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Tuesday, May 4, 2010, 12:43 pm

Friedman’s Flipped-Out Free-Trade Fundamentalism

BY Roger Bybee

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New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman speaks during a Networking session at the Governors' Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles, Calif., on October 2, 2009.   (Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Some people never change

It's been years since Thomas Friedman wrote The World is Flat, his best-seller glorifying corporate globalization. The New York Times columnist is still in the pulpit, offering increasingly fanciful explanations of the reality that is all too evident to others: The free-trade fundamentalism prized by globalization boosters is an absurd doctrine continually shown to be untrue.

His most recent piece, "Narcos, No’s and Nafta," reflects his desperate efforts to distort reality to fit his ideology. In this piece, he asserts that Mexico is being held back both by violent drug traffickers ("the Narcos") and middle-class traditionalists like unionized teachers and oil workers who seek to preserve protections for decent wages and public services ("the No's," as Friedman labels them).

SEEKING PROTECTIONS='OPPOSING REFORM'

As Friedman sees it, the 'No's' are the "primary force opposing any reform that would involve privatizing state-owned companies, like Pemex, opening the oil or electricity sectors to foreign investors or domestic competition."

But fortunately, Friedman breathlessly tells us, an aspiring new middle-class  spawned by NAFTA ("the naftas," as described by Friedman) is pushing relentlessly to move Mexico forward through privatized schools, breaking up teacher unions, and selling off public assets. Friedman tells us that Mexico's schools are performing poorly because of the power of entrenched teacher unions. And PEMEX, the state oil company, would be much more efficient in private hands.

A few details are left out of this account.  First, NAFTA was made possible only by the blatant theft of the 1988 presidential election, with American favorite Carlos Salinas gaining the presidency, although even former president Miguel de lad Madrid admitted in his memoirs that vote counting was rigged to defeat the anti-NAFTA candidate.

Blinded by the prospect of massive profits from cheap labor (about 10% of US levels), privatization of public assets like major utilities, and protecting for investors guaranteed by NAFTA, U.S. and Mexican elites were willing to neglect Mexico's truly pressing social needs as well as worker rights and environmental protection.

EUROPE'S SUCCESSFUL MODEL, NAFTA'S LEGACY, NEGLECTED

In contrast, the European Union poured $100 billion to help poor nations like Spain, Portugal and Greece improve their schools, build roads, establish supplies of clean water, and create other needed infrastructure in order to fully integrate them into the EU.

But all of those needs went totally unaddressed by NAFTA. So Friedman conveniently singles out teacher unions as the scapegoat for Mexico's educational problems.

However, Mexico's low educational achievement might just possibly be related to tiny expenditures on public education, just as short-sighted elites  in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana are unwilling to pay for quality education.

NAFTA also opened the door to a new and particularly blatant form of "crony capitalism," with valuable public assets like major utilities sold at fire-sale prices to favored campaign contributors, elevating a number of them to the billionaires' club. Given this high-level corruption, why would average Mexicans be in favor of privatizing PEMEX?

Furthermore, NAFTA ushered in a new stage of pervasive political and economic corruption that allowed the narcotraficantes to flourish. Raul Salinas, brother of ex-president Salinas, the pro-NAFTA warrior, was widely known by US officials to have been a major drug trafficker.

The result of this kind of overlap between government, corrupt power and criminals was predictable. The narcos increasingly infiltrated polices and military forces at the highest levels as they built up vast supplies of weapons that are often superior to the Mexican Army's.

But to read Friedman, one would be utterly mystified about these developments. "Free trade" inevitably yields more prosperity and more democracy, so Friedman feels free to remains impervious to all evidence of job losses, social dislocation, falling pay, and sharply rising bloodshed that are NAFTA's legacy.

In his mind, this somehow translates into greater prosperity and greater democracy, even though he routinely supports "free trade" with some of the most unfree and unequal nations in the world like China and Dubai.


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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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