You Down with TPP? Yeah, You Shouldn’t Be

Many would insist that the TPP would be better used as TP, and based on its language which primarily benefits rich corporations and wealth investors, it’s hard to argue against these sentiments. (Photo Credit: Alex Milan Tracy)

Want to see the negative side of party politics? Take a gander at the divisions that exist within the Democratic Party with respect to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and you’ll see how solidarity for the sake of solidarity means that choices can be made for constituents in a way that serves only the political apparatus and goes against what lawmakers themselves believe.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is a successor to the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPSEP), which was originally signed in 2005 by Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. In terms of membership for the TPP, in addition to the four aforementioned nations already serving as parties to the TPSEP, as of February 4, 2016, eight additional countries are named as signatories: Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, the United States and Vietnam. In terms of the stated justifications for the U.S.’s participation as a party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the International Trade Administration, a subset of the Department of Commerce, illuminates the reasons. Per the ITA page on the TPP:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership will reduce the cost of exporting, increase competitiveness of U.S. firms, and promote fairness. It also reflects our values on issues including labor, the environment, and human rights. TPP delivers for middle-class families, supports jobs, and furthers our national security.

The agreement will eliminate tariffs, lower service barriers, and increase transparency while also increasing competitiveness by instituting stronger intellectual property rights protection and establishing enforceable labor and environmental obligations.

The TPP will promote fairness by ensuring non-discriminatory treatment of U.S. goods and services; establishing rules for fair competition with State-owned enterprises; and providing the same rights and protections for U.S. investors that foreign investors currently enjoy in the United States while protecting the inherent right of governments to regulate.

Through this agreement, the United States is seeking to support the creation and retention of high-quality jobs at home by increasing American exports to a region that includes some of the world’s most robust economies.

If all that doesn’t have you sold, according to Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, “The TPP is a modern and tough trade agreement, reflecting our values on labor, the environment, and human rights,” and to quote Under Secretary Stefan Selig, “TPP will give U.S. business improved access to eleven Pacific Rim markets collectively representing 40% of global GDP.” Wow. The TPP sounds like the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Just for kicks, why don’t we consider what people outside the Obama administration have to say about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, shall we? Robert Reich, a well-regarded economist and someone who has served in the administrations of multiple presidents, was initially bullish on free trade, but has since changed his tune in light of what he sees as a seismic shift in the nature of trade agreements. As Reich underscores in a blog post about the “new truth about free trade,” while the “old-style” agreements of the 60s and 70s increased demand for American goods and, therefore, stimulated domestic job growth, the “new-style” agreements enhance profits for corporations and wealthy investors while keeping wages low, such that the motivation on the part of big companies is based on direct foreign investment, not trade. In terms of corporations’ benefits, deals like the TPP are all about access to new markets and customers as well as greater protection of their intellectual property. Reich explains:

Recent “trade” deals have been wins for big corporations and Wall Street, along with their executives and major shareholders, because they get better direct access to foreign markets and billions of consumers.

They also get better protection for their intellectual property – patents, trademarks, and copyrights – and for their overseas factories, equipment, and financial assets.

That’s why big corporations and Wall Street are so enthusiastic about the Trans Pacific Partnership – the giant deal among countries responsible for 40 percent of the global economy.

That deal would give giant corporations even more patent protection overseas. And it would allow them to challenge any nation’s health, safety, and environmental laws that stand in the way of their profits – including our own. But recent trade deals haven’t been wins for most Americans.

By making it easier for American corporations to make things abroad, the deals have reduced the bargaining power of American workers to get better wages here.

Clearly, Robert Reich is not enamored with the Trans-Pacific Partnership—and he is not alone. Bernie Sanders has been a vocal opponent of the TPP, as he has been with respect to other free trade deals in the past such as CAFTA, NAFTA and PNTR with China. (Sanders has been notably silent, meanwhile, on Fanta, but that is because it is a line of beverages. With, for whatever reason, up-tempo Latin music and dancing girls.) You can read his prepared statement on the agreement here, but here’s an excerpt from the document:

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a disastrous trade agreement designed to protect the interests of the largest multi-national corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment and the foundations of American democracy. It will also negatively impact some of the poorest people in the world.

The TPP is a treaty that has been written behind closed doors by the corporate world.  Incredibly, while Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry and major media companies have full knowledge as to what is in this treaty, the American people and members of Congress do not. They have been locked out of the process.

