A Credibility Problem?
President Obama’s remarks to the Business Roundtable on Trade raise alarm bells for us all, and suggest that he is still pushing his pro- 1% agenda for all it is worth. Perhaps it would be better if Congress just treated him as a lame duck from here on in. Here are a number of statements from his talk and answers to questions, and my comments on them.
Trade: In Asia, there is a great hunger for engagement with the United States of America, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership is moving forward. Michael Froman, who is here, has been working non-stop. I’ve promised his family that he will be home sometime soon. We are optimistic about being able to get a deal done, and we are reinvigorating the negotiations with the Europeans on a transatlantic trade deal.
If we can get that done, that’s good for American businesses, it’s good for American jobs, and it’s actually good for labor and environmental interests around the world. Because what we’re trying to do is raise standards so that everybody is on a higher, but level playing field. And I think that your help on that process can make an enormous difference.
So, he’s telling us that he’s still pushing for the notorious TPP, and well as the TTIP (also called TAFTA), and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), even though all three elevate the right of corporations to sue Governments for loss of potential profits if Congress or the legislatures of other nations pass laws to protect the environment, attempt to moderate climate change, exclude certain energy sources from use, or do anything else that harm the potential future profits of companies that are signators to this treaty. Such provisions clearly breach the sovereignty of the United States and assert these potential profits above the potential will of the people which in seeking public purpose goals may harm or extinguish these potential profits.
These treaties also attack the capability of signators to adapt to change and tend to lock in present economic and power relationships and ensure that present and ongoing economic injustices will persist into the future. All of our futures would become hostage to our very unsatisfactory present, thanks to Mr. Obama and his bipartisan allies in Congress who want to serve their corporate masters.
The claim that these proposed trade agreements are generally good for American businesses, labor, people, and the environment are transparently false if we look at the history of recent trade agreements. These have had winners and losers and on balance the losers have been most people and the environment, and the winners have been the 1%. Most people think this conclusion is transparent, and don’t believe the unsupported wave-of-the-hand statements of the President that the new agreements, which are even more draconian in elevating the legal power of multinational corporations above national governments will be largely beneficial to most of us and our economic activities.
We need debate on these matters and we need facts. More than this, in view of previous results, we need PROOF that Trade agreements will be beneficial before we allow any more to get the consent of Congress. And as far as fast-track for these closed agreements negotiated in secret is concerned, any self-respecting Congressperson or Senator who votes for such authority ought to be defeated in the next election for that offense against the people alone.
In answer to a question at the Roundtable, the President said:
With respect to trade, we hope to be able to not simply finalize an agreement with the various parties in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but also to be able to explain it to the public, and to engage in all the stakeholders and to publicly engage with the critics, because I think some of the criticism of what we’ve been doing on the Trans-Pacific Partnership is groups fighting the last war as opposed to looking forward. And so that may be something discrete that we can get done if we’re able to have a good, solid debate and everybody feels like it’s been transparent and they understand exactly what it is that we’re trying to do.
There can be no “engagement” of all stakeholders on these agreements or explanations to the public without release of the complete agreements so everyone can see all their provisions and come to their own understanding of what exactly they propose. We are all stakeholders in this agreement, not just the various members of the 1% and their corporations, but all the have-nots whose jobs may be threatened or lost by the agreements, and whose future will be heavily influenced by them.
Even to consider them we need total transparency. Anything less merits unending street protests all over the country until the full texts are made available to all. How does that immortal saying go: “Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me; ‘er ‘er you can’t get fooled again”?
As far as “. . . far as fighting the last war” is concerned, your opponents aren’t fighting that, they’re fighting the ongoing and future war of the global elites against the 99% and the democracies of nation states. This war is causing people to suffer today. It is not about ancient history. It is about now.
It is about the fact that leaked portions of the treaty drafts indicate that the global elites who are helping the Administration draft the proposed agreements are aiming at nothing less than subordination of national democratically elected legislatures to corporations engaging in international trade. They are not about “free trade.” They are about corporate control of the present and the future.
Once they are passed, they will require more than a single or even multiple elections to overturn. They will require political revolutions to overturn, no matter the terrible results they are likely to deliver.
Nor are these agreements about “looking forward”, because “looking forward” doesn’t mean forgetting what has gone right and what has gone wrong before. It doesn’t mean forgetting about lessons we have learned when we are asked to do an even more extreme thing than we did before, when that less extreme action has turned out badly. What “looking forward” means is projecting out the results of our contemplated decisions and evaluating whether, in light of our previous experience, these new decisions make sense.
Whenever the President wants to do something questionable in its wisdom or rightness he tells people to “look forward.” Have we so soon forgotten where his version of “looking forward” has gotten us with respect recovering from the crash of 2008? Have we so soon forgotten where his version of “looking forward” has gotten us with respect to making the financial system safe for most of us, getting rid of the on-going mortgage frauds and robo-signings, or getting justice through punishing banksters and fraudsters who brought about the destruction of a huge proportion of existing middle class wealth, while exacerbating inequality in most major nations and imposing austerity on everyone but the rich.
