TRADE AGREEMENTS: MAIN STREET VS. WALL STREET
“Our trade agreements should not just be for Wall Street, they should also be for Main Street. And the problems that we’ve had is that we’ve had corporate lobbyists often times involved in the negotiations of these trade agreements but in the end, AFL-CIO haven’t been involved, working ordinary people haven’t been involved and we’ve got to make sure that our agreements are good for everybody. Globalization is creating winners and losers but the problem is, it’s the same winners and the same losers each and every time.” – Barack Obama, pre-presidency, August 7, 2007 on MSNBC televised 2008 Democratic Primary Debate
Free trade agreement proponents will claim that they want to do away with restrictions that hinder the free flow of goods amongst nations. Yet now more than ever many of the restrictions serve to help keep the Davids and Donnas of this world competitive with Goliath. If we don’t give the “little” guys and girls the tools to compete, they are crushed before they even step one foot into the ring. Even the multi-million dollar corporate cronies, when they load down their caddies with bags of clubs and hop into their golf carts to set out for another fine day on the green teeing off for the next deal with politicians, military generals or business partners see the point of giving each other handicaps to keep the game fair and “allowing players of different proficiency to play against each other on somewhat equal terms.”
Free Trade Agreements are not allowing anyone into the game except those with access to the private club. The agreements are negotiated, drafted and implemented to maximize profits and advance the interests of international mega-conglomerates, not to benefit 2007 Obama’s ordinary, Main Street citizen as mentioned above.
HE WHO CONTROLS THE SOWING OF THE SEEDS WILL ENSURE THAT HE AND HIS WILL BE THE ONES TO FATTEN FROM THE HARVEST
The problem with the trade deals is who are behind them – corporations and lawyers, not you and me. The US President did not spend his days sitting on his throne, entertaining audiences of his troubled, out-of-work, in-debt constituents while his court scribes recorded their concerns and his court experts drafted them into an agreement to approach fellow rulers abroad in order to promote peace and prosperity at home. No. Only the concerns of those dining at the tables of the royal court feasts were heard. But somehow the rest of us should believe that these deals will nevertheless mean a betterment of our everyday lives. Not only is the normal public not included in the drafting of the agreements, interest groups aren’t either. So non-profit agencies, public organizations and experts cannot weigh in on things like environmental concerns, public health and safety issues and implications for workers rights.
The entire management of the free trade agreement talks has exposed the fact the leaders of democratic nations who have been elected to represent the people are simply not doing so. It is the 21st century version of taxation without representation. The public coughs up the millions of dollars needed to send politicians and government officials around the world to draft, negotiate and adopt a deal that the public is not even allowed to read or witness. Think about that for a moment. If your pre-nuptial agreement were like a free trade agreement, it would be like your future-spouse-to-be having you pay for the years it takes him/her and his golfing/spa and drinking buddies/girlfriends to draft a document you’re not allowed to look at it, share with your lawyers or have something to say about but “It’s okay, sweetheart, trust me, it’s for your benefit, not mine.”
In fact, the trade agreements have been shrouded in such secrecy that the representatives of the EU Parliament were not even permitted to have a copy, but were given two hours viewing time in a special room without advisers or professionals whose language and legal skills would help these politicians untangle the intentional or unintentional obfuscations woven into the agreement. Who comes up with such things and what are they smoking? Worse yet, who ducks their responsibilities to their electorates and allows themselves to be treated in such a way and why?
To be fair, the US government has now released parts of the agreement but it is not the full agreement itself and a very controlled release. So to return to the pre-nuptial comparison, wouldn’t you begin to suspect that the incriminating articles that allow your spouse-to-be unlimited viewing time of adult websites or wardrobe expenditures and liberation from all household duties are not going to be the ones he/she agrees to let you view beforehand?
