The Fast-Track Fandango

Robert Borosage

The debate over fast-track trade authority – designed to grease the tracks for a vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) accords still in negotiation – ought to be the occasion for a fundamental review of our global economic strategy.

We know that it is broken. We’ve racked up unprecedented deficits year after year. The unsustainable imbalances contributed directly to the bubble and bust that blew up the global economy. We’ve watched good jobs shipped abroad, devastating America’s manufacturing prowess. We’ve seen workers’ wages decline and inequality grow to new extremes. Doing more of the same and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity. Clearly, a comprehensive review is long overdue.

Instead, as the debate over fast track heats up, it has already degenerated into a demeaning ritualistic debate, with the lobbyists for fast track recycling the same arguments, often the same phrases, that have been trotted out for every trade debate since President Bill Clinton peddled NAFTA. Who are we going to believe? Their shopworn promises or our own lying eyes?

And the debate is likely to get worse. The White House recently waived its ethics requirements to bring in a skilled lobbyist, Martin Paone, to marshal its fast-track war room. Paone, who spent three decades running floor operations for Democrats in the Senate, now serves clients like Boeing, Google and the Financial Markets Association. With his corporate and Wall Street allies, he’ll make certain that every Democrat gets a “personal” touch from banks and businesses in his or her state, while enforcing “message discipline” on the administration. One result is that the fast-track lobby is rolling out a few new refrains, such as:

TPP will open access to billions of new middle class customers across the Pacific rim by 2030. But tariffs are already low with the 11 countries in the negotiations. We already trade with them and will whether fast track and TPP pass or not. A generous estimate is that the agreements might add 0.13 percent to our GDP by the year 2025, a rounding error at best. And that essentially ignores the other side of the ledger: the increase in imports from multinationals relocating abroad, costing jobs and driving down wages here at home.

Fast track empowers Congress to set the negotiating objectives. Please, this is simply insulting. The TPP negotiations have been going on for over six years, with fiercely contested compromises worked out between industries and banks. Congress can say what it wants; the soup is already cooking.

Export jobs pay more than jobs in non-export industries. A classic true lie. Exporters do pay more, but industries that compete with foreign imports pay even higher. The history of trade agreements is that we lose a hell of a lot more jobs from vulnerable domestic manufacturers than we gain from exporters. And this has contributed directly to growing inequality and declining wages at home.

We must make sure China is not writing the rules for Asia. This argument, delivered with weighty national security intonations, is perhaps the most fatuous of all. If you care about China, it is too damn late. China has the money. Its mercantilist trade policies have given it a treasure chest of nearly $4 trillion in foreign currency reserves, the bulk of which are dollars. The golden rule applies in abroad as well as at home: he who has the gold writes the rules.

China is now creating a new Silk Road across east and central Asia, a web of ports, pipelines and high-speed rail, tying it to Russia, the Middle East, even Europe. Its growing market – now roughly the size of ours – attracts. Its companies – private and state-owned – are beginning a buying spree to purchase strategic companies and technologies across the world. A dozen TPP agreements won’t keep China from making its way – and writing many of the rules along that way.

And who is we in that sentence? The U.S. has no coherent national manufacturing or trade strategy. We’ve given trade negotiations over to the multinationals and the banks. Drug companies want greater patent protection. Agribusiness wants genetically modified foods protected. Wall Street wants access to financial markets and prohibitions against currency controls that might curb the financial casino. The TPP will feature thousands of pages of deals negotiated out by these interests. We aren’t writing the trade rules. They are.

This time is different; TPP is better, stronger. Really? How can anyone claim that the labor rights provisions are stronger when Vietnam, the designated low-wage market in the deal, doesn’t allow independent trade unions? How can anyone claim the treaty is stronger, when it doesn’t even include provisions against currency manipulation, the central mercantilist tool that China, Korea, Japan, and other countries have used to woo investors and capture markets and jobs?

Inescapably, fast track is the road to more of the same. This is particularly inexcusable in the wake the great financial implosion of 2008. Then the Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund and the G-20, the world’s leading industrial countries, agreed that extreme trade and financial imbalances were central to the collapse. They were dangerous and unsustainable. It was agreed that the surplus nations, like China and Germany, should move to increase demand at home and sell less abroad, while the deficit nations like the U.S. should export more and import less. The IMF was even tasked with monitoring the progress towards greater balance. But the Chinese and Germans essentially ignored the agreement – and the Obama administration did nothing. Our trade deficits started to grow again, reaching nearly 3 percent of GDP in 2014. And our astounding trade deficits with China – some $340 billion in 2014, the largest trade imbalance between two nations in the annals of time – have displaced an estimated 2.7 million jobs in the decade from 2001-2011.

This is, as Joe Biden would say, a big f***ing deal. Feckless trade policies have contributed to the decline of our middle class. Surely it is time not for a fast track but for a strategic change of course.

A Real Debate

What we really need is a serious reconsideration of our entire global strategy. Putting aside the corrupted politics, it should be possible to agree on the following:

  1. If we continue to run massive trade deficits, we will continue to hollow out America’s manufacturing and weaken our economy and our country. The countries that manufacture today’s technologies are most likely to invent tomorrow’s.
  2. Continued massive deficits will contribute to stagnant wages and growing inequality.
  3. Our current trade arrangements contribute to these unsustainable imbalances, or at the very least, have failed to reverse them
  4. There is nothing in the current negotiations over TPP that would lead to any different result than those produced by previous agreements.
  5. Therefore, before we fast-track another trade accord, let’s have a fundamental reconsideration of our strategy.

What might this entail? A policy designed to bring our trade into balance might include:

  1. The president announces that the U.S. is committed to balancing our trade even as it expands over the next decade. He puts multinational companies on notice that if you want to sell in the U.S., you will have to manufacture in the U.S. He puts mercantilist countries on notice that the years of Uncle Sucker are over.
  2. The president and leaders of Congress join to announce that we will make America once more the most efficient place to do business, modernizing our decrepit infrastructure to facilitate the production and movement of goods and services.
  3. The president announces an immediate crackdown on mercantilist nations that engage in currency manipulation as a matter of national security, treating their exports as subsidized and levying special duties on them where appropriate.
  4. The U.S. announces that it will rely on the International Labor Organization’s standards for decent work as central to any trade agreements, moving to bring its own practices in line with the above.
  5. The president creates a task force to recommend the strategy for a sustainable balanced trade policy. He might suggest to them consideration of the old Warren Buffet scheme that would require import certificates, each year adjusted to be closer to equal in value to the level of our exports.
  6. The president convenes a task force to define a manufacturing strategy for the U.S., preferably aimed at capturing a lead in the green industrial revolution that will drive markets across the world. In any case, it should be grounded on policies that boost companies that invest and produce jobs here, supplanting tax and trade policies that benefit multinationals that produce abroad for sale here.

This would be savaged on Wall Street, but supported by the public. But it is entirely fanciful so long as the financial and business community believes it can continue on the current course.

The result is the current tawdry debate, which is about power, not policy. It is simply a question of whether the Wall Street and corporate lobbies, now working directly out of the White House, can rent a slim majority of legislators to get fast track approved, or whether the mobilization of unions, environmentalists, consumers, small businesses and farmers can counter the money politics.

What the country needs is a very different debate. The only way for that to start is for fast track to fail.

Get updates in your inbox

Comments