mexico only through plain old economic development, which will sustain progress toward democracy and set the stage for the liberal social policies that have always been the luxury of affluent nations. NAFTA, by prodding this development, will also help solve the immigration problem, contrary to Buchanan's other main kind of hysteria."

The Editors conclude:

"It is a sad coincidence that ... the sudden loss of America's favorite enemy—Reds—has made browns and yellows handy repositories for fear and antipathy. It may not be too great a flight of rhetoric to say that, at this crossroads of post-war history, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot represent the cause of evil. (And they do it very well.) It is certainly not extravagant to say they represent the cause of malicious and momentous confusion. President Clinton alone is positioned to decisively make the case for clarity, and for good. He has finally begun the fight, and to great effect. ... This puts him in a league with Perot —a rival who, for reasons of policy, politics, and morality, must now be engaged head-on."


The editorial fails on varying levels of significance. For example, relatively unimportant here is The Editors' assertion that a logical consequence of a failure to pass NAFTA would be very high tariffs, very soon. Such a result is not at all a logical necessity, and there is no reason to believe that efforts to institute such tariffs would be guaranteed of success. Likewise for their assertion that "President Clinton alone is positioned to make the case for clarity, and for good." The Editors, in their haste, here granted the President a degree of sagacity and beneficence that they would never dream of allowing him on an issue they didn't support. A churl would accuse them of disingenuousness here, but we will attribute the fault to exuberance.

The Editors' first serious intellectual failure can be deduced from the accusation that Perot and Buchanan represent the cause of evil "very well." By all normal usage, the "cause of evil" is the grandest of diabolical schemes, the realization of which NAFTA would prevent or delay. The Editors' softer alternative charge of representing "malicious and momentous confusion" has all the earmarks of a reluctantly offered sop to fair play. While Perot and Buchanan may be presented as the worst of NAFTA opponents, by every flight of The Editors' rhetoric, all NAFTA opponents represent the "cause of evil."4

By virtue of their statement about achieving democracy in Mexico, however, The Editors know that human rights and empowerment of the poor are among the major problems there. And, they must know that there are respectable opponents of NAFTA whose historic advocacy on behalf of the Third World poor renders them immune to accusations of xenophobia, disregard for the welfare of foreign peoples, or of promoting malicious and momentous confusion and feeling fear and antipathy toward browns and yellows. (If The Editors do not know these things, they should look for work elsewhere than in journalism.)

Thus, The Editors' first serious intellectual failure lies in their myopic view of who constitutes a debatable NAFTA opponent. As do their counterparts in the rest of the mainstream press, The Editors shut out the entire U.S. peace and justice community, including many whose close ties with Third World labor organizers and human rights activists give them a credible claim to speak for the Third World poor in First World forums. The Editors credit only those opponents with name recognition, and make no attempt whatever to step outside the accepted framework for such a debate. It is the easy way.

The Editors' dig themselves in deeper with their treatment of NAFTA's environmental side agreement. Competitive to the core, they prove that Pat Buchanan can't out-demagogue them: "In truth, the supranational bodies set up by NAFTA side agreements are fairly well proportioned to their tasks. The intrinsically and immediately international problem of pollution warrants what it got: a tri-national commission with real teeth."

That's all they have to say about it, so the thoughtful reader is left guessing. Are the tri-national commission's "teeth" tough penalties that will be imposed on companies that break the environmental rules? Are commission members proven fighters on behalf of the environment? Have they demonstrated a willingness to take on governments and corporations when they break the rules?

Even a mundane understanding of our environmental problems justifies skepticism. History suggests that such commissions, even with the best intentions, seldom stand up to governments and transnational corporations who, at worst, have no intention of abiding by the rules, or, at best, intend to make every effort to enforce the rules so costly and drawn out that commission members will simply let their mandate go down the memory hole. Considering the failure of the Organization of American States to protect human rights in Latin American countries where profits often depend upon killing off the indigenous peoples, it is perfectly reasonable to expect NAFTA's step-child commissions to fail in forcing compliance to unprofitable rules by malfeasant governments and corporations.


