Trans-Pacific Partnership versus Equality and Democracy


herman2It has been interesting to see how President Obama and even the leading Republicans have come to accept that inequality is perhaps excessive and needs to be addressed. The President has followed this through by proposing modest tax increases on the rich, modest public investments in education and infrastructure, a small increase in the rate of pay of military personnel and federal workers, and a small sum for trade displacement assistance. The Republicans will rely on freedom from Obama’s oppressive rule, along with their longstanding faith in trickle-down economics.

Some cynics have explained Obama’s modest boldness in this dangerous terrain on the basis of its sure failure of implementation given the Republican majorities in House and Senate. But it is also interesting that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that Obama has been pushing hard, for which he seeks fast-track approval (with no on-the-floor debate or amendments), would have a significant negative effect on equality, offsetting any positives based on the (unlikely) enactment of his pro-equality proposals.

The TPP would encourage further out-sourcing and job and tax revenue loss, a further weakening of labor’s bargaining power, windfalls for the wealthy from enhanced copyright and patent protection, along with reduced government revenue for social spending. This is a rerun of the 1993-1995 experience with NAFTA, where Bill Clinton ran roughshod over his popular base and Democratic majority in order to serve corporate interests, with measurably negative effects on jobs, wages and income equality. (See Jeff Faux, “NAFTA at 20: State of the American Worker,” Foreign Policy in Focus, December 13, 2013.) The mainstream media then and now have backed the job-killing and inequality increasing “economic freedom” agenda and, while the Republicans will not permit passage of Obama’s explicitly anti-inequality proposals, many of them will join with him in this program that a large segment of the business elite supports.

It should be noted that TPP, like NAFTA, focuses heavily on investors’ (i.e., corporate) rights, not reducing tariffs; only 4 of its 29 chapters deal with trade. But free trade sounds much more virtuous than “investors rights,” so for PR and the mainstream media it is a “free trade agreement.” (See Mark Weisbrot, “The Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty is the Complete Opposite of ‘Free Trade’,” Guardian, November 19, 2013.) It is also notable how the Obama administration has tried to avoid any democratic input into the formulation of this agreement. Mr. Transparency has once again outdone himself in reducing transparency and trying to jam through an agreement that will threaten and damage public rights without public knowledge or debate, formulated in secret mainly in collaboration with corporate representatives. Fortunately for the public interest and democracy there is that traitorous creature Julian Assange whose organization WikiLeaks tapped into the secret negotiations and on November 13, 2013, released a 95-page draft text of a proposed chapter on “Intellectual Property Rights.” Quoting from the Wiki-Leaks release: “That 30,000-word IP Chapter lays out provisions for instituting a far-reaching, transnational legal and enforcement regime, modifying or replacing existing laws in TPP member states. The Chapter’s subsections include agreements relating to patents (who may produce goods or drugs), copyrights (who may transmit information), trademarks (who may describe information or goods as authentic) and industrial design.

“The longest section of the Chapter, ‘Enforcement,’ is devoted to detailing new policing measures, with far-reaching implications for individual rights, civil liberties, publishers, internet service providers and internet privacy, as well as for the creative, intellectual, biological, and environmental commons. Particular measures proposed include supranational litigation tribunals to which sovereign national courts are expected to defer, but which have no human rights safeguards. The TPP IP Chapter states that these courts can conduct hearings with secret evidence. The IP Chapter also replicates many of the surveillance and enforcement provisions from the shelved SOPA [Stop Online Piracy Act] and ACTA [Anti- Counterfeiting Trade Agreement] treaties…. “In the words of WikiLeaks’ Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange, ‘If instituted, the TPP’s IP regime would trample over individual rights and free expression, as well as ride roughshod over the intellectual and creative commons. If you read, write, publish, think, listen, dance, sing or invent; if you farm or consume food; if you’re ill now or might one day be ill, the TPP has you in its crosshairs.’

Current TPP negotiation member states are the United States, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam, New Zealand and Brunei.” (The full text of this chapter, updated in a second release on May 16, 2014, is accessible via Google under TPP and WikiLeaks.)

hermanThe treatment of TPP, as with NAFTA several decades ago, demonstrates very well the anti-democratic qualities of the U.S. elite. In the case of NAFTA, at the time of its enactment in 1993, polls regularly showed that the majority of U.S. citizens were against its passage. But the business elite was for it, so Clinton pushed hard to get it through despite not only public, but strong Democratic Party legislators’ opposition. The mainstream media also supported NAFTA vociferously. The New York Times and Washington Post both ran editorials castigating organized labor for campaigning against NAFTA, suggesting an impropriety not leveled at business or even Mexican government campaigning here in its favor. Its anti-democratic character was further indicated by the stress of officials, media and economists (including Paul Krugman) that NAFTA “locked in” Mexico to a free market development (or regression) program. That is, it assured that a program put in place with the help of an illegitimate (fraudulently elected) government could no longer be changed by the Mexican people.