If these agreements are being implemented on behalf of the well-being of Joe, Dick, Harry, Hans and Heidi, why all the secrecy? Shouldn’t politicians be bragging about and showing off all their sweat-ridden work? Shouldn’t the fruits of their efforts be plastered all over billboards along the highways to give drivers stuck in traffic with no WIFI something to look at and be publicly televised to offer ordinary citizens deprived of the Austrian Weather Panorama a channel they can tune into, glaze over to and fall asleep to after a stressful day at their second or third workplace? When something is as stellar as the politicians are touting it to be, you would think politicians especially would move heaven and earth to have framed versions displayed on every refrigerator and work cubicle from Bendar Seri Begawan to Birmingham, Alabama, rather than making efforts to hide it in some locked, stuffy room in Brussels with no admirers save a few tired, but dedicated EU reps and politically interested city mice.
BYE BYE BUY LOCAL
The trend to buy local products seems to have gone global and for good reason. While friends of mine in the US in NYC and NC have joined local co-ops to receive fresh farm produce from local growers, Austrian friends and colleagues make efforts to heed little red stickers at their grocery stores indicating when products have come from Austria. The buy-local trend makes sense. When you buy products locally grown and produced you are helping the neighboring farms and businesses continue to grow, thrive and operate within the community. Your actions are also reducing the environmental footprint associated with goods that must be shipped over great distances using fuels and polluting the environment. Unfortunately, the trade agreements strive to restrict labeling currently used to promote local products.
Austrians care about the traditions and culture of Austrian milk from Austrian cows who spend their summers lazily munching down sweet flowers and grass in the rolling fields of the Alpine meadows. Multi-national million-dollar diary corporations don’t.
ARE GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS AND PRODUCTS HARMFUL?
Probably not. But it could also be just too early to know for sure. But maybe you’re someone who is still not convinced. You continue to suffer nightmares induced by images of a GMO-ridden future as portrayed in Paolo Bacigalupi’s excellent biopunk science fiction novel, The Windup Girl and have therefore found some sense of comfort in the control GMO-free labels have given you. You can make the decision for yourself whether it matters or not that your corn has been created in the test tubes of the chemical laboratories of multi-million dollar companies and not Mother Nature’s earth-authentic cradle. Under the trade agreements the labeling of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) as genetically-modified would be impermissible.
HEALTH CARE COSTS AND DRUG COMPANIES
Patents on drugs would be extended so that it will take longer for generic drugs to be allowed into the market as competition. Such restrictions basically amount to government-granted monopolies for the drug producers. When only one company is offering the medication for an ailment of the population, that company can set whatever price they want for that product because there is no competition to drive the price downward. So prices and profits remain high and increase health care costs. Granting pharmaceutical companies such patent extensions constitutes a form of protectionism for a private company which is in blatant opposition to the principles of free trade and the promotion of public health.
Some recent examples of how such power can be (and is) blatantly abused by CEOs of pharmaceutical companies have come to light. The first one includes Turing Pharmaceuticals’s CEO Martin Shkreli raising the price of the company’s AIDs drug, Daraprim, 5000 % from 13.50 USD per pill to 750 USD per pill overnight and making himself, overnight, the “most hated man in America.” The second example is that of the activities of the drug company Mylan, which lobbied the US Congress to require EpiPens in all US schools. Then they hiked the price of those EpiPens over 400 % from 100 USD to 614 USD. The company’s CEO Heather Bresch sold 100,200 of her shares in the company and earned herself more than 5 million USD from the sale before the release of a report by David Maris of Well Fargo showing that Mylan had raised the prices of seven of its products by 100% or more and 24 products by 20% or more. And these are the profit-driven Dagoberts whose interests we should be protecting through our free trade agreements?! Seriously?!
See FDA website for information about the amount of money that can be saved in health care through the use of generic drugs.
GOOD-RIDDANCE TO THE PROMOTION OF INDEPENDENT ARTISTIC EFFORTS SUCH AS LOCAL FILMS AND ART IN LOCAL LANGUAGES CONCERNING LOCAL PEOPLE, HISTORY AND CULTURE THROUGH GOVERNMENT FUNDING PROGRAMS
Subsidies currently the norm in Europe (think of French films or Austria’s Bergdoktor!) would no longer be permitted.