Because the Editors take an early shot at Ralph Nader, and later dismiss with contempt those benighted journalists who "consider Ralph Nader a true proxy for the common man," it is appropriate to compare their proof-by-assertion with the viewpoint of Lori Wallach, trade-issues director for Nader's environmental and consumer advocacy organization, Public Citizen. In "Trade Deal 'Remedies' Are Toothless,"5 Wallach lists the NAFTA defects President Clinton promised to remedy with the labor and environmental side agreements:

1.       Safeguarding U.S. wage levels and manufacturing jobs.

2.       Shielding U.S. environmental and consumer laws from challenge and elimination as illegal trade barriers.

3.       Ensuring the safety of imported foods.

4.       defending U.S. family farmers.

5.       Opening NAFTA to "democratic accountability" and "public participation."

6.       generating new funds for environmental cleanup as well as assistance and retraining foe U.S. workers who would lose jobs to NAFTA.

7.       Enforcing North American environmental and labor standards.

Wallach then presents the failures of the side agreements:

1.       They do not protect federal, state and local environmental laws from challenge as illegal trade barriers. Under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), Mexico successfully challenged the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits the sale of tuna caught by methods that kill dolphins. The Act was declared an illegal barrier to trade by the GATT tribunal. The same could be done under NAFTA, which has fewer procedural "emergency brakes" than GATT.

"No commission," says Wallach, "could correct NAFTA's investment rules promoting unsustainable development. A NAFTA goal is to increase trade and exploitation of water, fossil fuels, forests and other natural resources. Meanwhile, NAFTA would declare raw log export bans, renewable energy programs, recycling requirements and other conservation policies illegal trade practices."

2.       The commissions were supposed to "impose sanctions against countries that used lax environmental and labor law enforcement to lure investment. Sadly, the actual commissions' roles will be merely to study, without particular timetables, 'unjustifiable and repeated' patterns on non-enforcement of domestic labor and environmental laws. If after months or years of study, a commission finds an egregious pattern of abuse, formal review can be initiated only if two of the three countries approve it. Formal reviews would lack public access or participation."

Wallach concludes that the "teeth" in the NAFTA side agreements "will be inaccessible, at the end of a long and tortuous procedural path." It appears that she and The Editors were talking about two radically different NAFTAs. In any case, Wallach makes her point in terms that should set any serious reader thinking, whereas The Editors simply expect to seen as infallible.


More serious is The Editors' take on NAFTA's implications for American and Mexican workers. For reasons known only to them, they decided to lay into American labor leadership without providing a convincing logical or material foundation for their attack. The Editors find it "hard to say" whether American auto workers would, "on balance," benefit from NAFTA, so they invoke the image of "a number of economists, such as Gary Hufbauer of the Institute of International Economics," who "believe that the United Auto workers union is disserving its members by opposing NAFTA." Not strong stuff. The number of Mexican new car buyers is presently small, but is expected to increase by an unspecifiable figure if NAFTA passes. A boon—of equally unspecifiable magnitude—to the American auto parts industry is expected to follow. Shame on the UAW for not pointing out these unspecifiable benefits to the workers in auto parts plants.

Next, on the basis of a "win some, lose some" wash between jobs in the apparel sector and jobs in the textile industry, The Editors accuse American unions of being dishonest and unrepresentative.

Would these Buchananesque charges have been made if The Editors had done some role- playing before rushing into print? Let us imagine one of them playing Joan, a union worker in the apparel trade, and another playing Ted, her newly repentant union rep:

Ted:       You know, Joan, I just read an editorial in the New Republic, and it convinced me I'm being dishonest and unrepresentative by opposing NAFTA. So, from now on, I plan to be ambivalent about it.

Joan:      What do you mean, Ted? You know that we might lose our jobs. Aren't you going to lobby against it?

Ted:       Not any more. The only honest thing I can tell you is that while you may lose your job, someone else will probably get a job in the textile industry. On balance, that is.

Joan:      But we pay your salary so you'll represent us, not sell us out because textile workers will probably, "on balance," gain from NAFTA. Besides, you know that more low-skill jobs will almost surely be destroyed than created by NAFTA. You know that I'm not concerned only about my own job. Solidarity is what it's all about.