Further, all Americans, regardless of political ideology, should be opposed to the “fast track” process which would deny Congress the right to amend the treaty and represent their constituents’ interests.

The TPP follows in the footsteps of other unfettered free trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA and the Permanent Normalized Trade Agreement with China (PNTR).  These treaties have forced American workers to compete against desperate and low-wage labor around the world. The result has been massive job losses in the United States and the shutting down of tens of thousands of factories. These corporately backed trade agreements have significantly contributed to the race to the bottom, the collapse of the American middle class and increased wealth and income inequality.  The TPP is more of the same, but even worse.

Hmm, between what the Obama administration says about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and what Robert Reich, Bernie Sanders and others have to offer, there is a lot to bite off and chew, and much of it contradictory. Might we get a viewpoint (and thus, even more to ingest) from an independent source, one that is both nonpartisan and nonprofit? Robert E. Scott of the Economic Policy Institute believes unequivocally that putting the provisions of the TPP into force would be bad for workers in the United States and in other member countries. From his press release:

The TPP, which is an agreement to manage trade and investment on behalf of large corporations, will put downward pressure on wages of workers in the United States, and will likely lead to growing trade deficits and job displacement. Both outsourcing and the growing use of parts from non-TPP countries will lead to rising imports, increasing trade deficits and job losses in the United States. Meanwhile, core issues like currency manipulation and abusive labor practices in Malaysia, Mexico, Vietnam, and Brunei are addressed only in weak side agreements, or agreements that cannot be enforced for at least five years, if at all.

By extending U.S. copyright and patent protections to consumers in the rest of the TPP, which will dramatically increase the prices of prescription drugs, the treaty will shift billions in profits to big pharmaceutical companies while denying access to life-saving medicines to countless poor consumers. The agreement will encourage the growth of outsourcing to low-wage export platforms in countries like Vietnam and Malaysia, and create a back door for dumped and subsidized imports from China and other non-TPP members to enter the United States duty-free or at preferential TPP tariff rates.

The United States could have negotiated an effective TPP that addressed currency manipulation, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and harmonized financial regulations upwards. Instead, the TPP supports a race to the bottom in international regulations that will primarily benefit multinational corporations at the expense of workers and consumers in the United States and other TPP countries.

Not really a ringing endorsement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is it? Scott’s arguments seem to fly directly in the face of the assertions put forth by Secretary of Commerce Pritzker et al. as reasons why the TPP should be put into force. According to him, we won’t be gaining jobs, but losing them, with wages remaining depressed. Those protections for intellectual property rights touted by the Department of Commerce? Among other things, they would likely cause the cost of medicines to skyrocket, and regardless, put more power in the hands of pharmaceutical companies. And what about some of these other issues? Currency manipulation? Environmental standards? Financial regulations? Overall, Robert E. Scott seems to point to an accord that favors corporations and leaves their powers in trade amongst the signatories dangerously unchecked. While heavy-handed regulation of industry (“red tape””) can have deleterious effects on businesses, lax restrictions are an issue in their own right. To think about this in another way, as a general rule, many tend to be wary of any legislation which gives more power to corporations that are already so influential in the political sphere—myself included.

If the Trans-Pacific Partnership were so great, the details would have been made more readily available sooner. That says something. (Photo Credit: SumOfUs/Flickr

If you’re wondering why you didn’t hear about something as monumental as the TPP prior to the 12 member nations signing it in February of this year, this is not entirely a coincidence, and on top of all the purported negative economic effects of putting it into force, the legislative aspect of America’s involvement with the treaty is a bone of certain contention, and is worth its own academic study. Michael Wessel, a liaison to two statutory advisory committees, international co-chair for the John Kerry-John Edwards presidential campaign, and a former commissioner on the U.S. Trade Deficit Review Commission, penned an op-ed on Politico detailing the secretive nature of the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s negotiations. As Wessel explains:

The text of the TPP, like all trade deals, is a closely guarded secret. That fact makes a genuine public debate impossible and should make robust debate behind closed doors all the more essential. But the ability of TPP critics like me to point out the deal’s many failings is limited by the government’s surprising and unprecedented refusal to make revisions to the language in the TPP fully available to cleared advisors.

