Borderline Crazy

By Rauber, Paul | Sierra, July-August 1993 | Go to article overview

Borderline Crazy


Rauber, Paul, Sierra


Teetering above the toxic sludge pits and open sewers of the U S./Mexican border, Bill Clinton faces the trickiest balancing act of his high-wire presidency. Believing it will help the economy, Clinton fervently supports free trade with Mexico, an enthusiasm shared by U. S. corporations. The attraction for them is the opportunity to relocate factories south of the border where the minimum wage is 58 cents an hour and enforcement of environmental regulations is largely theoretical. American labor and environmentalists are understandably suspicious--and without their benediction, or at least acquiescence, Clinton has little hope of getting the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) past an ambivalent Congress.

Although the treaty negotiations are officially over, Clinton (like George Bush before him) has promised that NAFTA will be "greened up" before it goes to Congress, probably later this summer. Now it's the business community's turn to be suspicious. After all, if U.S. companies operating in Mexico actually had to obey Mexican environmental law (a U.S. General Accounting Office survey of 12 such firms found that none did), they might as well stay in Dayton. Mexico and Canada, having already signed on to NAFTA, are adamantly opposed to renegotiation. Mexico regards any talk of adding teeth to its paper-tiger regulations as a threat to its sovereignty--in this case, its sovereign right not to enforce its own laws. (The more obvious violations of Mexican sovereignty, by Yankee corporations that poison and exploit its people, go without official notice.)

The ostensibly salutary aim of NAFTA is to remove all tariffs, taxes, and other barriers that block the free flow of goods between Canada, the United States, and Mexico, bringing all three into the happy embrace of a fully integrated continental economy. Boosters predict booming opportunities for all three countries, with increased trade creating more than enough new jobs in the United States to make up for those that fly south in search of lower wages and looser environmental regulations. A growing economy will actually make Mexico greener, true believers argue, as an expanding Mexican middle class demands a cleaner environment.

As proof of this attractive claim, free traders point to a 1991 Princeton University study that showed a decline in certain air pollutants in countries where average income rose above $5,000 a year. "Attention to environmental issues is a luxury poor countries cannot afford," concludes Gene Grossman, one of the study's authors.

But a devastating critique by the Economic Policy Institute points out that the Princeton study examined only air pollutants associated with low levels of industrialization (sulfur dioxide, smoke, and suspended particulates) and ignored those associated with, say, cars and dry-cleaning, whose level would be expected to rise with greater average incomes. Most people in the United States earn considerably more than $5,000 a year, but its pollution problems are far from solved.

Those who argue that free trade is environmentally beneficial also have to close their eyes to the mess along the 2000-mile-long U.S./Mexican border. In the 14-mile-deep strip where free trade has already been in effect for 25 years, the result is a poisoned wasteland where rivers run with raw sewage, toxics poison water tables, and smoke clogs the air. Estimates for the cost of cleaning up the border range from $5 billion to $15 billion. So far, Mexico has pledged all of $460 million to this effort--and hints that if NAFTA doesn't go through, that will be it.

In fact, far from encouraging environmental protection, NAFTA might well result in a Pan-American competition to woo wandering industry by gutting pollution laws. …

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