Ted:       I thought so too, Joan, but I see now that our opposition to NAFTA has been disproportionate. How can we, in good conscience, oppose NAFTA after failing so miserably to protest the end of the Cold War. You know that led directly to such Pentagon downsizing as will dwarf NAFTA-related job losses. Shoot, Joan, I feel guilty as hell about all those little skirmishes we fought over the years. Instead of wasting our moral capital on a few miners here and a few garment workers there, we should have saved it for that fight.

Joan:      Gosh, Ted, I never thought of it that way. I see what you mean. We should have been out there on the front lines, keeping the Cold War tensions up when peace was threatening to break out all over the place. Thanks for setting me straight.

Ted:       I tell you, Joan, the moral character of the nation is at stake here, so all I can do is advise you to be as ambivalent about this as I plan to be. By the way, can I suggest a subscription to the New Republic? They've really got a way with words there.

If The Editors can swallow that exchange, there is no hope for them. And, in fact, we wait in vain for them to build an economic case for NAFTA that goes beyond their early blockbuster: "NAFTA makes (mild) sense for the nation."

But, overheated rhetoric is its own reward, so The Editors press on. After arguing that American jobs will flow massively to Mexico, American labor now shows "sheer disingenuousness" for saying that "NAFTA will do more harm than good to Mexicans." Worse yet is labor's proposal for "sharply and immediately rising Mexican wages," showing that "suddenly [American unionists] deem Mexicans unworthy of concern." With NAFTA waiting in the wings, American labor's former beneficent wellsprings apparently curdled into a purely selfish desire that "Mexican wages [be] high enough to forestall any loss of American jobs."

Perhaps The Editors are miffed that U.S. labor resisted "the bulk of theory and evidence" arguing against massive NAFTA-caused job transfers from the U.S. to Mexico. (The Editors clearly expect the reader to take their word for "the bulk of theory and evidence.") In any case, they know that one purpose of organizing workers around the world is precisely to win higher wages for them. Faced with a policy that will admittedly cost American jobs, it is entirely consistent and reasonable, from any point of view, for organized labor to propose an acceleration of benefits for these same workers. In the context of this editorial, then, The Editors' transmogrification of labor's opposition to NAFTA into proof of callous indifference to Mexican workers is a gross distortion of rational process, if not "sheer disingenuousness" itself.6

But, they are on a roll. Because of Mexico's high unemployment rate, The Editors conclude that "for Mexicans, the only thing worse than being 'exploited' is not being exploited." The veriest laissez-faire capitalist could not top this classic rationalization of gross disparity in the distribution of wealth and power. This statement would bring tears to the eyes of the Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Haitian oligarchies, whose abhorrence of labor activism is matched only by a conviction that only they know what is good for the nation. (Much as The Editors know what is good for Mexicans.) "The only thing worse than being 'exploited' is not being exploited" would be the perfect epitaph for the maquiladora unionist who had just been killed by a death squad for threatening the well-being of the "yet-to-be-exploited." "A toast to the norteamericanos, who finally understand us," might well be heard from El Salvador's Fourteen Families.7

Finally, The Editors blow their intellectual brains out:

"The less potent commission on labor standards, to be sure, could have used a bit more in the way of muscle and scope; but by and large, high wages and good working conditions can come enduringly to Mexico only through plain old economic development, which will sustain progress toward democracy and set the stage for the liberal social policies that have always been the luxury of affluent nations."

The fatuity of this passage is mind-boggling.

Again, let us imagine The Editors acting out their logic. Let one of them play Cornelius Morgan, owner of a vast manufacturing empire in the late 19th century. Another plays Sam, an employee in one of his plants. Sam recently lost an arm to a fast-moving conveyor belt without a safety guard. The plant manager had refused to install a guard, as he had been repeatedly asked to do by the workers. Sam and Morgan meet by accident:

Sam:        Hello, Mr. Morgan. I hope that my accident will bring about the installation of that safety guard. It would only cost a few dollars, and I'd hate to see anyone else hurt, much less killed.

Morgan:   Well, Sam, I'm real sorry about the arm, and I wish I could help. But, as one of America's important captains of industry, I feel a great responsibility to guide the nation through this wonderful surge of "plain old economic development" we're now enjoying. If I installed the guard, as you ask, my fellow captains of industry would accuse me of trying to introduce "liberal social policies" before America is ready for them. You didn't go to Yale or Harvard, so you don't understand that such policies are a luxury America can't afford yet.

