What Happens In The US Stays In The US

When traveling overseas it is not uncommon to hear criticism of American foreign policy usually framed by the war in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. It has, in fact, become so common place that in addition to seeing Americans harassed over their government’s policies I have witnessed Americans actively going out of their way, pre-emptively, to apologize for their nation’s foreign adventures before somebody has the opportunity to attack them (more than a little ironic).

Within the context of Bush’s tenure it would be tempting to assume this is a recent phenomenon. It isn’t. Baby-boomers will often recount stories from their traveling heyday in Europe of telling hosts that they were Canadian so as to avoid confrontation. The actions of the Bush administration, instead of creating this situation, has only cemented the fierce criticism to the point where it has now become standard practice to portray American political discourse as uniquely insular informing not just foreign policy but also areas such as trade and the environment.

Whilst there is an element of hypocrisy from the international community, especially from Europe – whose Common Agricultural Policy is as great a beacon for protectionism and insularity as it gets – and whilst it is also fair to say that it is somewhat counter-intuitive for the US to balance its interests with those of others there is a valid point to be made. The point is that the accusation of an insular American perspective runs much deeper than mere policy making; it is less to do with trade based protectionism and more in line with ideas-based protectionism. It is rooted in the the idea of self-interest and the image of the free individual, free from constraints as applied to the US in the form of trade agreements, UN resolutions or environmental regulation.

Though it would be tempting to attribute this notion exclusively to the Right due its brash and blatant disdain for international considerations, as epitomized by former UN ambassador John Bolton (watch this video for his opinions on the UN), the perspective is just as warmly embraced, albeit far more subtly, by the the Democratic Party. Throughout the presidential race there has been a concern expressed by leading Democratic candidates over America losing its place in the world. However this concern has little to do with empathy for others and more with the loss of respect for its leadership. America is worried it no longer wields the same power as it did. It is the idea that the USA will only join others on its own terms that has led to this loss of leadership and is the basis for the accusation of arrogance and hubris that foreign critics so love to throw around.

Nowhere is it more apparent (or, arguably, more detrimental), than in the national discussion on illegal immigration. Talk of strengthening our borders, amnesty and xenophobia totally misses the point and obscures the debate.

So far in the current presidential race the issues of Nafta and immigration have been regarded as separate domestic concerns. When discussing the free trade treaty the two Democratic candidates talk about protecting American jobs. That’s a fair point but not once have they even alluded to the effect Nafta has had upon illegal immigration. The most that has been offered has been Obama’s intention to help create more jobs across the border.

There is obviously a lot more to it than that. If Obama is truly committed to creating jobs across the border he must first come to terms with the destructive effects Nafta has had upon the Mexican economy.

The North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect January 1st 1994 and in order for Mexico to prepare for its implementation, Nafta required that programs for small farms such as low-interest loans and subsidies be dropped. It also required that Mexico’s quota system for corn imports be replaced with tariffs, which were to be phased out over fifteen years. (The tariffs were in fact eliminated after only three). Because of these conditions cheap US corn swamped the Mexican market and put 1.5 million farm workers out of a job. The manufacturing sector fared little better as workers watched their average daily wage drop from five dollars to four.

Within the boundaries of the current debate the correlation between Nafta and illegal immigration goes utterly unrecognized. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, since the inception of Nafta, the number of unauthorized migrants living in the US has risen from 4.5 million to over 12 million while the number of immigrants entering the country illegally each year rose from 0.4 million to 0.9 million. More than three quarters of that number were born in Latin America with a large proportion being Mexican. Now, because Nafta has been around for over ten years one might be forgiven for assuming the problem would eventually settle and immigration figures plateau. Maybe then we could be justified in talking walls and amnesty. Well, actually no.

Since the dawn of Nafta Mexican industrial users of corn, such as syrup processors and Mexico’s rapidly growing livestock sector, have become heavily dependent on yellow corn from the US (to the point where Mexico requires 8.5m tons of yellow corn but only produces1.5m). That’s the same yellow corn necessary for ethanol production in the US whose demand has soared in recent years.

The sizable subsidies for ethanol producers in the US – 51 cents per gallon – has spurred the incipient industry to new heights where the amount of corn currently used for ethanol in the US is 18-20% of the total crop.

So when US corn prices rose by 80% at the end of 2006 it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise when it caused industrial users in Mexico to look for a quick substitute elsewhere. The Mexican white corn sector (from which poor Mexicans depend for the daily staple – tortillas), was the likely source, causing the price of tortillas to quadruple in some places, and intensifying hardship no end upon the 40% of Mexican’s who are impoverished. It shouldn’t take too much thought to conclude that the North might be a probable destination to help alleviate that poverty.

Barack Obama has made clear that he is a big fan of ethanol as a viable alternative to imported oil. This has major consequences for corn prices, the use of yellow corn in Mexico and ultimately illegal immigration.

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have failed to take the opportunity to connect the dots serving only to contribute to the protraction of the immigration crisis and perpetuate the notion that America acts alone without concern for its actions.

Myopic is not the word for this lack of insight; the candidates are clearly intelligent people and must be aware of the knock on effects of such policy positions. Whether it is for fear of Mid-West corn farmers (as I suspect), or not, this attitude is inconsistent with American ideals by ignoring responsibility for the suffering of others as a result of one’s own actions. The real irony though is that it is self-interest that has led to this self-defeating situation.

The immigration debate has been and continues to head down a very dangerous path for it doesn’t just concern the problem of a huge underclass taking root in America it extends to all aspects of US policy. When you ignore the consequences of your actions they have a way of coming back to haunt you. The CIA call it ‘blowback’ but what it really comes down to is a principle shared all across the political spectrum and that is personal responsibility.


~ by oddlyamerican on February 28, 2008.

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