AUSTIN, Texas -- The Mexican truck debate is a pip because it reveals so much about globalization and its attendant problems.

I have a dog in this fight: I live nestled on the shores of I-35, the main route north from Mexico, and spend a lot of time driving up and down it. To say that NAFTA trucks are already a problem is like calling a dwarf short. Driving south from Waco Tuesday night, I counted over 300 of them stacked up in one traffic jam.

This silly circus of a debate continues, with charges of isolationism and protectionism being volleyed back and forth, unmoored from reality in the ideological void. Look, if the windmill is running, the wind is blowing. Here's the question: Have you ever spent much time in Mexico? Pretty much answers the Mexican truck question, don't you think?

Seems to me a deal could be worked out on the long-haul, short-haul issue -- as the current system makes no sense. Mexican long-haulers have to stop on their side of the border, unload onto Mexican short-haulers, which then drive across the border and unload onto American long-haulers. It's a big pain in the butt for everybody. You could work out a long-haul to long-haul system within the present 20-mile zone, but it would take a significant investment in infrastructure on the border, and that money is not coming from the state of Texas. The famous, long-delayed "Marshall Plan for South Texas" has been delayed yet again because the state has no money, thanks to George W.'s tax cuts.

Or, we could put a significant investment into truck safety inspection on the border to make sure that Mexican long-haulers meet American standards and then let them in. It would also be a good idea if American trucks met American standards. According to the Department of Transportation, 25 percent of them don't. That's because we don't put enough money into enforcement.

The Houston Chronicle recently had an excellent article on the over-worked, under-manned federal truck-safety inspection team. There are only 50 inspectors on the entire Texas-Mexican border. Texas has only 353 inspectors for the entire state. The Legislature just turned down the Department of Public Safety's request for 171 more.

This failure to enforce regulations is true across the board. We don't even put enough money into enforcing our own health and safety standards. Conservatives love to gripe about the terrible burdens imposed by federal regulation, but Congress has cut so much money from the Department of Labor, you almost have a better chance of getting hit by lightning than of having your workplace inspected for safety standards.

The larger point in the truck debate is that it demonstrates the importance of including standards in trade agreements. Of course we don't want most Mexican trucks on our roads -- who would? But if it's a safe Mexican truck with a well-trained driver, why not? See? Standards. And if you can include standards for trucks, you can include standards for people and the planet too. You can include labor and environmental standards in free trade agreements.

That's what all the screaming in Genoa, Italy, was about a few weeks ago, despite the American media affectation of pretending the demonstrators' goals are incomprehensible.

The additional complicating factor in the Mexican-truck set-to is that Mexican truckers are as upset about it as American truckers. They believe the bill passed by the Senate on Aug. 1 discriminates against them and would sooner see that part of NAFTA dead. Mexican truckers pay less for labor, but more for equipment, than Americans -- and so are at a competitive disadvantage.

The growing backlash against NAFTA is serious political problem for President Vicente Fox. There is new evidence that NAFTA is actually working to hold down wages in Mexico, too. In fact, there are rumblings of anti-free trade backlash all over Latin America.

If the American media could just get a grip on the idea that there are real issues here that need attention -- that it is not insane or unreasonable to set conditions on trade -- it would be a lot easier to work out the issues in a practical way that benefits everyone. Blind faith in free trade is as much of a menace as protectionism.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.