Moreover, it's not for mere individuals like me to take on the awesome task of liberalizing America's social policy. That's a job for Congress, which speaks for all of us. Congress has yet to decide when America's "plain old economic development" has set the stage for "liberal social policies," and the vote is still out on that one. For example, my fellow captains of industry don't foresee the end of "plain old economic development" for quite a while, and Congress does pay attention to our opinions, you know.

Sam:        But this is a democracy, isn't it? Don't the workers have some say in what Congress decides? It seems more and more that Congress only listens to you "captains of industry."

Morgan:   Contrary to popular belief, Sam, there is much, much more to democracy than simply voting. I'll let you in on a little secret: so far, our "plain old economic development" is actually only sustaining "progress toward democracy." No one knows when real democracy will be possible. Besides, you have to take some responsibility for this accident yourself, you know. You knew the machines are dangerous. Why weren't you more careful?

Sam:        I tried, Mr. Morgan. But I'd been on my feet over at the press for six hours straight, and I was dead tired. Your foremen don't let us take breaks, you know.

Morgan:   Of course not, Sam. How else do you expect to have "plain old economic development." Try to look at it the way I do, Sam: when the nation is poor, many people have to make sacrifices. I'm betting that if you and all of America's workers will just hang in there without complaining, America will become so affluent that your grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, or maybe your great-great-grandchildren will enjoy "liberal social policies"—like high wages and good working conditions—beyond your wildest dreams. And you can be sure that my children and their children will be working just as hard as I do to make that happen. In fact, I've sacrificed a lot to ensure that my sons will also go to Yale, just so they can help bring about this luxurious future for your children's families. Now, Sam, aren't you ashamed of yourself?

Sam:        Yes, Mr. Morgan, I am. I see now that my arm was actually a luxury. After all, the dictionary does say that luxury is "a material object or service, etc., conducive to physical comfort or sumptuous living, but usually not a necessity of life."8 Two arms are conducive to physical comfort, all right, but they aren't a necessity of life. If America can't afford the luxury of "liberal social policies" like high wages and good working conditions, I shouldn't be bothered by the loss of an arm. Yes, I am ashamed. I promise I won't complain any more, and I'll do my best to convince the boys down at the plant that you and the other "captains of industry" know what's best for all of us.

Morgan:   That's the spirit, Sam. That was the first thing I learned at Yale. Economics 101. Well, I've got to go now. Try to be more careful next time.

Sam (with a comradely wink): Thank you, "Capt'n." (He walks away)

Morgan (to his aide):
Tell Hawkins to fire him. Get someone with two arms.

Like big labor and The Editors' "heavy metal band," the human rights observers at Americas Watch also appear not to have a clue about how to really help Mexican workers. Concerned that "on paper, Mexico's labor laws appear to be a model of protection for workers' interests, yet labor rights are systematically violated and workers often are the victims of violence,"9 AW staff fired off a letter to President Clinton urging a NAFTA summit on human rights. In it they proposed the following: "As the European Community realized when it began the process of relaxing trade barriers and building a regional economy, the successful integration of their national economies required a shared commitment to democratic practices and respect for fundamental rights. Similarly, respect for democracy and human rights must be the foundation on which integrated North American development is built. If NAFTA becomes the model for expanding free trade with other nations in the hemisphere, it is all the more important that the United States affirm the centrality of human rights and democratic governance to closer economic relations."10

We can assume the President was touched by this thoughtful suggestion, but he also understood that creating NAFTA along these lines would bring the Mexican worker only ephemeral benefits, rather than the enduring benefits that come from "plain old economic development." President Clinton obviously reads The New Republic.

On the other hand, House member Nancy Kaptur (D-Ohio) had some unkind things to say about Mexico's "plain old economic development":

"Mexico's program for development is based on exploiting workers. The buying power of the minimum wage dropped 67 percent between 1976 and 1992. Health and safety safeguards are almost unknown. Meanwhile, the richest 30 families in Mexico now control over 60 percent of Mexico's GDP.