USAGE OF PRIVATE INTERNATIONAL ARBITRATION COURTS IN PLACE OF PUBLIC COURTS
International arbitration courts were initially put into place to reduce costs of court cases by making a system in which the ruling is binding and cannot be appealed – thus shortening cases that could last years due to the ladder of appellate courts, and to allow corporations to solve disputes with corporations (two opponents of relatively equal economic standing) by allowing their cases to be heard in a forum that is more flexible than courts. In addition, there was the added bonus, as far as corporations are concerned, that the decisions are not public record and therefore damage amounts paid and culpability found, could be kept from the scrutinizing public eye and from possibly being used in similar cases in the future by additional damage victims in class action suits (which arbitration makes impossible). The problem however, is that this form of parallel justice system is not presided over by impartial judges paid by a neutral source. Judges are paid by the arbitration parties to the case and corporations can re-hire judges for future cases, of course, when their judgements appear to be pro-company. It is a complicated, messy, system that started off with good intentions but has been abused in a way to take away the rights of “ordinary, working men” (try signing an employment contract, retail agreement or patient release form in the US nowadays without an arbitration clause agreement). (see/listen to NPR’s report: Have We Lost Our Constitutional Right in the Fine Print: http://www.npr.org/2015/11/12/455749456/have-we-lost-a-constitutional-right-in-the-fine-print)
THE NEW EMPEROR – WHOSE RULES RULE?
A major problem opponents of the trade agreements have is that all signatories of the trade agreement are required to make their laws and regulations conform to this agreement. That means that national laws will subsequently be secondary to the laws of the agreements. That alone should be enough to make ordinary citizens lose sleep. Unfortunately, whereas many like to claim that Brexit was a protest to the status quo, I believe it was also a “yes” vote to taking back local power. And this is important. This is a lot of what is fueling Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric. He is disingenuously claiming that he will empower the little guy. He won’t. But he has parroted his empty promise often enough that many believe he wants to.
GIVING THE POWERFUL EVEN MORE POWER
A relatively small number of mega corporations control many of the products the public consumes. These include familiar corporations like Procter and Gamble, JP Morgan Chase, Google and General Electric. Consolidation and monopoly is growing, not slowing. Americans of my generation who were raised on fears of an international communist domination should get their heads out of the sand and read Vladimir Lenin’s book from a century ago called “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.” Lenin predicted current trends and developments in which mega-corporations grow and grow, and as they grow, they become more powerful and wipe out smaller competitors, thus leaving in the end, only a few very powerful businesses dominating everything produced and consumed in the form of monopolies. “If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism, we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.” And this concentration of all goods, he argued, is what in the end leads to communism (not the generically-imposed, government-induced, post-1945 Russian version).
If you believe competition promotes innovation and quality, then a continual destruction of competitors through the continual rise of a few, powerful mega-corporations that have higher revenue turnovers than the GDP of many smaller nations, should be raising some serious alarm bells. The state of free press is a prime example of a unsung heroic victim of this development. A little over 20 years ago, more than 50 media companies controlled our information flow in the US. Today? Just 6 companies control all US media. This gives six CEOs control of all the information that we receive about everything. A clear example of how we have let the private interest supersede the democracy-based interests of the public.
BUSINESS VS. PUBLIC INTERESTS
We have to stop pretending that the profit-driven interests of international companies, no matter where they are based, automatically coincide with the national security and welfare interests of the constituents of the home nation. They often do not. And for this reason it is a blatant conflict of interests to allow the agendas of private companies to dominate the content of international agreements concluded between and amongst nations. Interdependence is good and can be a tool in promoting peace and prosperity but it cannot be allowed to come at the expense of the ability and capability for self-reliance.
It’s like in North Carolina when the hurricane warnings are raised. Sure you have a BigWig’s around the corner but when the storm hits and the grocery store is suddenly closed for business until further notice, you better hope you’ve squirreled away an ample enough supply of bread, water, candles and Cocoa Puffs to weather you through the storm. The more we move industries and agriculture completely abroad (because it is more profitable for our companies to produce where labor is cheaper and workers’ rights weaker), the more we eradicate local industries, the greater the danger of positioning ourselves at the mercy of those we have come to depend on to supply us with our essential needs.
