NAFTA's Greatest Hits

President Carlos Salinas sought support for the proposal from literally every social sector with promises of higher prices for exported goods, better wages, more jobs, lower prices for imports, and the promotion of all aspects of growth and development.

In short order, NAFTA began to under-deliver. While the agreement was not responsible for the credit and economic crises of 1994-1995, there was a cloud over it from the very beginning. By 1996, the pattern had been set: those who supported NAFTA "believed" in it and entertained no arguments against it; the accord could not be reopened, reviewed, or revised. These believers backed up their position by reciting macroeconomic data like a mantra.

Opponents of NAFTA began to represent it as misguided economics and argued that if it wasn't the root of all evil in Mexican policy, it was at least symbolic of what was fundamentally wrong. These doubters have been able to support their position with statistics on anemic job creation and the painful emigration from the country.

The reality is that the North American integration process, economically and socially, was well underway by the late 1980s. NAFTA, or something like it, or perhaps even something better, was as inevitable as the tides and the seasons. There is a transformation of the region in the works: at the moment it is not as obvious as Europe's move towards unification, but in the long run it will be no less dramatic.

Key to this dynamic has been the integration of Mexico into the exchange of data with the US and Canada, and by extension the world. If there is one truly revolutionary feature of markets in modern societies, it is the requirement that information be accurate, up-to-date, and understandable to all participants. There are certainly plenty of scoundrels who make a buck-sometimes a fortune-by falsifying data, twisting information, or confusing the process, but by and large the market shakes them out. This is not a love song to market economics, but rather sober words of praise for what markets require of us in terms of information.

Prior to NAFTA, Mexico was by no means the only country in the world with a dicey reputation on data. Nonetheless, Mexico's 1980 Census was so badly handled that it has had to be "redone statistically" just so that it could be part of the ten-year sequences. Data seemed to bounce around up through the early 1990s, depending on Government policy priorities.

The by-word of the opening years of NAFTA was "modernization", and that meant integration into global standards of information as laid out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and De- velopment (OECD). Once the standard was set for information to be at a world-class level, Mexico faced a revision of its methods of gathering and handling information in the Government, the private sector, universities, and the media.

To this day, much data in Mexico—whether in the economic, political, or social spheres—has to be taken with a grain of salt, but since the mid-1990s, businesses of all kinds live and die by better information. Government agencies are also held to new standards of policy review, based on accepted data. Research in the academic sector has been accelerated to the point where the hard science and math-related disciplines of UNAM have led it into the top ranks of world university indices. Even the mass media, at least the print side (uneven though it still may be), has been transformed by the culture of information in the NAFTA era.

Data by itself is only the first step in the culture of information: numbers never speak for themselves. As soon as we have the numbers, there is a need to organize, compare, and project them, which leads to the science and art of statistics—the effort to measure uncertainty.

Many of us can identify with the heartfelt frustration expressed by British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli when faced with making sense of data in another era: "There are lies, there are damn lies, and then there are statistics." Studies of the darker side of statistics fill entire library shelves, but rigorous statistical works fill even more.

In the old days here, you could say practically anything, and people did. With NAFTA, we have been integrated into international standards for the handling of data, statistics, and information generally—a process that is still in its early stages. Better information will not solve all our problems or create the basis for general and perennial agreement: it just puts our discussions in the proper context. As of now, this is NAFTA's greatest contribution to Mexican culture.

 

Dan Lund is the president of the MUND Group, a Mexico City-based public opinion and market research rm. Their website is www.mundgroup.com.