ALTHOUGH there are legitimate reasons to challenge the North American Free Trade Agreement, Ross Perot's "giant sucking sound" Mexico-bashing infomerical is not one of them. While the Texas billionaire could have been a formidable ally for fellow critics of NAFTA, he actually has hurt our cause by turning to an anti-free trade mythology based more on paranoia than solid analysis.
By engaging the Mexican/US pro-NAFTA lobby in a multi-million dollar propaganda duel, Perot and his anti-NAFTA movement, United We Stand America, may have raised the visibility of the issue, but they have failed to advance the public's understanding of what's really at stake.
Even after dismissing all of the proto-sincere warblings by a battalion of highly paid economists, politicized lawyers, and PR firms - all insisting that NAFTA will usher in an economic New Jerusalem - free-trade opponents still must realize that Perot's case isn't "just that simple, folks." For example, the worst-case scenario for the displacement of United States jobs by NAFTA (about 490,000 workers) would account for less than 6 percent of the total of all projected US job losses over the next five ye ars.
However, it is unlikely that job displacement of that magnitude will occur. The US International Trade Commission states that virtually every reputable study has concluded that NAFTA actually should yield an increase in US jobs and wages.
Although this Bush-era finding could represent a tendentious manipulation of facts by White House apparatchiks, it also just could be true, or partially true. Perot's group, however, finds it unnecessary to release countering analysis or come forth with any reports by economists of standing to challenge these claims. In fact, for Perot, there is no case for NAFTA, because l'etat c'est moi.
Perot's lobby would be less arresting if he exerted only a marginal influence on US policymakers. When he holds closed meetings with Congress concerning these major issues, what criteria are we using to establish his qualifications?
A heap of sawbucks and a puckish wit alone should not give one unique access to elected officials and extensive media coverage. Perot's belief that he can purchase anything, including Washington's attention, sets a precedent we may not want to follow. What may turn out to be even more dangerous to the nation is that his shrill lashes against NAFTA only beggars the debate by arming his enemies with better weapons to destroy his palsied arguments.
PEROT'S posturing shrouds the issues that Congress should face when it begins its consideration of NAFTA after the summer recess. Environmental and health issues, and government control of Mexican labor, represent the core of the case against NAFTA and have all but escaped Perot's attention.
Issues like the daily dumping of millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Rio Grande River and the outbreaks of disease along the Mexican border should top the list of NAFTA probings, but they have never entered Perot's prose.
To guard against environmental degradation and health hazards, opponents of the pact will want to insist that the North American Commission on the Environment be given broad enforcement powers and the right to impose punitive sanctions against violations. Without these teeth, NAFTA will contain more bark than bite.
In addition, the Clinton administration might want to take a closer look at President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its policy toward Mexican workers, who have seen their real wages cut in half in the past decade as a result of IMF loan conditions and the president's restrictive labor agenda.
Mr. Salinas willingly has accepted IMF mandates; they assure the lowest possible wage rates for Mexico's foreign-owned but locally-based multinational corporations. Washington trade officials also should be queried as to how there can be a sustained explosion of exports to Mexico's "newly opened markets" if wages there are artificially held at stagnant levels as a result of Salinas's interventionist policies, thus preventing the Mexican workers from benefiting from the value of their rising labor costs.
Given tough enforcement mechanisms for strong labor and environmental standards, NAFTA can provide real net benefits for the US, Canada, and Mexico. To arrive at that point, a legitimate anti-NAFTA movement must focus on the most meaningful issues to deserve the public's perspective.
It should not concentrate, as Perot does, on the displacement issue - presented through dogmatic one-liners that rely upon the artful packaging of misinformation - in order to generate public distrust. Both advocates and critics will do justice to this debate only if they emphasize NAFTA's real benefits and drawbacks, strengths and weaknesses, thus allowing responsible decisionmaking to take its course.