History abounds with examples in which the interests of international trade were explicitly at odds with the welfare of a nation’s populace. Look, for example, at Britain and Europe’s exporting opium to China in the 18th and 19th centuries in order to counter the trade imbalance between China and themselves. While the Western partners (particularly Britain) were eager to import Chinese goods such as teas, silks and porcelain, the largely peasant population of China had no need for Western goods. This made silver and gold the only possible trade currency (as opposed to goods) for Western traders to use to attain Chinese goods. Then comes opium. The West discovered they could send opium to China and receive the sought-after Chinese goods in return. As opium became more widely available and fell in price in China, the number of addicts shot up as well. Naturally the Qing dynasty grew alarmed and tried to restrict the import of foreign opium. This led to the First and Second Opium Wars.
While you could and should argue that we’ve since progressed, opting for trade battles to be fought in courts (even if they are imbalanced arbitration tribunals) rather than on the battlefields, that is not the point. The point is that a country’s responsibility for the well-being of its populace cannot be subjugated to the interests of private international corporations seeking nothing more than an increase in the bottom lines of their balance sheets. And disputes should be solved diplomatically by fair and impartial forums weighing more factors than loop-holes and fine print. But the current trade agreements aren’t setting out innovative plans that learn from the disturbing lessons of the past in order to achieve this. Similar to an International Court of Justice and Human Rights, maybe we need an International Court of Trade, Environment and Human Welfare.
Still not convinced that trade agreements are being made for corporations and not you and me? Allow recent historical examples of how free trade agreements are being used (abused) to promote corporate (as opposed to public) interest. While reading, keep in mind the economic consequences for some of these local, small-budget governments that have been sued by major, multinational companies with high revenues.
CORPORATE LAW $UITS FOR LOSS OF POTENTIAL PROFIT
This is an amazing phenomenon that has come from free trade agreements. Companies are suing governments over laws that they perceive disadvantageous to their businesses by making major claims for loss profits. The costs of these law suits can quickly escalate and become too costly for local governments to properly defend themselves. Trade agreements make governments liable if laws to protect consumers have negative consequences for businesses. If you are manufacturing CFCs and a law is passed that no longer allows you to sell aerosols powered by CFC chemicals because studies show that these eat away at the protective ozone layer around the earth and are therefore bad for the environment and public health, of course you will lose profits. And you should. And no one and nothing should be forced to pay you for those losses or allow you to overturn those laws. In fact, you should be required to pay something to humanity for blatantly ignoring the impact of you profit, greed-driven, ignorant business pursuits.
Should public servants who are working on the clock for public tax dollars, be facilitating measures that will subsequently put local, regional, state and national governments’ back against the walls as they have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars (sometimes millions) to defend policies, measures and laws put into place to protect local environments, as well as the public health and safety of local communities?
Examples of such cases are as numerous as they are disturbing:
FRACKING: The Calgary-based oil- and gas-drilling company Lone Pine which was registered in Delaware at the time sued Quebec under NAFTA for 250-million dollars in damages as a result of Quebec’s moratorium on fracking to prevent fracking exploration under the St. Lawrence Seaway. (http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/10/03/quebec-fracking-ban-lawsuit_n_4038173.html)
SMOKING: Challenges to cigarette packaging restrictions – an effort to promote public health by cutting down on cigarette sales through a measure proven to be low-cost and effective came to a head when Philipp Morris sued the little country of Uruguay for such laws. Philipp Morris sued for loss of profits and wanted to pressure Uruguay to reverse its laws. (http://www.iisd.org/itn/2011/07/12/philip-morris-v-uruguay-will-investor-state-arbitration-send-restrictions-on-tobacco-marketing-up-in-smoke/)
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION OF WATER: Metalclad is a US company that built a processing plant for toxic waste in Mexico. The local government refused to issue a building permit after an environmental impact report from a government engineer raised concerns about the project’s consequences for local ground water. When building didn’t stop, the local government declared the area an environmental refuge. Metalclad challenged the decision under NAFTA and was awarded 16.8 million USD (!).
