Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Red State Tortillas

By David G. Young

Veracruz, Mexico, February 27, 2017 --  

Trade has changed Mexico as much as America. Politicians wanting to roll back change must be stopped.

The vast storehouses of the 16th century fortress on this city's harbor were once filled with precious metals and other commodities awaiting export to Spain. Today, those storehouses are shadowed by the towering cranes of the neighboring container port, sending flat screen TVs, computers, vehicles and other modern manufactured products to markets around the world.1

Loading the Treasure Fleet
Photo © 2017 David G. Young

As Mexico's leading port, this city is a symbol of how much the country has changed. Spanish colonialism left Mexico a poor country with a peasant population and a tiny elite. This elite skimmed their riches from the commodities being stripped from the land and sent to enrich people overseas.

Today, Mexico is a predominantly middle class country with Wal-Marts and supermarkets ringing its cities much like its counterparts in the United States.

Despite the poisonous rhetoric of American politicians, the flow of migrants heading northward has slowed to a trickle in recent years. This is largely driven by prosperity increases south of the border. Many of those who once made a living in the United States have returned. It is common to meet Mexicans who used to work north of the border, and now have good jobs at home.

Those subscribing to an America First ideology blame Mexico for stealing manufacturing jobs from the United States. The country's growth in television and automobile manufacturing came largely after the the passage of the North America Free Trade Agreement, at a time when American manufacturing has struggled.

Indeed, it is hard for American workers to compete with Mexicans, given wages at $2.50 per hour versus $20.70 north of the border in 20172. A much lower cost of living allows Mexicans to live far more comfortably on those relatively meager wages than an American ever could.

Trade, of course, is never a one way street. While hundreds of thousands of vehicles are shipped out of the port of Veracruz, millions of tons of corn are being shipped in, stored in massive grain elevators on the grounds of the port.

The corn in the tortillas from the local Veracruz taco stand likely come from a field in Iowa or neighboring red states, and cars on the street in suburban Detroit may have come from Mexico. This is an unsettling change: ancient Mexican civilization was built on growing corn, and America was long the world's biggest auto exporter and the first to adopt car culture.

Much like American industrial workers, small farmers across Mexico were put out of work by their inability to compete with American imports -- some claim over two million left farms after the passage of NAFTA.3 This helped fuel the surge in immigration to the United States during those years. Should America impose new trade restrictions on Mexico to protect industrial workers, Midwestern corn farmers will face the brunt of the retaliation.

Politicians often work to slow or temporarily reverse the march of progress. Vested interests will always lobby to keep things the way they are, or to return to how they were in an idealized vision of the recent past. But cranes towering over the port of Veracruz are a monument to the inevitability of change. Better to adapt to change now than fight a losing battle to keep it at bay.


1. World Port Source, Port of Veracruz, as posted February 26, 2017

2. Trading Economics, Mexico Nominal Hourly Wages in Manufacturing, as posted February 26, 2017

3. New York Times, Under NAFTA, Mexico suffered and the United States Felt Its Pain, November 24, 2011