Blog: Free Trade or a Free Pass?

Pam Linn

Well, it’s happened again. A year ago, I wrote about my two heroes in disagreement on the Keystone XL pipeline. That clash was between environmentalist Bill McKibben (against) and journalist Fareed Zakaria (for).

This time, Zakaria has written in Time magazine that he supports “fast tracking” a secret trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), meaning Congress would vote yes or no without debate or amendments. Another hero of mine, Bill Moyers, says that’s a bad idea. 

Portions of the deal have been “Wiki-leaked” so a select few know part, but not all, of what’s in it. 

President Obama and some large corporations, which would benefit handsomely, are pressing Congress for the fast track, without which passage of any trade deal might be difficult if not impossible.

Zakaria cites politics as the monkey wrench preventing free trade with Asia. Washington should support both the TPP and an ambitious agreement with Europe, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, because “the U.S. market is already wide open,” he writes. He notes that last year, 68 percent of the value of goods entered the country duty free and the rest at very low tariffs.

Moyers devoted his TV show recently to a discussion of TPP with Yves Smith and Dean Baker, who have written extensively about the issue.

They agreed that these trade deals have nothing to do with free trade and everything to do with large corporations protecting their bottom lines. 

The countries involved in TPP are the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Japan, Peru, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. It should be noted that China is working on its own trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a more mercantilist deal for Asian countries that asks very little in terms of commitment to real market-based reforms or to environmental or labor standards, according to Zakaria.

Republican Congressional leadership remains committed to free trade, supporting both deals. Democratic leaders Sen. Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi oppose both deals (TPP and TTIP) but although Reid voted against all three recent trade agreements, he didn’t obstruct their passage.

Historically, Democrats have supported free trade, from FDR, who created the presidential “fast track” authority in 1934, to Clinton, who championed NAFTA.

Those who oppose fast tracking the TPP have nicknamed it NAFTA on steroids.

The current bill, co-sponsored by then Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) and GOP Rep. Dave Camp, is strongly opposed by labor, environmental and liberal groups primarily because it lacks enforcement mechanisms and environmental standards.

In 2007, even Republican President George W. Bush reached an agreement with Congressional Democrats requiring provisions in trade agreements to be legally binding.

Another thing that sparks opposition is that the text has never been released to the public. It increases corporate control over Internet copyrights and patents and grants extensive corporate privilege.

On Moyers’ TV show, Yves Smith cited Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, as saying TPP would allow drug companies to extend the terms of their patents and raise prices. It also would make GMO labeling impermissible. Several states have voted for mandatory labeling of all processed foods that contain genetically modified organisms and more states have upcoming initiatives.

The Internet rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation said TPP would interfere with the basic operation of the Internet because temporary copies are not permitted, Smith said.

“This could make Google, Facebook and anyone with a website a copyright cop,” Baker wrote.

“It’s the opposite of free trade,” Baker said. “Current barriers are very small so provisions increasing barriers or restricting ability to have environmental regulations or health and safety regulations, that’s what it’s about,” he said. “Trade is peripheral.”

Smith said her primary concern is that it would make a lot of “financial services regulations that we now have pretty much impossible. It rules out capital controls.”

Asked by Moyers how it might invalidate the reforms of Dodd/Frank, Smith replied, “Signatories are required to conform to standards in the agreement that has liberalized capital flows and minimal restrictions, so that’s against Dodd Frank.”

“So foreign trade partners could challenge American laws?” Moyers asked. 

In principle, I agree that free trade among nations supports economies and peace. But I’m persuaded secrecy is not a good thing and the arguments against fast tracking these deals seem logical. Moyers and Zakaria both earn my respect but this time I think Moyers has the upper hand. Sorry, Fareed.