That Giant Sucking Sound Is Only Getting Louder.

The Selling of "Free Trade": NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy, by John R. MacArthur. Hill and Wang, $25.

IN EARLY AUGUST, I was standing in the desert east of Yuma talking to a Border Patrol agent. He mentioned a woman five months pregnant he had rescued from the desert about a dozen miles south of Dateland, a brief smudge on the Interstate to San Diego. She'd ripped off her clothes as the heat took her mind and was crawling on the sand when he found her. She survived her second- and third-degree burns. The woman missed becoming one of the 200 Mexicans known to have died in the border deserts since last October. (Anyone interested in this slaughter should run, not walk, to Tucsonan John Annerino's Dead in their Tracks.) All this illegal immigration and death was supposed to have been ended, or at least lessened, by the passage of NAFTA in 1993, the bill that declared free trade between Mexico and the United States.

The proponents of the bill 'among them the current president and both presidential candidates' tout it as a trade bill to create American jobs, create Mexican jobs and keep everyone south of the border fat and happy and at home. Critics are dismissed as racist, simple-minded or economically illiterate. The wisdom of a common market between the filthy rich U.S. and the miserably poor Mexico (with a economy that is 4 percent of our Gross Domestic Product) is not to be questioned. Seven years after NAFTA, Mexicans are coming north in record numbers from an economy that collapsed in 1994 and has yet to recover. In fact, Mexico has yet to regain the buying power the average Mexican had in 1980.

John R. MacArthur's The Selling of "Free Trade": NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy explains why things did not work out as promised. NAFTA, the author argues, was about money, not jobs, and the money was for American manufacturers who would find a safe haven from unions and environmental laws, a place stuffed with cheap labor. The money was also for their thieving partners among the Mexican elite who would profit from peddling factory sites and influence. Well, I'm sure there were other factors, but the book's thesis seems to pretty much cover the matter.

MacArthur, publisher of Harper's magazine (conflict of interest admission: I hawk stories there from time to time), has focused on one business, the Swingline stapler factory in New York, a plant that canned its workers and hightailed it to stapler heaven in Nogales, Sonora. And he's done his homework. This is the story no newspaper ever seems to find the time or space for amid the heavy toil of covering neighborhoods and printing business press releases.

The opening sections detail Swingline's operation in New York and the history and theology of free trade. The middle of the book feasts on how NAFTA was pushed through Congress, a magnificent pageant of lying and pork-barrel promises (President Bill Clinton got one Congressman's vote by promising to go duck hunting with him). And the finale takes us into the new worker paradise of Nogales, where, according to the state of Sonora's official calculations (taken from its website), a worker in a border factory should only cost an employer $1719.24 a year, including wages, vacation time, medical care and all other fringe benefits. To create such Edens for Mexican workers has cost from 200,000 to 400,000 American jobs, depending on who is counting.

The book captures the basic movie: cheap labor trapped in a country without real unions and barred from U.S. wages by fences, wild-assed ranchers and the Border Patrol; U.S. companies fleeing to low wages and no rules. One delightful part of the book features a Tucson business conference MacArthur penetrated that tutored Rust Belt companies planning a run to the border.

Two things kind of stick in the craw after reading this book. One is that just before NAFTA passed, a petition signed by 283 American economic wizards (among them 12 Nobel laureates) promised "the assertions that NAFTA will spur an exodus of U.S. jobs to Mexico are without basis." Later, a radio station tracked down 150 of these signers and found only 19 had read any of the 2,000-page NAFTA text. Well, the hell with their tenure.

Secondly, the guy who seemed to have called it right was, God help us, Ross Perot, who said in 1993, "If you're paying $12, $13, $14 an hour for factory workers and you can move your factory south of the border, pay a dollar an hour for labor, have no health care ... have no environmental controls, no pollution controls, and no retirement and you don't care about anything but making money, there will be a giant sucking sound going south ... ."

Of course, any time such points are raised wiser heads say: 1. The jobs would leave the US anyway; 2. Growing pains are normal in developing economies; 3. Free markets magically create wealth and efficiency; 4. These are good jobs for Mexicans and they flock to them; 5. If you object to Mexicans working in unhealthy, polluting plants without the right to real unions and doing this for slave wages, well, then you are racist.

I've always noticed that the two groups that bray this party line the loudest 'academics and the press' never have to compete against cheap foreign labor. And I've always wondered why if these jobs are so swell they have such high turnover (100 percent or more per year in most plants along the border) and why in the hell men and women and children are risking their lives to flee such dream careers.

If you want to know about NAFTA and you only plan to read one thing on the matter, this book. It's a rollicking tale, clearly written and innocent of economic jargon. And the Washington stuff is a wonderful visit to the well-financed funhouse our government has become.

When I was talking to that Border Patrol agent, he had another tale. He'd found a bunch of illegals down without water in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and they'd told him of five or six others they'd left behind in the desert with a gallon of water because they were too weak to continue. So the guy, a chopper pilot, went looking for them. He finally found them hiding under a mesquite and no matter how low he hovered, they wouldn't come out. Even though they were down in the blaze of summer with less than a gallon between them, they kept still, hoping he would fly away and leave them to what he knew would almost certainly be their deaths. Of course, for the folks under the mesquite, the desert, thirst and pounding sun seemed like the only door leading to a decent future.

What more do you have to know about the benefits of NAFTA as understood by Mexicans?

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