On February 4, 2016, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement was signed by each of 12 participating countries. This 6000-page monstrosity of intentionally inaccessible doublespeak is set to impact over 800 million people and 40% of the world’s GDP upon ratification. Created over 7 years in legally mandated secrecy it is the brainchild of government representatives from each involved country and more than 600 corporate lobbyists. If the vision of a smoke filled room in which corporations make decisions impacting nearly 1 billion people without the input of human rights, environmental, or labor organizations makes you uneasy, well it should. With the fight for ratification upcoming, I urge you to take a few minutes to read the following and familiarize yourself with the basics of just how horrific the TPP is and will be.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS)
The influence of big money on the political process can often make it difficult not to view government as simply middle management in a structure of global corporate oligarchy. The central and overarching goal of the TPP is to make official the existence of this relationship. It is ironic that the acronym for the principal tool in this elimination of national sovereignty, ISDS, is only a semi-circle away from the villain we are told is our greatest threat; ISIS.
What ISDS would do is set up a special court system in which corporations could sue TPP countries over government policies which they believed would reduce their profits or (perhaps more importantly) expected profits. This would effectively allow global corporations to pick and choose what they would permit governments to do.
It is a court system in which the arbitrators would be corporate lawyers who would, unlike a judge in a country, have no obligation to legislate in the public interest. Additionally, these lawyers would not be bound by usual rules of independence and impartiality. They could act as arbitrators in one case, and as corporate representatives in the next. And the decisions of these corporate lawyers would be both authoritative and secretive; authoritative in that their decisions could not be challenged in the courts of the country being impacted, secretive in that the machinations of the court would be exempt from disclosure under the United States Freedom of Information Act.
While ISDS has existed in previous trade agreements, never before has it been as comprehensive, or with as wide a scope. The TPP would effectively create a new class of global citizen. Regular people could not access the ISDS system, neither could small businesses, human rights organizations, or labor unions. Only large corporations would occupy this pedestal of authority over governments.
The Environment and Climate Change
For an agreement which the US government claims has “environmental stewardship at its core” it is curious that nowhere in the entire TPP are the words “climate change” mentioned. In fact environmentally the TPP is nothing more than a non-binding list of suggestions. If you are a person who believes we should be fighting climate change through emissions limits or carbon taxes I’m afraid I have some bad news. Likewise if you are against the Keystone Pipeline, concerned about the impact fracking may have on your community, or worried about the contamination of your local water supply by excessive pesticide use. Any proposed legislative responses to these problems would almost certainly be challenged in ISDS court as harmful to the profits or potential profits of corporations.
With many economists in agreement that the global economic system is on the precipice of another collapse it should be clear that we are nowhere near where we need to be in the realm of financial regulation. Unfortunately, the TPP would set a uniform regulatory model for participating countries based on existing policies which have led us to the edge of catastrophe. So when politicians talk about breaking up the big banks, re-instituting Glass-Steagall, or regulating derivatives, these ideas would be essentially meaningless in the face of a ratified TPP. As millions of Americans know all too well, when an economic collapse happens it does not obliterate the large financial institutions who created the problem, but rather causes regular people to lose their homes and their life savings. The TPP would solidify a system in which those at the top are allowed to make enormous profits while the rest of us are forced to take enormous risks.
If you are one of the 9/10 Americans who favors GMO labeling on food products then you will likely not enjoy what I am about to tell you. Under the regulations of the TPP any food labeling could be seen as a trade barrier. This would include how the product was produced, the country of origin, and yes GMO labeling. Additionally, under the TPP the United States would be obligated to accept food imports from countries who simply claim their food meets American safety standards. As we continue to learn about the harm that chemicals, hormones, and GMOs in food are doing to our bodies, big agribusiness seems determined to treat the world as a for-profit science experiment, and the TPP would mandate us as the guinea pigs.
Health Care and Pharmaceuticals
It is no secret that the American health care system is a debacle where high costs and low quality are the name of the game. If you or someone you know has had to choose between food and medicine, or has had to forgo health care because of the cost, you understand this tragic reality all too well. Under the regulation of the TPP it would be next to impossible to alter existing health care programs, like say with a move to single-payer, or to institute price control measures which would drive the costs of medicine down. Additionally, the so-called “death sentence clause” would give extended patent protection to advanced ‘biotech’ drugs, such as new cancer treatments, effectively making them unavailable for all but the very rich. It is for these reasons that Doctors Without Borders has stated the TPP would be the “most damaging trade agreement we have ever seen in terms of access to medicines for poor people”.
Copyright, Privacy, and ‘Fair Use’
On the surface the copyright and privacy provisions in the TPP are somewhere on the frightening side of annoying. Copyright laws would be strengthened and punishments dramatically increased, while internet providers would be required to monitor your activities. This means that you could face enormous fines, disconnected internet service, or prison for simply downloading a movie or song. But beneath the surface is a much more alarming prospect. Under the TPP corporations could challenge American laws on the ‘fair use’ of material, such as in the case of news reporting, commentary, criticism, or parody, as a copyright infringement. Already corporate media presents a narrow and tightly controlled message, but one that is being gradually reshaped by the ability of social media and internet news sources to influence the public discussion. Historically the existing power structure has always sought dominance over the sociopolitical narrative, so it is no surprise that the TPP would act as a thinly veiled attack on the freedom of ideas and information.
At their heart, deals like the TPP and NAFTA are supposed to be about jobs and the economy. But if you live in the shadows of empty decaying factories or abandoned warehouses, you likely understand all too well that these types of arrangements are not so much trade deals as they are outsourcing deals, corporate giveaways at the expense of the American worker. NAFTA resulted in the loss of something like 700,000 American jobs and the TPP has been ominously called “NAFTA on steroids”.
But we are told that under the TPP the incentive to outsource would be eliminated by increased labor standard regulations in ‘developing’ countries. Unfortunately and shockingly the fact is that relevant regulation within the TPP would exist “except as determined by each country”. Rules which subsist only insofar as you would choose to follow them are not really rules at all now are they?
Additionally, as thousands demonstrate across the country in support of a federal minimum wage increase in the “fight for $15”, it is not hard to imagine corporations contesting a minimum wage hike using ISDS by contending it would hurt their ‘expected profits’. The truth is that when we are told the TPP would help the economy, the reference is not to the economy of workers and small businesses. Rather it is to the economy of what America is becoming notorious for, that is the economy of inequality.
Ratification and the Voice of the People
When people say that the 2016 presidential election should be a referendum on the Supreme Court vacancy, I personally disagree. When President Obama was elected it was well understood that he might be required to nominate Supreme Court Justices. What was not understood however was that his administration would attempt to pass a trade deal with such dramatic implications. As such, the 2016 election should be a referendum on the TPP. While the presidential candidates speak differently on many issues the reality is that the TPP would have the power to supersede or contest much of any change they are proposing. Thus the Obama administration should leave ratification or rejection up to the next President, and each candidate should be made to state decisively whether they are for or against the deal. When something has the power to fundamentally redefine sovereignty, freedom, and democracy in this country, the American people must be given an opportunity to have their say on the issue. I strongly encourage you to have yours.