"Corporate interests and the government of Mexico have no intention of allowing wages in Mexico to rise with productivity. That's why they teamed up to get protection for worker's rights out of the Labor Side Agreements. Nothing in NAFTA will stop the government-sponsored harassment and intimidation of independent unions."11

"Plain old economic development." In the heyday of capitalist rapacity, how many men, women, and children were mangled in unsafe machines, died from breathing polluted factory or mine tunnel air, or burned to death in the inevitable fires that consumed the tinderbox sweatshops in which they toiled? How many strikers were beaten and killed by private and public police forces before the public finally became so ashamed of its "captains of industry" that it forced Congress to protect workers by law?

In fact, there is nothing about "plain old economic development," as the term is defined by major lending institutions and our "leading economic experts" that guarantees, or even fosters, "liberal social policies." The mainstream press regularly prints articles about "improved economic conditions" in one Third World nation or another, always measured by the twin parameters of increased exports and reduced spending on internal needs that don't contribute to an export economy. Very often, these same articles also include a hand-wringing lament that in spite of these "improvements," as if through some mysterious malevolent power, the disparity between the rich and poor in those nations, and the number of poor, continue to grow. That the reason might be—most likely is—"plain old economic development" itself is a heresy too dangerous to be spoken out loud by anyone who wants to remain a mainstream player.


To highlight other serious failings, let us now compare The Editors' work with that of the editorial staff at the National Catholic Reporter (hereinafter: the "NCR editors").12

There is, arguably, more substance in the NCR editorial's title than in the entire NR editorial. While a NAFTA is needed, this is not the NAFTA we need, shows up front an open mind on the issue of expanded markets. The title implicitly recommends an attitude of patience and trust in democratic process, suggesting as it does that the world will not come to an end while honest efforts are made to make NAFTA truly beneficial to everyone. This is reasonable on its face.

The NCR editors begin, coincidentally, by giving meaning to Pat Buchanan's charge that NAFTA "is an insider's deal among the transnational elites":

"The policy process [by which NAFTA was conceived] has been flawed and far from democratic from the start. The secret NAFTA deliberations largely excluded the Mexican, Canadian, and American publics from the negotiating process until the latest stages, when the major components of NAFTA were all but set.

"Only large transnational corporations—many of them leaders of USA*NAFTA, a coalition of more than 2,300 corporations created to drum up support for NAFTA—sat in large numbers on the NAFTA advisory committee. By contrast, organized labor had only one seat.

"Many of these companies are major polluters with a history of shifting jobs to low-wage countries, including Mexico."

Considering The Editors' severe critique of U.S. labor leadership, the makeup of the NAFTA advisory committee is relevant. (Remember that The Editors had nothing to say on the subject, even while admitting that the NAFTA labor commission, the offspring of the advisory committee, was born a weakling.) Here we have several possibilities, and The Editors come out losers on each of them. First, The Editors either knew about the makeup of the advisory committee or they did not. Second, either the committee was constituted as the NCR editors describe it, or it was not. This makes for four separate combinations, two of which we can dispense with immediately. If The Editors did not know of the advisory committee's makeup, whatever it was, their attempt to gloss over the weakness of the labor commission is journalistic incompetence.

If The Editors did know the makeup of the committee, they get even less credit. First, if the advisory committee is not constituted as the NCR editors alleged, they, of course, are to be severely criticized for passing along false information under the banner of the free press. This case also implies, though, that the labor component of the advisory committee had an important share in deciding NAFTA's final form. Why did the labor representatives not hold out for a stronger labor commission, and for stronger protections for labor on all sides of the border, than were finally approved? Why did The Editors try to convince us that labor unions were "dishonest and unrepresentative" for opposing NAFTA, rather than taking labor's big guns to task for selling the workers out from the beginning?

On the other hand, if the NCR editors told the truth (and The Editors knew the makeup of the advisory committee), why did they not explain, and criticize, its lopsided membership? Why did they not criticize President Clinton for allowing the imbalance, instead of putting him on a pedestal?