If cleared advisors weren’t even afforded a full text, logically speaking, what chance did the rest of us have? It’s not like the concerns within the text, leading up to President Obama signing on behalf of the United States, were unimportant ones, either. Michael Wessel goes on to say:

Questions pervade virtually every chapter of the proposed agreement, including labor and the environment, investor-state, intellectual property and others. The answers to these questions affect the sourcing and investment decisions of our companies and resulting jobs for our people.

In particular, the issue is with the idea of “fast track” legislation. What is Fast Track, you might ask? Well, let’s go to the Clinton-era version of the White House website to find out, which looks like it was made on Angelfire, Geocities, or something of that ilk. (Love those animated American flag GIFs!) On a page devoted specifically to Fast Track, we find this information:

The Constitution gives Congress exclusive authority to set tariffs and enact other legislation governing internation trade. The President has the Constitutional authority to negotiate international agreements. If the President negotiates a trade agreement that requires changes in U.S. tariffs or in other domestic laws, that trade agreement’s implementing legislationmust be submitted to Congress — or the President must have Congress’ advance approval of such changes.

Fast track is an expedited procedure for Congressional consideration of trade agreements. It requires Congress to vote on an agreement without reopening any of its provisions, while retaining the ultimate power of voting it up or down. The three essential features of any fast track authority are:

(1) extensive consultations and coordination with Congress throughout the process;
(2) a vote on implementing legislation within a fixed period of time; and
(3) an up or down vote, with no amendments.

Ultimately, fast track gives the President credibility to negotiate tough trade deals, while ensuring Congress a central role before, during and after negotiations. The authority puts America in a strong position to negotiate major trade agreements and maintains a partnership between the President and Congress that has worked for more than 20 years.

Sounds great, right? Except for the notion its critics liken it to “rubber stamping” legislation, and specifically, the Obama’s administration employ of it with respect to the TPP has come under fire from numerous Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Michael Wessel notes the difference in tone set between Bill Clinton’s approach to free trade pacts and that of his Democratic Party presidential successor in that same Politico piece:

Bill Clinton didn’t operate like this. During the debate on NAFTA, as a cleared advisor for the Democratic leadership, I had a copy of the entire text in a safe next to my desk and regularly was briefed on the specifics of the negotiations, including counterproposals made by Mexico and Canada. During the TPP negotiations, the  United States Trade Representative (USTR) has never shared proposals being advanced by other TPP partners. Today’s consultations are, in many ways, much more restrictive than those under past administrations.

All advisors, and any liaisons, are required to have security clearances, which entail extensive paperwork and background investigations, before they are able to review text and participate in briefings. But, despite clearances, and a statutory duty to provide advice, advisors do not have access to all the materials that a reasonable person would need to do the job. The negotiators provide us with “proposals” but those are merely initial proposals to trading partners. We are not allowed to see counter-proposals from our trading partners. Often, advisors are provided with updates indicating that the final text will balance all appropriate stakeholder interests but we frequently receive few additional details beyond that flimsy assurance.

To stress, while we may know more about the Trans-Pacific Partnership today subsequent to Obama’s signing, leading up to that event, despite the insistence of his administration that the TPP is meant to encourage transparency, negotiations were recognizably opaque. As its detractors are quick to point out, this has a lot to do with the influence of various industries in its development—industries not exactly known for their regard for the American people. In particular, corporations already well versed in outsourcing, pharmaceutical giants and Wall Street firms had a hand in its authorship, and it shows in the language. The TPP allows big companies to challenge laws of member countries that it deems would unfairly and detrimentally affects its profits, in doing so suing these nations in international tribunals rather than domestic courts and giving little thought to environmental safeguards, food safety standards and human rights records of those countries who serve as a party to the agreement. By protecting and potentially strengthening patents for monopolistic drug companies, the TPP lets them keep prices artificially high, maximize profits and thereby prevent the people who really need their products from being able to afford them. In addition, the TPP bars foreign governments from instituting controls on the flow of capital in and out of their respective nations, which lends itself to market instability and the risk of financial crisis. In short, the Trans-Pacific Partnership works mainly for the wealthy corporations and investors which made their political presence felt—without much regard for workers domestic or abroad, and for that matter, the general public.