In the rerun with the TPP, once again we see a Democratic leader pushing a corporate-friendly investor rights program featuring an alleged centrality of “free trade.” Again this is done in the face of public hostility (62 percent oppose any “fast-track” rights) and Democratic legislative foot-dragging. The fast-track proposal, which would stifle legislative discussion of the various parts of this large agreement, is widely understood as aiming to avoid exposure of its parts that legislators and the public might find especially objectionable. This is straightforward anti-transparency and undemo- cratic.

The mainstream media are once again favorably disposed to this investor-friendly “free trade” agreement. Maira Sutton has stressed that the New York Times has editorially endorsed a document that the public cannot even read and wonders if the editors saw it and, if they did, how irresponsible of them not to make it available to their readers (as Julian Assange has done). (“How Can the New York Times Endorse An Agreement the Public Can’t Read?,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, November 7, 2013.) Once again the media stress its expanding trade possibilities and downplay investor rights and the possible impact on the price of medicine, ability to regulate derivatives, the scope of copyright protection, the right to challenge environmental rules, and many other matters. As Yves Smith says, “What these pacts are primarily intended to do is strengthen intellectual property laws to help US software and entertainment companies, along with Big Pharma, increase their hefty profits, and to aid multinationals by permitting the greatly increased use of secret, conflict-ridden arbitration panels that allow foreign investors to sue governments over laws that they contend reduced potential future profits. I am not making that up.” (“Dishonest White House Response to Warren’s Attack on Secret Panels in Trade Deals,” Naked Capitalism, March 3, 2015.)

Washington Post editors argue that a merit of TPP is that it “would organize trade in the Pacific Rim according to U.S. free-trade principles rather than China’s mercantilist goals….” (ed., “The Trans-Pacific Partnership can help the U.S. counter China’s expansion,” January, 22, 2015.) This certainly recalls Mexico being “locked in” to NAFTA and to its “free trade” rules that were very much oriented to investor rights. There are many features of TPP that extend investor rights to transnational corporations operating in weak countries, which are problematic in their effects and need to be addressed in a transparent intellectual and moral environment not provided in the U.S. political economy. New York Times editors were very pleased with the environmental protections put in as “side agreements” in NAFTA. These were, in fact, sops to earlier criticism of the agreement and wholly ineffectual. No surprise that the paper now urges “that the administration must ensure that the new agreements are much stronger than NAFTA” and “that countries adhere to common regulations in areas like labor rights, environmental protections and patents…should be one of his [Obama’s] highest priorities.” (ed., “This Time, Get Global Trade Right,” April 19, 2014.) This is once again whistling in the dark and a bit hypocritical. The editors must know that the secrecy (to which they contribute) and the dominant thrust of the agreement are a result of its service to important segments of the corporate community, and that, just as in the case of NAFTA, labor rights and enhanced environmental protection included in the TPP will be for show, unenforced and unenforcible.

Just as the Democratic leadership has looked bad on trade agreements, regularly selling out on their promises to—and the interests of—their mass base, the same is true of their treatment of “national security” and the military-intelligence budgets. As the military budget has grown and been shrewdly distributed over many states to build a wide, as well as deep, pro-military constituency, so the Democrats have moved with the security-state tide. Polls have long shown that despite the financial power of the MIC, the Democratic base would still like a scale-down of military and scaling up of civil society spending. But they haven’t been able to get that rescaling, even at a time like the ending of the Soviet Union and a hypothetically possible “peace dividend.” The war-makers quickly manufactured new threats that swallowed up potential peace dividends. Because the elite and MIC are integrated, and the war and power projection party are extremely well-heeled and propaganda savvy, the Democrats are  under unrelenting— even if not always overt—pressure to accept and push the stream of threats and serial interventions and wars.

This is an acute problem because their popular base wants resources diverted from war to needy civilian service, but their main funders have other ideas. This is why the Democrats are not deemed as trustworthy as the Republicans on the question of “national security.” It is also why the Democrats often appear indecisive and confused.

Adding to the Democrats misery is the weight of the pro-Israel lobby, which is more trusting of military hardliners than peace proponents and war foot-draggers who may question generous arms support to Israel and wars that Israel may want the U.S. to fight.

From this vantage point a Lindsey Graham is much preferable to a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. It is notable that political campaigning by Democrats stresses economic issues, not war and peace, with at most, and only occasionally brief mention of reducing military waste. The Democrats have pretty well adjusted to the permanent war system and gigantic military budgets even in the face of serious gaps and needs for the domestic citizenry.

As Clinton and Obama have so well demonstrated, Democratic leaders have been able to make their own contributions to U.S. war-making. And the kindly reviews of Hillary Clinton’s record and prospects point out that she has been critical of Obama’s failure to attack Syria and his other displays of indecisiveness. She is proud of her achievement in Libya. She promises a more “muscular” foreign policy. Not aggressiveness or aggression, just more muscle. That is surely what the United States and the world needs.

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Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic, and author.