Mr. Obama’s proposals do not “look forward” to a bright future for us all. They “look backward” to a new/old feudalism that will destroy democracy.
Q Mr. President, almost everyone agrees that U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman is doing a herculean job of driving trade agreements around the world. It seems to be common sense that more access to global trade is good for the creation of U.S. jobs. How can we get TPA passed so that Michael can have the clear support that he needs to drive these agreements?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I’m going to be talking to McConnell and Boehner, Reid and Pelosi, and making a strong case on the merits as to why this has to get done. It is somewhat challenging because of a factor that I mentioned earlier, which is Americans feeling as if their wages and incomes have stagnated.
And there’s a half-truth that is magnified I think in the discussions around trade that global competition has contributed to some of that wage stagnation. It’s an appealing argument. I think when you look at the numbers, it’s actually an incorrect argument that over time, growth, investment, exports all have increased the capacity for working families to improve their economic standing. But I say it’s a half-truth because there’s no doubt that some manufacturing moved offshore in the wake of China entering the WTO and as a consequence of NAFTA.
Now, more of those jobs were lost because of automation and capital investment, but there’s a narrative there that makes for some tough politics. We have to be able to talk directly to the public about why trade is good for America, good for American businesses and good for American workers. And we have to dispel some of the myths.
Well, OK, Mr. President, let’s cut to the chase, where are these numbers that show that American workers and most American businesses have benefited from NAFTA, and other fast-track trade agreements? I’ve never seen any demonstration of that, and I don’t know of one that exists. What I see is that our middle class has been grievously hurt by them because they facilitated outsourcing many more jobs at good wages than they created, and a few people have gotten very, very rich, escaped taxes and used their immense wealth to buy politicians.
So, I think the burden falls on you. If you think the numbers show benefit, then let’s see those numbers and debate them before we go further.
Part of the argument that I’m making to Democrats is, don’t fight the last war — you already have. If somebody is wanting to outsource, if any of the companies here wanted to locate in China, you’ve already done it. If you wanted to locate in a low-wage country with low labor standards and low environmental standards, there hasn’t been that much preventing you from doing so. And, ironically, if we are able to get Trans-Pacific Partnership done, then we’re actually forcing some countries to boost their labor standards, boost their environmental standards, boost transparency, reduce corruption, increase intellectual property protection. And so all that is good for us.
Those who oppose these trade deals ironically are accepting a status quo that is more damaging to American workers. And I’m going to have to engage directly with our friends in labor and our environmental organizations and try to get from them why it is that they think that — for example, Mike is in a conversation with Vietnam, one of the potential signatories to the TPP. Right now, there are no labor rights in Vietnam. I don’t know how it’s good for labor for us to tank a deal that would require Vietnam to improve its laws around labor organization and safety. I mean, we’re not punishing them somehow by leaving them out of something like this. Let’s bring them in.
And I have a bridge to sell you. The last war stuff doesn’t work, because that war is still going on, and we still haven’t won it because outsourcing isn’t ended, and wages in America have been driven to the wall partly by trade agreements that subject American workers to worldwide competition, and slack labor markets here, with no quid pro quo in the trade agreements or domestic policy that protect American wage earners.
The process continues today. For its victims, this is not the last war. It’s the one they are suffering from right now. The once and future war to prosper in an America where it is hard to find a job and where the safety net is inadequate to keep them in their homes and/or out of poverty.
Also, the idea that in the new agreements “ . . . we’re actually forcing some countries to boost their labor standards, boost their environmental standards, boost transparency, reduce corruption, increase intellectual property protection . . . “ is just ludicrous. The agreements won’t force anything. They’re “just words” on paper. To use the words to do all the things the President claims the agreements will do requires enforcement.
But, who’s going to enforce them? Have the President’s Administrations enforced NAFTA or other agreements and treaties to protect American labor, environmental standards, improve transparency, reduce corruption and the rest? Did Mr Bush’s two Administrations enforce the provisions of trade agreements existing then?
And if Mr. Obama passes these agreements now, will a Republican Administration ever enforce these agreements against multinationals who violate provisions of these agreements? And if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, then what is the likelihood that she will enforce the provisions of this agreement against multinationals? Slim and none?
These promises don’t even deserve to be given the time of day, because promises like them have not been kept in the past. The bottom line here is that the President always decides whether or not to enforce the provisions of agreements that might exacerbate relations with trading partners. And the truth is, presidents rarely employ their discretion to enforce the provisions that protect wages, labor standards, environmental standards, and all the provisions that were meant to maintain or create a level playing field. So, these agreements benefit stockholders and managers of multinational firms who have outsourced jobs, or who serve as middlemen for foreign producers. They benefit few others, because their enforcement provisions are honored only in the breach.
We must say no to fast-track for all these agreements and we need to restore the old practice of Congress fully and openly deliberating any trade agreement presented to it by the President. If this biases the system against saying yes to trade agreements, then that bias is better than what we have now, because it is far more likely to ensure that any new trade agreements that are negotiated will, in fact, and not just in propaganda, benefit most or all of us, and not only the rich and the powerful.
(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)