Thursday, February 18, 2010

Funny the difference a recession makes

When the Bush administration threw the border open to a select group of Mexico-based domiciled motor carriers in 2008, the screaming commenced.

Every argument under the sun against the program was tossed to the side and determined to be irrational, inflammatory or downright wrong.

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and the program was shut down before any damage could be done. Now, the debate is brewing again.

One argument that intrigued me was the potential loss of U.S. jobs and how the U.S. should not exercise “protectionism.” The free traders in the world said it was big, bad, evil wrong to even mention that U.S. jobs could be lost by opening the border to long-haul trucks from Mexico.

“Free trade, it’s the only way to go. It makes all markets stronger,” was their basic argument.

For argument’s sake, let’s try this on for size now that a wide sweeping, devastating recession has knocked the U.S. ego down a notch.

Small and mid-size motor carriers sustained a serious blow. Those who lost their jobs in this mess would probably say it was more like a sucking chest wound.

There are families who are living on life support. Families have lost their homes (even though they didn’t have a gimmick mortgage). Families are struggling to feed kids; forget sending them to college. The far-reaching impact of this recession has yet to even be felt.

Now, here we are, just starting to stand up – check that – sit up.

And the debate over opening the border is brewing like Hurricane Katrina off the coast.

It’s all because the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative will not exercise rights given to the U.S. in the North American Free Trade Agreement to fight retaliatory tariffs (see more about that here), and we’re supposed to cower to Mexico and ship trucking jobs south of the border – all in the name of free trade, of course.

Trucking is a leading economic indicator. When freight bounces back, you can bet jobs are right behind. When freight levels drop, see ya, steady paycheck.

Here we are on the cusp of what most of us want to believe is the end to this hellish run, and we’re talking about opening the border.

U.S. companies with operations right on the border will shut down the U.S. side and opt for locating in Mexico, where higher pay, taxes, workers’ rights, etc., are nonexistent.

Then they can hire Mexican truckers who think 22 cents a mile is sweet.

It’s not the fault of the Mexican citizens taking these jobs. It’s simply better than what they have. But we have to remember the effect this will have on U.S. truckers. Can we, as a country, afford to have taxpaying U.S. truckers losing their jobs?

This recession knocked pay rates and benefits down for the blue-collar working folks. So much that people are doing what their ancestors did and are working extra jobs and fighting for a better day.

So, it bears to ask the question now, when Mexico has made no efforts to fix the problems that ended the first cross-border program, why are we running with scissors and flirting with launching yet another dangerous program. One that will not only threaten highway safety, but U.S. jobs?

I think the question deserves a real answer this time.