President Trump formally withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Though TPP was killed by a long progressive fight that resulted in it not having the votes to pass Congress, of course, he took credit for killing it himself.
TPP was another “trade” deal written in secret using a process dominated by corporate interests. As David Dayen, writing in The Nation Tuesday, put it,
The public recognized that free-trade deals aren’t about free trade anymore—tariffs are currently so low it would be hard to get them meaningfully lower—but about guaranteeing corporate profits through eliminating regulations and enforcing patents. Another deal written in secret, with lobbyists whispering in negotiators’ ears, gave nobody confidence that this would change. Secret enforcement tribunals were a prime target for criticism, because they protect corporate and investor profits and enable financial speculation. No such platform exists for workers if their rights are violated.
This rigged trade process and its results brought us Trump, and here we are.
So now that that’s over, how should our country trade with the world?
Do We Even Need “Trade Deals”?
“Trade” used to be about countries that grow bananas and “developed” countries exchanging bananas for cars and toasters. The banana regions had a “comparative advantage” because the climate favored banana-growing, the developed countries’ advantage was a completed manufacturing ecosystem. Unfortunately “comparative advantage” today means companies moving their production to places that allow them to pollute and exploit workers to “lower their costs.” (The costs of pollution and exploitation are then instead borne by working people and the planet.)
It is a common misconception that we need to have a trade deal with a country before American companies can export to that country. This is partly due to misleading arguments used to sell corporate-favoring trade agreements, like saying, “Ninety-five percent of America’s potential customers live overseas, so closing ourselves off to trade is not a solution.”
Not having a trade agreement doesn’t “close ourselves off to trade.” American businesses trade with the rest of the world and the rest of the world trades with us regardless of trade deals. But without trade deals countries can set tariffs and barriers according to their own country’s needs and goals.
In places where people have a say, people say they want good wages and environmental protections (and public education and health care and infrastructure and parks and science and other things people vote for in democracies). These protections mean that working people and the environment receive a larger share of the economic pie. The economic pie is also larger as a result of that investment in public education and infrastructure and the rest, so the “investor” class does better, too. To pay for these investment those who do better are taxed more.
In non-democracies and other places where people don’t have a say people aren’t paid well, the environment is not protected and a few people at the top end up with a larger share of the smaller economic pie.
So a democracy might want a tariff to remove the price advantage of goods made at “less cost” in countries without those protections. With a balancing tariff those goods won’t undermine democray’s good wages and protections, and undermine the tax base along with them. These tariffs and barriers might be called a “democracy tax,” with the revenues used for investment to make the goods made in the democracy more competitive worldwide.
Business and “investor” interests want to pay lower wages and environmental protection costs, so they encourage countries to pass “free trade” deals that prevent governments from imposing tariffs and barriers in the future. They call the idea of democracy taxes and other decision-making by governments to protect national interests “protectionism.”
“Free trade” deals set aside each country’s political decision-making in favor of “more trade” — thereby placing business interests above national sovereignty. Governments are prevented from acting to “protect” a country’s interests and businesses are free to seek the lowest costs, regardless of what happens to countries and the people in them and the environment.
“Opening New Markets” – To Monopolization
When corporate interests advocate for free trade deals they also claim the deals will “establish new markets.” Again, this falsely implies they can’t already export without establishing a trade deal. This language also makes it seem as though those countries don’t already have companies and industries in those markets. What they really want is a deal that blocks governments from using tariffs and barriers “protecting” their developing or strategic industries from being overtaken and knocked out by established or subsidized competitors from other countries. This “opens markets” to outside competition from giant corporations.
With open trade the largest multinational corporations are able to sweep into other countries — “new markets” — and buy up or knock out existing, smaller businesses. The larger companies use economies of scale, established supply chains, superior access to credit, and other advantages of bigness to become even bigger. The resulting “efficiencies” mean that people are laid off wages and benefits are cut and systems are set up to push profits to the “investors” in the corporation.
People Caught On
So American voters finally caught on to the gimmicks used to sell “free trade.” Or, better put, the damage from from free trade finally caught up to most of us. People rose up and demanded a change, and change is upon us. With TPP out of the way, and “free trade” on hold for the time being it is time to re-evaluate what We the People want from our trade deals and economy.
