Mexico & America - Pandemmy Buddies

When it comes to travel during the pandemic, the US would be better off treating Mexico different than it does in trade.

Neighbors Who Trade

The US’ currently runs a trade deficit with Mexico, meaning we import more than we export. The export to the US of vehicles and machinery manufactured in Mexico, on behalf of US-based companies, comprises a decent chunk of that deficit. People need to make that stuff, so US manufacturing jobs have gone to Mexico as well. GM has closed down plants across the country in places like Ohio, Michigan, and Maryland to rely increasingly on Mexican manufacturing. In 2019, aerospace exports from Mexico to the US increased 10% while US manufacturing trended down.

But Why?

The rationale for moving these jobs is simple. First, Mexico is close, making transportation cheaper. Second, Mexico has an average minimum wage for manufacturing jobs of around $2.80/hr, which has been relatively flat over the past five years. The average hourly manufacturing wage in the US is $23.23/hr. Labor arbitrage combined with cheaper transport makes for lower costs for US-based firms. US firms are taking advantage of a stagnate labor market and weak union presence to provide lower prices for US consumers. US-based companies are taking advantage of a neighbor with lax rules around wages and working conditions so that American goods can be cheaper.

American’s traveling to Mexico utilize this same rationale: proximity and laxity. Mexico’s unwillingness to implement coronavirus restrictions has made it an attractive getaway for US tourists looking to live life unconstrained by the realities of the current pandemic. 

To this point, Mexico has refused to implement international travel restrictions. Incoming visitors must only fill out a health questionnaire, no testing, no quarantining. In November of 2020 alone, more than 500,000 Americans took advantage of this and made their way to Mexico. Prevention in Mexico could be going better: At the beginning of February alone, Mexico suffered one of its top daily Covid-19 death tolls of 1,682 and the country’s overall death toll as of this writing is nearly 180,000.

Here’s Where I Scold a Little

US consumers benefiting from weaker labor laws and cheaper manufacturing are mostly obscured by global supply chains and various international trade agreements. One could be forgiven for not caring or even knowing that they’re benefitting from labor arbitrage in the context of a machine that has thousands of components.

Travel is different. The reason for travel to Mexico versus other foreign locales in the midst of a pandemic--outside of its inherent attractiveness as a destination--is because of its lax restrictions and unwillingness or inability of its leadership to take action. The complexity of global trade means you can’t have perfect control over the ramifications of the product you buy, the simplicity of individual travel means you have perfect control of where you end up.

Probably the stupidest example of Americans exploiting Mexico’s laxity was the Art With Me festival that took place November 2020 in Tulum. Shortly after its finish, the festival was linked to a surge of cases in Tulum. Americans flocked to Tulum because they knew Mexico didn’t have the wherewithal to force them to wear masks, just like Mexico won’t force US companies to pay workers more.

Despite some neighborly goings ons such as hundreds of millions of dollars of aid flowing from the US to Mexico, cooperation on trade agreements like NAFTA and its sequel, the USMCA, as well as security coordination, American politics and press posits the South side of the Mexican border as the problematic one. This good/bad framing gives ideological footing to inane ideas and policies like unnecessary border walls, the creation of ICE in 2003, and the never-ending war on drugs. These same ideas suck oxygen out of the discourse for more meaningful and constructive topics.

This framing, as well as the knowledge that we can export things we don’t want such as low, stagnate wage work has created a sense of indulgence for some Americans to use Mexico as a vacation not only from home, but also from their neighborly responsibility.

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