by Dan Fischer
As a surprisingly honest New York Times editorial shows, the 1 percent has been shaping trade policy to transfer money and power to the wealthy. “Big corporations” are “shaping the American position” on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its US-European counterpart TAFTA, according to Sunday’s editorial titled “This Time, Get Global Trade Right”. The Times warns that the bargaining process gives corporations a “dangerous” and “lopsided” influence, and “companies are using trade agreements to get special benefits”.
Given the Times’ loyalty to the 1 percent, the editors’ stern warning suggests that the ongoing trade discussions must be especially undemocratic. After all, the Times has repeatedly supported business-friendly policies in the past, from NAFTA to the collapsed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Just this past December, the editors strongly praised the TPP, a proposed trade agreement between the US, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Singapore, New Zealand, Chile, Peru and Brunei. If passed, the agreement would govern 40 percent of the world economy.
Sunday’s editorial partly backtracks, and for good reason. For one thing, the TPP talks are so secretive that “only a few insiders” actually know the details of the trade pact. These insiders include corporate representatives, with whom US trade representative Michael Froman frequently consults. Public interest advocates and even members of Congress get shut out.
Moreover, leaked TPP chapters would grant companies “unnecessary power” to sue governments and overturn popular environmental and labor laws. Under the similarly corporate-dominated NAFTA, the energy company Lone Pine Resources recently sued Canada for allowing the Quebec province to ban fracking. And in the 1990s, Ethyl Corporation used the trade agreement to get rid of Canada’s ban on a toxic gasoline additive. By adding countries to US trade pacts, the TPP could greatly expand corporations’ power to reverse government decisions.
Moreover, by beefing up patents and copyrights, the TPP would restrict the free flow of information. For example, the Times says the TPP will make it easier for pharmaceutical companies to receive patents on medical knowledge, “mak[ing] it harder for poor people in countries like Peru to get generic medicines.”
Unfortunately, the Times editors try to clear the US of blame for the TPP’s terrible environmental provisions. They insist that most countries “except the United States” want to strip the TPP of legally binding environmental protections. Actually, the US—the country responsible for 29 percent of the world’s historic carbon emissions—has attempted to remove from the TPP text any reference to preventing climate change! As shown in a February leak by Redge.org, the US proposed removing parts of the text referencing “international climate change commitments” and “climate change as a global concern”. As the Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program director Ilana Solomon says, “The U.S. made an already weak text even weaker.”
Despite limited information, it is clear that the vast majority of Americans would gain little and possibly lose big if the TPP and TAFTA become implemented. The Times editorial acknowledges the gains from past corporate trade agreements “have not been as widespread as we hoped”. In other words, wealth has shot straight up to the super-rich. Since NAFTA took effect 20 years ago, the top 1 percent’s share of US income increased by some 58 percent. Meanwhile, the US lost 1 million jobs due to NAFTA, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s Robert E. Scott.
Of course, the Times editors don’t bother to mention the people hit the hardest by NAFTA, the small farmers of Mexico who faced a flood of subsidized corn imports from the US. Since NAFTA took effect, economic conditions forced some 2 million of Mexico’s small farmers off their land, according to Laura Carlsen of the Center for International Policy. Back in 1993, the Times editorial board praised NAFTA for its promise to “lock Mexico into its pro-market reforms”, paying no attention to whether or not Mexicans supported these policies.
President Obama, realizing the unpopularity of his trade policies, has asked for “fast track” authority, which would force Congress to give the TPP a simple up-or-down vote without a chance to remove individual amendments. The fast track would make an already undemocratic process even less open to Congressional oversight. Bowing to popular pressure, both Senator Reid and Representative Nancy Pelosi have rejected Obama’s request. This is good news for anti-corporate, environmental and labor campaigners. As theTimes reported in January, the absence of fast track might make other countries “hesitate to agree to American demands.” Agreement on TAFTA also looks distant, with a March headline declaring “More Hope Than Headway So Far in U.S.-Europe Trade Talks”.
Surprising signals from the Times editors and Democratic Party leaders show that it is increasingly possible for the American public to defeat the TPP and the TAFTA, just as they helped defeat the Free Trade Area of the Americas in the 2000s. With grassroots groups opposing corporate control of trade, crony capitalists everywhere are worried. As Business Week noted anxiously in December, “The era of free trade as the world has known it is dangerously close to coming to an end.”