I've been on the fence about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
On the whole, free trade makes sense to me. But opponents of this proposed agreement between the United States and eleven other Pacific Rim countries have made some good arguments against it.
So I went into today's Salem City Club talk, "The Trans-Pacific Partnership: A Look at the TPP Through an Oregon Lens," with an open mind.
I'm good friends with Russ Beaton, who gave the talk. Russ is a retired economics professor at Willamette University. He's heavy into sustainability, progressive politics, organic gardening, and other Good Stuff.
I don't always agree with Russ, but I usually do.
After listening to what he had to say about the TPP, asking a question from the audience, and hanging around after the meeting for more discussion with Russ and other City Club members, I now lean toward the bad idea side of the Trans-Pacific Partnership debate.
As Russ told us, the TPP is one of those issues where strange bedfellows hook up. Many on the far right of the political spectrum dislike the TPP because Obama is for it. Many on the far left dislike the TPP because they see it as being dominated by corporate wish lists.
I like to think of myself as a left-leaning moderate.
Thus when Russ said early on in his talk that if the TPP is approved by Congress (on an up or down vote; no tinkering with the proposed agreement is allowed) centrist politicians will be the reason, I thought, "This seems to mean that politically the TPP is pretty well balanced."
Well, by the end of the hour I'd changed my mind. Here's the key things I learned that made me turn mostly sour on the TPP.
Not so much aimed at free trade as unfettered profits.
I'd been viewing the TPP as a way to eliminate unfair barriers to trade between Pacific Rim countries, like when the United States subsidizes our sugar producers to give them a competitive advantage. But reportedly most tariffs already have been removed between the TPP countries.
Russ explained that much of the hugely lengthy TPP agreement (over 5,000 pages, I recall) has to do with non-tariff trade barriers. I don't claim to really understand what these are, but my general impression is that they are aimed more at guaranteeing corporate profits, rather than free trade.
For example, after I got home from the City Club meeting this Climate Progress post caught my eye, "TransCanada Just Gave Environmentalists a Huge Boost."
For many, the Keystone XL pipeline was a catalyst for environmental action, and when the State Department denied developer TransCanada’s permit application in November, it was a signal that the environmental movement had triumphed over corporate and fossil fuel interests. So when the tar sands company announced this week that it was filing a claim against the United States for $15 billion, under provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), many were outraged.
But TransCanada’s heavy-handed use of the Clinton-era agreement might be the rallying point activists need to stop another, perhaps even more far-reaching, federal action: the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP is a massive, Pacific Rim trade agreement that would apply NAFTA-like provisions — including prohibitions on interfering with private investment — to the relationships between the United States and 11 other countries, including Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
The United States treated the Keystone XL pipeline fairly. There wasn't a bias against TransCanada, no policy "tariff," so to speak. But apparently NAFTA and the TPP allow corporations to file claims against member countries for, basically, lost profits.
Meaning, even if the economic playing field is level -- such as a rule that requires cigarette pack labels to look a certain way, as happened in Australia -- a foreign corporation could complain that even though it is being treated just like a domestic corporation, that rule has kept it from making as much money as it would have otherwise.
Russ told us that corporate attorneys have been heavily involved in drafting the language of the TPP. A prime goal has been to get things in there that their corporations haven't been able to get Congress to approve, and/or Obama to sign into law.
That's disturbing. As is...
The TPP isn't so much an EU, as a legalistic nightmare.
I came to this conclusion after asking a somewhat muddled question from the audience that, if I'd framed it more clearly, would have gone like this:
Progressives like me are drawn to the idea of One World where national borders take a back seat to shared human interests -- sort of like how the European Union has been set up. This requires countries to give up some sovereignty so international agreements can be formulated that provide wide-ranging benefits. So where is the harm in the United States giving up some control of what happens in this country, if this leads to improvements in living conditions both here and in other countries?
Russ did a good job of sorting the confusing language in my question from the makes-sense parts.
From his answer, and what he said during the rest of his talk, I came to realize that while People coming together to form international unions is one thing, Corporations coming together are a whole other thing.
As already noted, the TPP drafting process has been dominated by corporate interests. Labor unions, environmentalists, and others have been on the outside looking in. Russ told us that even Oregon Senator Ron Wyden hasn't been able to get a copy of the TPP agreement.
(Most of what we know about it has come from WikiLeaks.)
Further, the process used to adjudicate disputes over TPP provisions doesn't sound like something that would happen in a warm and fuzzy One World. Three-person panels made up of corporate attorneys, who likely would have been involved in the TPP drafting process, would hear complaints.
From what Russ said, ordinary people, or even non-governmental organizations, wouldn't be able to take part in the panel hearings. Attorneys from aggrieved corporations would make their case before corporate attorneys hired by the TPP.
Not an appealing picture. Especially since Russ raised the prospect of the attorneys switching sides at some point -- an attorney who works for a corporation could end up being part of a TPP complaint panel.
Anyway, it'll be interesting to see how the debate over the TPP goes in Congress. Russ had a slide where he showed "pro" and "con" arguments for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. There are good reasons to vote aye and nay on the TPP.
Unless I learn more about the agreement that changes my mind, I'm leaning toward asking my representatives in Congress to vote no.