President Obama, front and center here, is a proponent of the TPP despite dissent within the Democratic Party. Because of party politics, however, Democratic loyalists won’t challenge him on the agreement’s flaws. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

OK, so the TPP is a hot mess, right? Bernie Sanders has ten reasons why he thinks it’s a train wreck in the making. Elizabeth Warren, who has been bandied about as a potential vice presidential pick for Hillary Clinton, also has voiced her concerns about this treaty. Shit, even Hillary herself has come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I don’t know to what extent she actually believes it’s a bad idea—Hillary conveniently reassessed her position on the TPP after Sanders started gaining ground on her in the race for the Democratic Party nomination, and after she herself declared the TPP the “gold standard”  in free trade deals—but she most recently has said she opposes it. So, as far as the official Democratic Party platform goes in advance of the election, this should be a slam dunk, shouldn’t it?

Not so fast, Skippy. We’re forgetting about the part party politics has to play, and as far as slam dunks are concerned, no one in the Democratic Party is going to throw down on Barack Obama—figuratively or literally. Dude can ball. President Obama, unlike Clinton, Sanders and Warren, believes in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I mean, he should if he’s signing it. Obama penned an editorial for the Washington Post earlier this year regarding his support for the TPP, and had this to say in closing:

I understand the skepticism people have about trade agreements, particularly in communities where the effects of automation and globalization have hit workers and families the hardest. But building walls to isolate ourselves from the global economy would only isolate us from the incredible opportunities it provides. Instead, America should write the rules. America should call the shots. Other countries should play by the rules that America and our partners set, and not the other way around.

That’s what the TPP gives us the power to do. That’s why my administration is working closely with leaders in Congress to secure bipartisan approval for our trade agreement, mindful that the longer we wait, the harder it will be to pass the TPP. The world has changed. The rules are changing with it. The United States, not countries like China, should write them. Let’s seize this opportunity, pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership and make sure America isn’t holding the bag, but holding the pen.

President Obama gives a lot of information within his essay, but this last bit speaks volumes to me. Regardless of any other pointed economic justifications in favor of the TPP, America’s involvement as a key party to the accord, when it comes to brass tacks, is about authority, about marking our economic territory in the face of an emerging China. It would not be unfair to suggest, therefore, that Obama’s actions in advancing the TPP are taking a strong position for the sake of furthering a narrative about the U.S. economy, and not necessarily for the strong position in which it puts American workers.

Thinking once more in terms of the drafting of the Democratic Party platform, therein lies the rub. Many Democratic leaders may privately find fault with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but for the sake of party unity—that ideal apparently prized above all others among establishment Democrats—they wouldn’t dare to challenge the most powerful Dem in all the land, even one who’s a lame duck on his way out. Either that or it’s loyalty—to a fault. In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Peter Nicholas quotes one platform member and Clinton supporter as saying, “I thought it was important not to embarrass President Obama. Later in the article, Nicholas describes a testy exchange between a Sanders supporter and an Obama-phile, with the latter reportedly accusing the former of “giving a middle finger to the president.” Bernie Sanders and his delegates have consistently voiced their opposition to the TPP, but because they refuse to play the party politics game, and in Sanders’ specific case, because he has only been a Democrat for a short time, they, evidently, are the assholes. Even though they may have a more legitimate claim than their critics to the kind of progressive agenda that the Democratic Party truly needs.

For Democrats to be more worried about Barack Obama’s feelings and legacy with respect to their support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership when real lives in the United States and in the other member countries hang in the balance is unconscionable, or as Robert Reich puts it, “incredibly stupid,” if for no other reason than it gives Donald Trump, an outspoken critic of the TPP, NAFTA and like trade deals, more ammunition leading up to the general election. That so many mainstream Republicans support the agreement, a treaty which favors Big Pharma, multinational corporations and Wall Street because they helped write it, should’ve been a tip-off that this bit of foreign economic policy is ill-advised for a party which is trying to sell itself as the working person’s party. As unpopular as NAFTA has proven in labor circles, concerning the TPP, which has been referred to as “NAFTA on steroids,” any support on the part of the Democratic Party communicates the wrong message as to whose corner the party is in—namely that of moneyed interests over the public interest.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership has been signed by President Obama, but has yet to go into full force, as Congress has yet to vote yea or nay on its adoption, so there’s still time for the public to voice its rejection of what the TPP in its current form represents; for your part, I encourage you to sign any number of petitions that have been started in protest against the agreement. If the Democratic Party’s elite were smart, they would come out more strongly against its passage by the House and Senate. As evidenced by their inability or unwillingness to move beyond party politics on this issue, however, establishment Democrats are proving they are neither very courageous nor smart. Come November and in the years to follow, they could very well find themselves adding “rueful” to this list of descriptors.

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