The most likely answer to these questions is that The Editors had in mind to support NAFTA no matter what, and that it would not have mattered if there had been no labor representatives at all on the NAFTA advisory committee. It follows too, since they also had in mind to bash labor for opposing NAFTA, that they could ill afford to inform the reader that the NAFTA advisory committee was heavily stacked against labor from the beginning. In sum, then, The Editors' professed concern for the worker has the appearance of a charade.

Like The Editors, the NCR editors also refer to their counterparts on the other side of the issue:

"To choose between NAFTA and no NAFTA, say its backers, is to choose between a prosperous free trade future and a beggar-thy-neighbor protectionist past. The real choice may more accurately rest between two futures: one, represented by NAFTA, conceived and crafted for private corporate gain; and an alternative future, based on policies that would serve the needs of a greater swath of society—workers, small farmers, indigenous peoples, the poor, and the communities from which they come."

Here the statement about NAFTA's origin and purpose falls well within the parameters of civilized debate. Contrast this overall positive contribution to the debate with the charges of disingenuousness, dishonesty, moral and intellectual failure, perversity, and disregard for the welfare of foreign peoples The Editors so righteously levy against NAFTA opponents.

Widening the journalistic gap even further, the NCR editors actually use hard information provided by a NAFTA opponent, Canadian Catholic Conference activist Tony Clarke:

"... the 1988 U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, on which NAFTA is modeled [produced] a Canadian job loss rate proportionately four times higher than that in the United States, erosion of social service programs, and declining labor standards."

In the context of the editorial, these statistics are proper justification for Clarke's opinion that NAFTA is "little more than a corporate bill of rights" that "accentuates the priority of capital over labor, over communities." Contrast this with The Editors' reference to an amorphous "bulk of theory and evidence," and the "beliefs" of "a number of economists," or the "mild" sense NAFTA makes, as the basis of their attack on U.S. labor. The NCR editors then get specific:

"Americans who fear loss of jobs under NAFTA may also be startled to learn that many Mexicans feel the same way. Mexicans are being forced from rural areas by laws—rammed through the Mexican parliament by the undemocratic Salinas government under U.S. pressure—which have privatized land farmed by cooperatives since 1910. By forcing Mexico's grain market open to major U.S. grain producers, NAFTA will undermine both Mexico's food self-sufficiency and the economic base of many of its rural communities. Where will most of those displaced from rural communities head? Most likely to the United States, given Mexico's current 40 percent unemployment rate, again making a mockery of a major administration goal for NAFTA: reduced immigration.

"Mexicans think NAFTA will do little to benefit the poor, but a lot to solidify the economic power base of the dictatorial Salinas government, recently cited by Amnesty International, Americas Watch, and the U.N. Commission on Torture for widespread human rights violations."

Compared to this example of moral hardball, The Editors' self-indulgent name-calling and apocalyptic prognosticating is strictly minor league. Violent (and unpunished) attacks on poor rural cooperatives by thugs acting for local landowners (and with local police connivance) have been the pattern in Mexico for decades. Privatizing the cooperatives may well lead to an increase in these attacks as landowners strive to control ever more valuable land. Or, legal and financial hurdles are likely to be placed in the way of cooperative members lucky enough to retain an interest in the land, almost certainly guaranteeing passage of title to whatever local boss who can afford to pay the price. (See News From Americas Watch, Vol. V, Number 10, October, 1993.)

Buried somewhere in my files is a reference to the "greatest mass migration in history," namely the movement of Third World villagers to squalid, overpopulated cities, forced upon them by the confiscation of their traditional lands by government or by local de-nationalized elites.13

No competent journalist can be unaware of the impact of the First World on the land, resources, and labor of the Second and Third Worlds. One need not be a rocket scientist to notice that when wealthy U.S. corporations work with (some might say through) corrupt and dictatorial governments and oligarchies, the poor always come up short. The corpus of material supporting a thesis of profoundly harmful U.S. involvement in the Second and Third Worlds is extensive and persuasive, and it is highly unlikely that The Editors are unaware of it.

The scenario proposed by the NCR editors is entirely plausible, and not a bad bet, either. That The Editors can contemplate it with equanimity, for the sake of some ill-defined, but admittedly "mild" benefit to the U.S., disqualifies them as moral avatars.

