THE Clinton administration's claim that problems with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) can be patched up by side agreements on labor and environment assumes a silk purse can be made out of a sow's ear. This is but a slight improvement over George Bush's claim that NAFTA already was a silk purse.
Recall how President Clinton developed his position during the election campaign. Labor and environmentalists were urging him to oppose the treaty. Wall Street was reciting reasons why Mr. Clinton would panic business. He needed to assuage both sides on NAFTA, to accept it but change it too. His fence straddling was dictated by short-term politics rather than any analysis of long-term costs and benefits.
A serious analysis must account for the following possible effects:
* Climate change and harm to species, forests, soil, and water resources will be accelerated by NAFTA's push for fossil fuel-intensive manufacturing of goods.
Incredibly, no NAFTA negotiator has calculated these costs. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro last year virtually every world leader (and former Sen. Al Gore Jr.) denounced such unsustainable development as an unconscionable threat to future generations.
* Some 13 million Mexican peasants will be uprooted from the countryside - and many will migrate to city slums or to the United States.
There is a strange silence in Washington about such a possible exodus. The figure of 13 million is from the Mexican undersecretariat of agricultural planning, which sees it as an inevitable cost of the "modernization" of Mexican farming by capital-intensive, chemical-intensive agribusiness, which NAFTA and other programs promote. The cost will be paid, of course, in the slums of Mexico City and the streets of East Los Angeles, not in the boardrooms of transnational agribusiness.
* Many of our food, safety, and environmental laws will be invalidated.
We may well be forced to accept truckers on our highways without US driver's licenses, strawberries sprayed with pesticides not permitted in the US, and shrimp caught by methods that endanger sea turtles.
Despite cosmetic "green" language, the treaty's 2,000-page text is salted with lawyers' fuzz words leading to these results. This could well mean lightening up on inspections of imported infant formula and of beef destined for Jack-in-the-Box. It could mean throwing out laws against dangerous chemicals like the federal Delaney Clause and California's Proposition 65.
* The environment will get fouler; the bill to clean it up will not be paid.
One study found that adopting NAFTA will be like adding the toxic emissions of New Jersey annually to air, water, and land in North America. Estimates for partial cleanup of the US-Mexico border range from $5 billion to $50 billion. Yet the two governments have allocated little more than half a billion dollars. Proposals in Congress to collect polluter taxes would raise paltry sums.
* No significant number of jobs will be created in the US, though a significant number could be lost.
Hope for jobs was dealt a blow recently when the two economists relied on by the Bush administration for the claim that NAFTA would create 175,000 jobs explained their data more fully: They actually see a small net job loss over 15 to 20 years. Economists with labor union ties predict a loss of 500,000 US jobs over 10 years.
* Public decisions will be transferred from US legislative, administrative, and judicial institutions to small groups of unelected and possibly unaccountable trade experts.
Our own democratic institutions are barely open and accountable to citizens now - despite hard-won reforms in the Progressive, New Deal, and Ralph Nader eras. But NAFTA, like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, may return us to the days of Grover Cleveland in terms of back-room government.
* Mexico's authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rules that country through election fraud, corruption, and brutal human rights violations. NAFTA will further entrench it in power.
NAFTA is even more important to President Salinas de Gortari as a public relations tool for his PRI party than as a trade deal. Approval of the pact will be a political gift to Mr. Salinas. And it will make our government an accomplice of his undemocratic regime. It should be better noted here that the voters, workers, and journalists of Mexico have not been able to speak for themselves about NAFTA.
It is impossible to have NAFTA and develop social justice and a clean environment. Yet Clinton persists in trying. Perhaps this is the best a politician can do. Labor, environmental, and consumer lobbying groups, however, should know better than to buy into the president's line. But many of these lobbyists are so anxious for personal influence in Washington that they are rushing to draft compromising side agreements that ignore basic social and environmental facts.
Accepting the NAFTA framework, the lobbyists flatter themselves that they are soldiers inside the belly of a Trojan horse. In fact, they, like Clinton, have been swallowed by the whale of international capital. That leaves only the people in the streets, through direct citizen action and civil disobedience, to reject NAFTA outright. US citizens should protest that, under the slogan of free trade, international capital is unleashing unacceptable disasters.