Mexico Moves Past Paralysis

American politicians worry about border security with Mexico as they dither on budget reforms. Mexico has been busy grooming its economy with liberal trade agreements, more skilled workers and foreign investments, such as Chrysler plants building Fiats for China.The news has been filled for weeks about the disastrous fallout expected from $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts that go into effect Friday, all because Congress can't get its act together to avoid so-called sequestration. 

Leave it to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to find an improbable contrast in governance in, of all places, Mexico. 

Americans think of Mexico as a basket case under the thumb of violent drug lords. In a column, Friedman says that's still true, but points out a wave of new activism aimed at breaking political paralysis and building a stronger economy.

"Mexico still has huge governance problems to fix," writes Friedman, "but what's interesting is that, after 15 years of political paralysis, Mexico's three major political parties have just signed a 'grand bargain' under the new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, to work together to fight the big energy, telecom and teacher monopolies that have held back Mexico. If they succeed, Mexico will teach us something about democracy."

The Mexican turnaround, Friedman explains, is not limited to government. He notes an astonishing number of new technology startups in Monterrey, which he visited. Friedman attributed this newfound economic energy to 50 percent of the Mexican population being 29 years or younger and to "cheap, open source innovation tools and cloud computing" — or in other words, 21st Century digital infrastructure. Mexico also is producing more engineers and skilled workers, helping to attract U.S. and other foreign investment, which pushed up its growth rate last year to 3.9 percent.

Citizen empowerment through the use of social media has become a key. The Center for Citizen Integration encourages activism among Mexico's young population by steps such as aggregating tweets about broken streetlights and risky situations on a phone app that serves as a personal warning system.

Mexico has signed 44 free trade agreements, more than any other nation and twice as many as China, Friedman says. That has allowed Mexico to capitalize on its low wage rates to reclaim manufacturing jobs that had migrated to Asia. Friedman quotes a source as saying Mexico exports more manufactured goods than the rest of Latin America combined. Chrysler, he says, is building Fiats in Mexico for the Chinese market. 

Friedman thinks the United States is missing the boat and should be looking for ways to exploit American technological know-how and Mexican manufacturing capability. At the moment, Friedman thinks U.S. priorities may be off base, noting America "does $1.5 billion a day in trade with Mexico and spends $1 billion a day in Afghanistan."

As Congress warms up to acting on comprehensive immigration reform, there still is a lot of angst about "border security." If you believe Friedman, maybe it's Mexicans who may want to see the border tightened to keep out American ideas.

"We always thought we should have political parties like the United States — no longer," Bernardo Bichara from the Center for Citizen Integration told Friedman. "We always thought we should have the government work like the United States — no longer."