New York Times | 22 April 2015
Obama and Republicans agree on the Trans-Pacific Partnership … unfortunately
Contributing Op-Ed Writer
There’s an important issue out there you may never have heard of, which is just what its proponents would like. That’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), currently being pushed by the Obama administration and its corporate (and mostly Republican!) allies. It’s a blatant attack on labor, farmers, food safety, public health and even national sovereignty.
And the details of the deal are largely secret. Other than what’s been leaked, the public has no access to its contents, and even members of Congress don’t know much. (On the other hand, “cleared advisers,” mostly corporate lawyers, have full access.) That’s because the TPP is way too important to its sponsors to allow little details like congressional or public input to get in its way, even though constitutional authority over trade is granted to the legislative, not the executive, branch.
This is a bipartisan effort if ever there was one; George Will has called the TPP “Obama’s best idea.” Thus we see the administration, along with pro-business Democrats and Republicans, trying to bulletproof the deal. Last week, a bill was introduced that would give the president “fast-track authority” on the TPP. If that passes, Congress could vote only up or down on the deal, not amend it. That’s quite a bit of presidential power for a scheme that would have a striking impact on the global economy — and the food on our table.
The TPP is little more than enhanced corporation power branded as free trade. It gives corporations the right to challenge government regulations and seek compensation if they think they’ve been treated unfairly by any of the 12 Pacific Rim nations in the deal. (China is currently, but not necessarily permanently, excluded; part of the thinking behind the TPP is to lock up an agreement with these partners before China does.)
Even if you look “only” at food and the environment, the TPP should be ripped apart and put back together with public and congressional input. The pact would threaten local food, diminish labeling laws, likely keep environmentally destructive industrial meat production high (despite the fact that as a nation we’re eating less meat) and probably maintain high yields of commodity crops while causing price cuts.
It would certainly weaken food safety. For example, more than 90 percent of our seafood is imported, a figure that includes fish that were caught domestically and sent overseas for processing before coming back in, which makes the inspection process even more complicated. All told, that’s more than five billion pounds of imports annually, and according to the Center for Food Safety, just 90 federal inspectors guarantee its safety. (The Food and Drug Administration inspects less than 2 percent of imported seafood.) By reducing restrictions on Southeast Asian imports, the TPP would allow more fish containing chemicals that are illegal in domestic aquaculture to reach our shores; by making inspections less effective, it would virtually guarantee that those chemicals make it to our tables.
The agreement would even allow countries to challenge one another’s laws, so that “equivalency” may simply mean that the least powerful regulations become the norm. The United States would have no special standing: If our laws are seen as restraining trade or limiting profits, they could be challenged in special courts, per the TPP’s “investor state” clause. Philip Morris is suing Uruguay over that country’s antismoking laws under just such circumstances; there are several examples of American companies’ flouting local laws and citing trade agreements as an excuse; and Mexico has been sued repeatedly for theoretically diminishing investor profits.
When individual governments have little say, corporate “efficiency” amounts to the global economy’s being run as an ill-regulated business model (an equally egregious trans-Atlantic agreement is currently being negotiated). The projected benefits to the public – as usual, “job creation” leads the list — are mythical, and you don’t have to take my word for it.
Historically, trade laws were geared to enrich the “mother” country — look at the 19th-century Opium Wars in China, which forced open illegal markets so Britain and its allies could benefit. Between World War II and the 1990s, free trade arguably benefited the economies of the countries involved. But the new laws, starting with 1994’s North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), recognized that capital is now mobile — it doesn’t “live” anywhere — and owes no allegiance to any flag; only shareholders matter.
Nafta is the paradigm of what are most accurately called deregulation deals. It promised better jobs in both the United States and Mexico. Instead, as well-paid workers in the United States were losing jobs to worse-paid workers in Mexico, badly paid Mexican workers were losing jobs to worse-paid workers in China, which in turn put more pressure on workers in the United States.
In fact, if you wanted to single out a culprit for income stagnation and the decline of the power of labor in the United States, Nafta would be a good candidate. It allowed large corporations to move where tax breaks were best and environmental regulations weakest, while forcing labor to compete against lower global wages. While likely not the only cause, since its passage collective and individual gains have been nearly frozen in Mexico; in the United States, the story is much the same.
The situation may be most dire for Mexican farmers. Millions have been displaced, many emigrating north for menial jobs. Meanwhile, imports of American corn (a basic staple in the form of tortillas for 5,000 years), increased fourfold. Imports of wheat, rice, cotton and soybeans have increased similarly. In brief, Mexican farmers have gone to work for transnational companies, whether in Mexico, the United States or elsewhere. Nor did this do much good for farmers to the north, who have seen corn prices fluctuate wildly, leaving them to scramble to maximize yields, which in turn causes environmental damage.
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich called the TPP “Nafta on steroids” (“corporate coup d’état” is also good). As the economist Dean Baker said to Bill Moyers, “This really is a deal that’s being negotiated by corporations for corporations, and any benefit it provides to the bulk of the population of this country will be purely incidental.” At this point, nothing about Obama should surprise us, but it’s worth noting that in 2008, as a presidential candidate, he said, “I voted against Cafta, never supported Nafta, and will not support Nafta-style trade agreements in the future.”
All of which is making for some very odd alliances and demonstrating that “far right” and “far left” labels are increasingly useless. That’s because this is a struggle between transnational corporations and just about everyone else.
Of course, some Republican opposition could be crafty positioning, so that when the TPP is found to cost jobs and endanger public health rather than create them and assure it, cynics could simply say, “I told you so.” But in this case Obama has asked for the bad publicity. And although Hillary Clinton’s husband was the architect of this kind of policy, and she worked hard for the TPP while secretary of state, she’s now backing away from what may well be a losing proposition.
That’s the good news: The opposition to fast-tracking appears strong. As Patrick Woodall, a senior policy advocate for Food & Water Watch, said to me, “The forces pushing fast-track are huge, but there is unbelievable public opposition, and at this point the wind is at our back.”
There is such a thing as a good trade agreement, though it’s barely conceivable that Obama and Congress could negotiate one. We could imagine, for example, something that did away with tax havens for corporate profits. (For a detailed analysis of this, see this paper from the Economic Policy Institute.)
But even to have a shot, fast-track must be defeated, and a solid debate must be opened among well-informed representatives, with plenty of public input. More exploitation of labor, fewer public health regulations, more facile production of useless goods and bad food — that is not the direction the global economy needs to go.