Stan Sorcher writes, in Restoring Trust After Our “Free Trade” Charade Ends,
Our failed “neoliberal” approach has been to manage globalization through trade deals, written by and for the interests of global companies. The neoliberal vision is a fully integrated global economy, where national identities are blurred, shareholder interests have top priority, public interests are devalued, and gains go almost entirely to investors.
… In this neoliberal vision, markets will solve all our problems, government is bad, and power and influence should favor those who already have plenty of both.
It’s time for a change. But what will the new trade regime look like?
Proposals For A New Trade Regime
Trade doesn’t have to mean a race to the economic bottom resulting in massive worldwide inequality. The benefits of a modern, globalized world are clear. Jared Bernstein, wrote last year that trade deals,
… provide necessary rules of the road by which countries deal with trade logistics, barriers, cross-border investments and conflicts, and, in this sense, they can smooth the path of globalization in useful ways. But they can also be captured by partisan or corporate interests and thereby used to channel the benefits of trade to a favored group. This has certainly been the case in the United States, and it is why many of us who are committed globalists opposed the TPP.
A new approach is needed. The question is how do we manage globalization and trade for the benefit of all of us instead of using it to set all of us against each other?
Plenty of groups and interests are already weighing in. Lori Wallach and Jared Bernstein, writing in The American Prospect last year, in The New Rules of the Road: A Progressive Approach to Globalization, (click through for specifics),
The new rules must prioritize the economic needs of low- and middle-income families while preserving the democratic, accountable policymaking processes that are essential to creating and maintaining the environmental, consumer, labor, and human-rights policies on which we all rely.
[. . .] A more transparent process with opportunities for meaningful engagement, accountability, and oversight by the public and Congress—rather than the current regime that privileges the commercial interests that have long captured these negotiations—is needed.
The AFL-CIO recently posted, 6 Ways We Could Improve NAFTA for Working People, which can be applied more generally to new trade negotiations, (click through for details),
1. Eliminate the private justice system for foreign investors.
2. Strengthen the labor and environment obligations (the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation and the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation), include them in the agreement, and ensure they are enforced.
3. Address currency manipulation by creating binding rules subject to enforcement and possible sanctions.
4. Upgrade NAFTA’s rules of origin, particularly on autos and auto parts, to reinforce auto sector jobs in North America.
5. Delete the procurement chapter that undermines “Buy American” laws (Chapter 10).
6. Upgrade the trade enforcement chapter (Chapter 19).
The Sierra Club has issued a discussion paper, A New Climate-Friendly Approach To Trade, with ideas that
“start from a simple premise that marks a fundamental departure from the status quo: Trade and investment should be treated as tools for advancing public interest objectives—not ends in and of themselves.1 Agreements between countries should encourage trade and investment that support a more stable climate, healthy communities, and good jobs, while discouraging trade and investment that undermine these goals. This means, for example, incentivizing investments in renewable energy but not in fossil fuels,2 lowering barriers to the spread of green technology, and using taxes on highemissions trade to support increased climate protection and climate-friendly job growth.”
The Coalition for a Prosperous America offers 13 21st Century Trade Agreement Principles. Among these: Balanced Trade, reciprocity, stop currency manipulation, allow “Buy America” procurement, enforceable provisions, and more.
Many ideas being discussed seem to involve a “small-ball” approach, reacting to the existing trade regime instead of reimagining the possibilities. Current discussions revolve around things like getting rid of rules favoring investors over governments, or including enforceable labor and environmental standards. And, of course that is all needed. But so is a reimagining.
Obviously the first goal of a new trade policy should be to lift prosperity and improve people’s lives on all sides of trade borders — not just for a few at the expense of the many, but generally. This means the interest of all economic and trade “stakeholders” — labor, consumers, human rights, LGBTQ+, environmental, health, etc. and their governments, along with investors and businesses — need to be involved in the process.
It can be done. For example, imagine a “trade deal” that prohibits companies from threatening workers with having their jobs moved to another country. Hmm… By imagining the unimaginable all kinds of new possibilities begin to open up.
This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their OurFuture site. I am a Fellow with CAF, a project of People’s Action. Sign up here for the OurFuture daily summary and/or for People’s Action’s Progressive Breakfast.