In another case, under NAFTA, Methanex, a Canadian firm, challenged the state of California’s ban on the use of MTBE (a groundwater pollutant) in gasoline in a suit claiming a billion dollars in damages for good will, reputation and future profits. How is a state like California supposed to dish out a billion dollars to a private company?
DIGITAL AND INTERNET RESTRICTIONS
A short video from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (https://www.eff.org/issues/tpp) and Santiago Rocha (sound quality not the best) on the topic of free trade agreements and digital rights.
The winners? The lawyers and mega-corporations. The losers? Working, ordinary people as mentioned in Obama’s 2007 speech.
As a person who supported the Obama campaign(s) and believes in the ideals of a party that says it promotes “equal opportunity, consumer protection, and environmental protection,” I find several of the leading democratic party candidates stand on these free trade agreements, as they are being negotiated and drafted, mind-boggling. But then again, I have find many things mind-boggling concerning the democratic party in recent times. But what’s a girl to do?
DEMOCRATS AND THE SPLIT PERSONALITY REGARDING FREE TRADE
Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have done complete U-Turns when it comes to free trade which gives the impression that aliens have inhabited their bodies and are using them to amuse themselves and confuse the American public. President Obama uses a pro-Free Trade Agreement jam on the popular show Jimmy Fallon to reverse campaign promises rather than fulfill them. Watch closely from 4:28 – 5:36 >> almost a fifth of President Obama’s cool, groovy rap is dedicated to the not-so-cool product-placement-promotion of the Free Trade Agreement. This can’t be the same man who gave the speech(es) further down below opposing NAFTA and vehemently denied reports that he had been secretly communicating with Canada during the campaign to ignore his anti-NAFTA campaign mumbo jumbo since it was just campaign rhetoric. Say it isn’t so.
OBAMA AND FREE TRADE
Obama as US President : Slow Jam on Jimmy Fallon
Below, Barack Obama as presidential candidate, speaking about free trade agreements in 2007 as quoted in the beginning of this blog post and claiming that we need to ensure we elect a president who “is not simply subject to the whims of corporate lobbyists.” A president who will ensure “we have a voice in Washington.” What happened between then and now? What??? It’s like we should be making an appeal to Obi Wan Kenobi to help us out because at the moment, he truly seems to be our only hope.
HILLARY CLINTON AND FREE TRADE
As Secretary State, Hillary Clinton traveled around the globe singing the praises of the exact same trade agreements she now is saying she would oppose if elected. However, her predecessor’s track record and her own topsy-turvy, two-faced relationship with the subject matter, raise serious concerns about the extent of the sincerity of this promise. Will she keep her promise, once elected, and stop these free trade agreements in their tracks, or as President Hillary Clinton will she suffer the same post-election amnesia as Barack Obama?
Don’t get me wrong, I do not think the solution is to vote in a narcissistic, spotlight-hungry, lifelong-privileged Mr.-Heat-Miser-Lookalike. I think we have to hold those we elect accountable to their campaign promises and accountable to the public, “ordinary, working, Main Street man’s (and woman’s)” interests that they have taken oath to swear to uphold. Perhaps what we need is compensation. Not for loss of profit but for loss of credibility and democracy.
AFTER NOTE: Perhaps the real motivation for the urgency of these agreements and an explanation for the about-face many politicians have made with regards to them has more to do with remaining competitive in a world market with China as a player. But if so, this is not the way to go about it because it weakens the ability of regional and local businesses to compete on an international scale and takes away many of the democratic rights and safeguards of citizens in the process.
Democratic Party Wikipedia Entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_Party_%28United_States%29, Accessed August 28, 2016
Read more about TTIP and Brexit in a previous post: https://www.kcblau.com/brexit-legacy/