Let’s Take Apart The Corporate Case For Fast Track Trade Authority

Dave Johnson

U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman appeared before Congress Tuesday to make the corporate argument for “fast track” trade promotion authority. The USTR and President Obama are pushing fast-track pre-approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other big “trade” agreements they are working on. The Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and other corporate groups and lobbyists are also pushing hard for Congress to pass fast track.

The promoters of fast track say we need it to push “trade” agreements through Congress to expand trade and increase exports. “What we’re going to do through this trade agreement is open up markets,” Froman told Congress Tuesday, “and then level the playing field so we can protect workers, protect American jobs and then ensure a fair and level playing field by raising labor and environmental standards, raising intellectual property rights, standards and enforcement, making sure that we’re putting disciplines on state-owned enterprises that pose a real threat to workers.”

These corporate arguments (you can see them in this Chamber of Commerce slide show “Ten Reasons Why America Needs Trade Promotion Authority”) just make me more skeptical of what they are selling. Here’s why.

1) President Obama, trade representative Froman, the Chamber of Commerce and others repeat the talking point, “95 percent of the world’s markets are outside the U.S..” This makes me skeptical of what they are selling because it is a “look over there at that shiny object” argument.

Saying that 95 percent of the world’s markets are outside the U.S. implies that we need TPP and other agreements because we are currently not selling goods to 95 percent of the world. This is patently false. We sell goods and services around the world already. In fact, it contradicts other corporate arguments for these agreements like, “More than 38 million American jobs already depend on trade.”

This argument deceives people about the very nature of these agreements. Most of the objections being voiced over these coming agreements are about non-trade issues. Only five of TPP’s 29 chapters deal with what people understand as “trade.” So an argument that TPP and similar agreements will “expand trade” masks what the bulk of these agreements are really about, which is getting governments off the backs of the giant corporations and protecting their profits from competition and democratic regulation.

Just one example of this is the “investor-state dispute settlements” provision, which I have called “corporate courts.” This part of “NAFTA-style” trade agreements, including TPP, allows corporations to sue governments that pass laws and regulations that interfere with profits. Similar clauses in trade agreements around the world have, for example, enabled tobacco companies to sue governments for trying to protect the health of their citizens. Under TPP these suits will be adjudicated by corporate attorneys, not democratically constituted courts.

Other examples are expanded copyright and patent protection for the giant multinationals, which will increase the cost of pharmaceutical products and potentially restrict the freedom of the Internet.

Obviously the corporate advocates of these agreements want this, so they are using distraction, diversion and shiny promises of increased trade and more jobs to sell the agreements.

2) Froman, testifying before the Senate Tuesday, said that we need these new agreements because our country has low tariffs and other barriers to entry while many countries we trade with have high tariffs and barriers to entry.

Wait, back up, he is saying that other countries have high tariffs and barriers to entry but we let goods from those countries into our country with low tariffs and few barriers? What? Doesn’t this undermine our country? Don’t low import tariffs cost badly needed revenue and enable offshoring of jobs and factories? Isn’t this a recipe for imbalance, job loss and huge trade deficits? (And don’t we have imbalance, job loss and huge trade deficits as a result of that recipe?)

In other words, he is saying that the U.S. has been an absolute and complete patsy on trade. And obviously we have been paying the price. Our government hasn’t enforced trade balance and hasn’t protected American interests, which has cost us wages, jobs, factories and entire industries. We have an enormous, humongous trade deficit and that has lowered our standard of living, and driven inequality. Trade agreements haven’t fixed this — recent trade agreements like NAFTA and South Korea have worsened this problem, with more job loss and even larger trade deficits.

The USTR and the president argue that TPP will reset this problem and will enforce good labor and environmental standards. (Enforcing international labor standards would require our government to boost enforcement and a number of U.S. states to change their laws, by the way.)

The U.S. government has no credibility when it comes to protecting Americans from trade imbalances and the resulting loss of wages, jobs, factories and entire key industries. Yet with this terrible record Froman and the president are asking Congress to pre-approve new trade agreements by passing fast track. They are asking this while the coming agreements – negotiated using the same corporate-dominated process that caused the mess – are still secret. They are asking this even though fast track will prevent Congress from adequately examining and debating agreements and fixing problems. Fast Track also keeps the public from having time to read and comprehend the agreements and rally opposition if opposition is warranted.

Saying that we have been patsies isn’t an argument for setting up a fast-track process to pass more trade agreements; it is an argument for backing up and replacing everyone and everything involved in setting and enforcing our government’s trade policies. Pushing through even more agreements using the same corporate-dominated process that caused the mess is not a way to fix the mess; it is a way to make things even worse.

3) Corporate advocates for fast track argue that we need to increase exports. This is exactly right, but they never, ever, ever, ever, ever mention imports and trade deficits. Why is that? We need balanced trade. If imports increase more than exports this represents a net loss of jobs, technology, manufacturing ecosystem and our living standard. If trade imbalances continue over time it throws the entire world’s economy out of balance. (It does things like enable 80 people to have as much wealth as half of the world’s population, and 1 percent of the world to have more wealth than all of the rest combined.)

Is there a section of these new agreements – the five of 23 chapters that are actually about trade, anyway – that requires that trade be balanced so we can stop losing jobs, wages, factories and industries? TPP is still secret, so we don’t really know. And fast track doesn’t give us time to find out once we do see the agreement, and doesn’t allow us to fix it if it doesn’t require balance.

4) Corporate advocates say “more than 38 million American jobs already depend on trade. This is one in every five jobs across the country.” I’m not sure how this is an argument for new trade agreements when they say we’re already doing so great. In any event, they are not bringing up the jobs we have lost to imports – which is more than the jobs we have gained from exports. They’re again saying “trade is good” to divert us from seeing that only five of the 29 chapters of TPP are even about trade at all. The rest is about getting democratic government off the backs of the giant multinational corporations and protecting them from competition.

5) Another corporate argument is that 97 percent of American companies that export are small businesses. This is another misleading and irrelevant number. They don’t say what percent of our exports come from these small businesses. And trade agreements that reinforce the monopolies held by giant multinational corporations by expanding their copyright and patent dominance certainly do not help smaller businesses. They are instead designed to limit competition.

What is needed is for the the contents of the TPP agreements to be made public now and for stakeholders like labor, environmental, consumer, democracy, health and all other groups to be part of the process right now. Then, when an agreement is concluded, Congress and the public need adequate time to fully analyze and discuss these agreements and their implications. Finally, Congress should be able to fix problems with the agreements to bring them in line with the interests of all Americans.

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