Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Oppose Fast Track And The TPP

It is looking increasing likely that the U.S. Congress is going to approve a Fast Track mechanism which will be used to pass the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.  This is not good.   What follows is the text of a talk I gave at an April 2015 Oregon AFL-CIO sponsored event on the TPP.

I don’t have much time so I am going to try and make my points as quickly but as clearly as I can.

First, globalization is a process that is shaped by power and current globalization dynamics reflect corporate interests.  Sadly, these dynamics have produced a globalization process that is harmful to workers in all the countries involved.

Many U.S. companies have globalized their production because it enables them to lower labor and environmental costs and greatly increase their profits.  Since they no longer need to engage in production in this country they have not used their profits to fund investment or job creation in this country.  Rather they have channeled them into dividends or stock by-backs, both of which enrich their owners and managers.  The consequence for working people is quite different.  The resulting low growth and intensified competition between workers for jobs has left us with weak job creation and employment conditions that are increasingly precarious.

Second, the essence of these globalization dynamics is perhaps best revealed through an examination of our various free trade agreements.  These agreements, and the Transpacific Partnership agreement (TPP) is no different, are called free trade agreements because the government believes that we all think free trade is good and so by calling them free trade agreements it hopes we will uncritically support them.

The fact is that these agreements are about far more than trade.  For example, they normally have some 20 chapters, most having nothing to do with trade as we understand it.  The US-Korea agreement had 24 chapters, for example.    The TPP apparently has 29 chapters.  Now, we don’t know precisely what the TPP or the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, another agreement being pushed by the current government, will include because they are being negotiated primarily in secret.  But we have seen enough agreements signed that we know the US trade negotiator’s play book and there have been enough leaks about the TPP that we can be confident of what many of the chapters will include.

Let me highlight two of its chapters:

We know the TPP has an investment chapter because of a recent leak.  Ostensibly this chapter is supposed to protect foreign investors, defined broadly, from nationalization or expropriation, but it does much more.  For example, the chapter blocks governments from putting performance requirements on foreign investment.  More problematic, it also grants foreign corporations protection from direct or – and here is the kicker – indirect expropriation or nationalization.

So, what is an indirect expropriation or nationalization you might ask?  According to the leaked chapter, one of the factors that might signal an indirect expropriation is “the extent to which the government action interferes with distinct, reasonable investment-backed expectations.”  Another is “the character of the government action.”  This last factor becomes clearer from a reading of the terms of the Investment Chapter in the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement.  There it is stated that one of the factors to be considered in determining whether a foreign investor has suffered an indirect expropriation is “whether the government action imposes a special sacrifice on the particular investor or investment that exceeds what the investor or investment should be expected to endure for the public interest.”

Moreover, the chapter also allows an investor that feels like it has been wronged to sue the offending level of government in a special tribunal, whose judges are primarily corporate lawyers who will earn millions of dollars regardless of who wins.  In fact many of these lawyers actively encourage corporations to sue in one period, making millions representing them, and then sit on a tribunal judging a government in another time period and again making millions.

The number of corporations suing governments under investment chapters, which are in most FTAs, is rising sharply.  Here are a few cases:

  • Philip Morris is suing Uruguay and Australia, because these countries want tobacco products sold in plain packaging with large health warnings. The company is suing Uruguay for $2 billion.
  • Vatterfall, a Swiss company, is suing Germany because the country has decided to decommission nuclear power plants.
  • Lone Star, a U.S. based company, is suing Canada because the province of Quebec has decided to ban fracking.
  • Veolia, a French company, is suing Egypt because the government mandated increase in the minimum wage has reduced the profitability of its waste management operation.

Another leaked chapter, this one designed to protect the intellectual property rights of our large companies, seeks, among other things, to extend the length of patents enjoyed by big drug makers. It does that in several ways.   For example, it protects “evergreening” in which drug companies can obtain patent extensions by making minor changes to their patented formula or by promoting a secondary use for the drug.  It also limits the criteria a product must fulfill in order to be eligible for a patent, thereby making it easier for companies to patent new products.  An earlier version of the chapter—it is not sure where things currently stand—even tried to secure patents for particular methods of performing surgery.

I could go on but you get the idea—these and other chapters are designed to promote corporate power and profits by limiting public policies that might regulate their investment or production decisions.  This freedom would come at our expense and, I would add, the overall health of our economy.

Third, what about the trade part.  We hear over and over again from economists how wonderful free trade is for all countries involved.  However, realize that this conclusion is largely based on Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, a theory which rested on a few key assumptions.  The most important were: full employment, balanced trade, and a lack of capital mobility.  Now you might think that this theory and its assumptions is just another example of the fantasy world that economists live in, and no one, especially policy-makers, would take its conclusions seriously.  Well, every time you read or hear an economist or government official tell you how much such and such free trade agreement is going to raise GDP or boost trade you can be sure that they got that number from something called a Computable General Equilibrium Model.  And those models, believe it or not, use the very same assumptions.  They have to make those assumptions if their models are to produce numerical estimates.  But think of what that means.  We worry about unemployment, trade deficits, and capital flight.  Economists, the ones that our government relies on, assume those worries away, by assumption.

Even granting them their assumptions, their predictions for gains are still incredibly small.  The most common estimates, using the method noted above, find that the TPP will boost U.S. GDP by 0.38 percent in 2025.  That is a predicted gain of approximately $80 billion, really a rounding error in a $18 trillion economy.  And then remember all the chapters that we know will do us harm.  For example, the extra cost for medical care from extending and promoting patients will clearly swamp predicted benefits from trade.

Nevertheless U.S. officials have been endlessly quoting that the agreement will boost jobs—most often they cite a gain of 650,000 jobs.  However, it is unclear where this number comes from.  The studies themselves do no actual job forecasting.  All they do is predict, subject to the assumptions noted, growth in GDP and exports and imports.

So, where does the administration get its estimate?  No one knows for certain, but here is a good guess:  The model predicts that the TPP will increase exports by $124 billion by 2025.  The Commerce Department estimates that about 5,500 jobs are supported by every $1 billion in exports, so, if you do the math you get an increase of approximately 650,000 jobs.  There is one big problem with this calculation—it leaves out imports.  The model actually predicts an increase of approximately the same dollar value of imports—so there goes the increase in jobs.

In short, we are being lied to—about the nature of this and other agreements.

The fact is that the government doesn’t have the slightest idea of what this agreement will do for our GDP or employment.  What it knows is that it will greatly increase corporate profits and power and that is what it cares most about.  The rest is all salesmanship.

So, the takeaway: these agreements have been harmful—we have the history of past agreements to show us that.  We need to oppose them.  The government knows that the more people know about these agreements the less they will like them so they want to fast track them.  They want a procedure that will allow a simple and quick up or down vote.  Unfortunately many of our politicians depend on corporate funds and so they also want fast track because it allows them to do what they want without drawing too much public heat.  We cannot let that happen.  We need to educate others about what these agreements are really about and we need to pressure Congress not to approve a fast track procedure for approving them.

Things are bad enough in this economy we certainly don’t need to implement agreements that will only worsen them.

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