The NCR editors' own moral position is clearly stated:

"As Cleveland Bishop Anthony M. Pilla noted [at] a 1991 hearing on NAFTA, moral choice should guide market forces, trade must have a human face, and 'any benefit or adverse impact [from trade should] be equitably shared.'

"NAFTA as proposed fails to do any of this. NAFTA places no priority on ending poverty and does little to ensure the dignity of work and the rights of workers... Unless it does so, notes Mexican Bishop Carlos Quintero Arce, it 'will just widen the gap between those who have much and those who have nothing.'"

Finally, they wrap it up:

"If NAFTA will do little more than modernize poverty across North America, why should it win our support or that of our legislators?"

A crafty facade for a "disregard for the welfare of foreign peoples," or a genuine and coherent expression of concern for them? Perhaps The Editors can tell us.


None of the above is intended as a criticism of NAFTA supporters who recognized its moral ambiguities. There are many issues on which people of good will can disagree, and NAFTA is clearly one of them. My only purpose here is to expose a singular example of unwarranted moral posturing. I hope that I have successfully shown that The Editors, for all their sophistication, and all their resources notwithstanding, are not nearly as imaginative in the intellectual and moral departments as they represent themselves to be.

The foundations for hemispheric economic development presented above by the NCR editors and Americas Watch express the most profound moral and ethical principles we can imagine. They are eminently sound intellectually as well. Thus, they are feasible. If they are essentially marginal here at home and around the world, it is only because those who wield economic and political power have decided to make them so. Continuing to ignore these precepts will ensure the momentum of the growing gap between the rich and poor, in this hemisphere and around the world. Nothing in NAFTA addresses this overriding economic fact—thus NAFTA promises to be just one more economic, intellectual, and moral failure.

Bill Becker
Woodland Hills, California
February, 1994.


      1.    For NAFTA, October 11, 1993. The New Republic (NR) is a weekly news magazine directed at the educated liberal/neo-liberal community. Hereinafter, I will refer to the New Republic editors by their own chosen moniker: "The Editors."

      2.    See "A Christmas Story," film based on the work of author Jean Shepard. At video stores everywhere. Also runs on television 24-hours non-stop on Christmas Day.

      3.   "Calvin & Hobbes," cartoon strip by Bill Waterson. Most comic sections.

      4.   Note the radical contrast between this accusation and the credit given earlier to Perot for his "commendable candor" in raising the issue of a "social tariff" against Mexico. Likewise for the contrast between the compliment given American labor for organizing foreign workers and the accusation that labor has now ceased to care about those same workers. We can surmise that certain dimly-remembered notions of journalistic "balance" are working here, but too weakly to overcome The Editors' highly active spleen.

      5.   Los Angeles Times, August 11, 1993, p.B7.

      6.   There is a school of thought, primarily progressive, that AFL-CIO activity in the Third World is actually in the service of U.S. policy to promote congenial labor environments for U.S. transnational corporations. Whether this charge is true or not, NR's treatment of American labor here is, in terms of the editorial itself, intellectually and morally shabby.

      7.   Now that the end of the cold war has relegated Central America to the bottom of Congress's list of concerns, death squad activity against unionists and other progressives in El Salvador has increased.

      8.   Random House, Webster's College Dictionary, 1991

      9.   News From Americas Watch, Vol. V, Number 10, October, 1993, p. 10.

     10.   ibid., p.3.

     11.   Christian Science Monitor, Friday, October 8, 1993.

     12.   While a NAFTA is needed, this is not the Nafta we need, National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1993, p. 28.

     13.   See Hungry for Profit, Richter Productions, available from New Day Films (as of 9/9/91), New York. (212) 645-8210. As far as I know, this documentary about the activities of U.S. agribusiness in the Third World was shown on PBS exactly once. [Note: January 7, 2002: Somewhere in my files I have a comment by Noam Chomsky (and maybe Edward Herman) saying that Gulf & Western saw to it that Hungry for Profit did not air again on public television. If I rcall correctly, the note written by a Gulf & Western executive to the public television producer was included. I thought Hungry for Profit was such a good documentary that a few years ago I paid $260 for a copy. The copyright owner clearly is a shrewd capitalist himself or herself, indifferent to the importance of providing this educational film to the activist community at a decent cost.]

March 7, 2004

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