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Thanks to China, Americans learn what Mexico already knows: Trade is unfair

Ruben Navarrette Jr. on

SAN DIEGO -- Turnabout is fair play. But does it also make for fair trade?

Americans are getting a dose of their own medicine in the form of unethical trade practices, and the process leaves a bitter taste. It turns out we care a lot more about the fairness of the game if we're behind on points. If we're coming out ahead, we're less concerned about whether the relationship is equitable.

Republicans have now decided it's essential that the United States have a "level playing field" whenever it trades with China. Anything else is unacceptable. Desperate times call for desperate measures, they say. The Chinese are cheating, and someone has to do something to stop it. And, as many Republicans see it, that someone is President Trump, whose tariffs have sparked a trade war with China.

The administration said last week that it would increase tariffs from 10% to 25% on a long list of Chinese products. Then it prepared to slap additional tariffs on Chinese goods with an annual trade value of about $300 billion.

Yet, for all their highfalutin talk about leveling the playing field with China, Republicans have -- along with Democrats -- been quite comfortable over the last few decades benefiting from an unlevel playing field when trading with Mexico.

Just look what happened with the Mexican trucks. That telenovela started in the 1990s, when Democrats -- who tend to take their orders from organized labor -- tried to weasel out of some of what was required by the North American Free Trade Agreement. A provision in the treaty allowed truckers from Mexico, Canada and the United States to cross borders and gain access to the highways of each country. That sounds simple enough, but the process of making that mandate a reality couldn't have been more complicated.

 

You see, the Clinton administration supported NAFTA. But it also wanted to preserve the backing of the Teamsters union. And that second part meant doing everything it could to keep Mexican trucks off U.S. roadways, even while it welcomed the Canadian truckers in a blatant act of discrimination.

It wasn't racial, and it wasn't personal. It was just politics. And that means a lot of it was about money. Teamsters contributed generously to the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992, and those U.S. drivers who belonged to the union made a killing from the status quo. Under the old system, anyone hauling cargo into the United States from Mexico could only travel a short distance north from the border -- about 25 miles. For longer trips -- say, to Oregon, Wyoming or Michigan -- Mexican truckers had to offload the cargo onto a U.S. truck -- which carried it the rest of the way. Think of it as welfare for American truckers, who grew accustomed to having lucrative contracts fall in their laps and who wanted to keep it that way.

In Washington, pressure flows downhill. The Teamsters put pressure on the Clinton administration, and the administration put pressure on the Mexican truckers. A cover story was devised claiming that the Mexican trucks were not up to code and posed a danger to U.S. motorists. Some Democrats in Congress fell in line behind their president and resorted to ethnic demagoguery by claiming that the Mexican trucks were likely hauling illegal drugs, and that some of the drivers might be moonlighting for drug cartels.

That's right. You know all that racial ugliness that Republicans engage in to keep out Mexican immigrants? Well, 25 years ago, Democrats played the same sort of games to keep out Mexican trucks.

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