I have seen a lot of hype over the recent bill TPA (Trade Promotion Authority) and TPP (TransPacific Partnership). There are a lot of rumors, a lot half-truths and most importantly a lot of willful ignorance and intentional naivety trying to dress itself up as patriotism.
So let’s go through the problems.
The first is that Congress is voting on a bill that the public can’t see.
To make this statement is really stupid.
TPA is a bill that can be read right here. It only took about 5 minutes on Google, so anyone who says they looked and can’t find it is either lying or just really stupid (either way you may do best by not listening to anyone who makes such an asinine statement). It is a bill that gives the White House the authority to negotiate on behalf of the United States without having to seek approval for every proposal and counter proposal that they offer. It’s exactly like similar bills passed in 1974 and 2002.
The TPA says that while the negotiators do not have to come back to Congress for every draft of the negotiations they do have meet certain criteria by the end of the agreement. Those criteria are in listed quite clearly in Section 1 of the bill: but I will list them here.
(1) to obtain more open, equitable, and reciprocal market access;
(2) to obtain the reduction or elimination of barriers and distortions that are directly related to trade and investment and that decrease market opportunities for United States exports or otherwise distort United States trade;
(3) to further strengthen the system of international trade and investment disciplines and procedures, including dispute settlement;
(4) to foster economic growth, raise living standards, enhance the competitiveness of the United States, promote full employment in the United States, and enhance the global economy;
(5) to ensure that trade and environmental policies are mutually supportive and to seek to protect and preserve the environment and enhance the international means of doing so, while optimizing the use of the world’s resources;
(6) to promote respect for worker rights and the rights of children consistent with core labor standards of the ILO (as set out in section 11(7)) and an understanding of the relationship between trade and worker rights;
(7) to seek provisions in trade agreements under which parties to those agreements ensure that they do not weaken or reduce the protections afforded in domestic environmental and labor laws as an encouragement for trade;
(8) to ensure that trade agreements afford small businesses equal access to international markets, equitable trade benefits, and expanded export market opportunities, and provide for the reduction or elimination of trade and investment barriers that disproportionately impact small businesses;
(9) to promote universal ratification and full compliance with ILO Convention No. 182 Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor;
(10) to ensure that trade agreements reflect and facilitate the increasingly interrelated, multi-sectoral nature of trade and investment activity;
(11) to recognize the growing significance of the Internet as a trading platform in international commerce; and
(12) to take into account other legitimate United States domestic objectives, including, but not limited to, the protection of legitimate health or safety, essential security, and consumer interests and the law and regulations related thereto.
Now part of the bill is that the actual negotiations will be kept from the public eye. Probably because all negotiations are done in private…and I will come back to this point at the end of the article in more detail, but for now, please tell me of a single international negotiation ever done with the public scrutiny of the press corp of 9 different nations having the ability to comment on every offer and counter offer.
After the negotiations have been finished the final draft of the trade agreement has to be published for the Congress and the general public to see, and it has to remain in the public eye for 2 months before a vote can be taken. At that point Congress has to vote on the bill without amendment, they have to give it a straight up or down vote. Now if it does not pass they can of course amend the bill and pass it with amendments but the negotiations would have to take that amended bill back to the other nations in the agreement and see if they will ALL agree to it.
But the short version is that the bill is open to the public. The goals of the negotiation are right there in the bill. The bill must be made public for 2 months before it can be voted on. Only the negotiations themselves are kept private until a final draft can be reached.
So anyone who says the bill is not public or that we don’t know what is in the negotiations is just lying or willfully ignorant.
Trade Will Hurt America
The next problem comes in with the claim that the trade negotiations will hurt America—just like NAFTA hurt us.
Anyone making this claim doesn’t know that trade is always a good thing. Trade has never hurt an economy. It never will be the downfall of an economy. But, linking it to NAFTA is really interesting…you know because NAFTA didn’t really hurt anyone.
But don’t believe me that NAFTA was a good thing, listen to the bastions of conservative thought…
NAFTA No Impediment to Job Growth in U.S.
The Truth about NAFTA: Lessons for Trade Negotiations
Should the U.S. Withdraw from NAFTA?
Forgetting How to Grow
Politicians Opposing Free Trade: It’s All About Politics, NOT Economics, Benefits and Jobs
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Is any such complex agreement perfect? No. But in the aggregate I can’t think of a free trade agreement that didn’t boost the overall economies of all countries involved.
Will TPP be great because NAFTA worked? Probably, because free trade is always a good thing. But it’s because free trade is good, not because of this or that plan in particular.
But to argue that NAFTA was a failure requires a gross lack of understanding of economic facts and history.
Now granted in a truly rational world we shouldn’t have free trade agreements, we should just drop all non-security related barriers, eliminate all tariffs and import fees and watch the benefits roll in (and any nation that doesn’t follow suit is only hurting themselves, not us)…but we don’t live in a fully rational world so we have to settle for free trade agreements.
And to argue against free trade is certainly not conservative.
But It’s Obama! Therefore It Must Be Bad
Okay there at least is some logic in this. Our Idiot-in-Chief doesn’t seem to have a great track record for, well, anything. And whether it’s maliciousness or just being mentally challenged (or both), trusting him wouldn’t be the first thing a rational human being should do. However, this is trade so I don’t see how he could screw this up even if he tried. And let me explain why.
First, the negotiators are bound to meet certain requirements or they can’t even submit the agreement to Congress. If they get those it would be near impossible for this to be bad.
Second, let’s say they really botch it and effectively everyone else is keeping their tariffs up and we’re lowering all of ours, that other nations keeping all the subsidies they have for their industries and we’re going to be required to lose all of ours. So? If we lower our tariffs it’s good for us and them, if they lower theirs it’s good for us and them. But if it’s only one side it will still be good for us. High tariffs damage the country that has them more than the country that has to pay them. If we were intelligent we would just get rid of all our tariffs and never look back, to hell with what other nations do, it would be better for us. Same with subsidizing an industry. If a nation wants to have protectionist policies it only hurts them. This is not nuclear where disarmament would be daft, this is economics where dumb policy tends to hurt you more than it hurts your opposition. These negotiations are based in old protectionist, mercantilist beliefs that you have economic match your other foreign policies and only give favors to your allies. It’s stupid and it bears no relationship to how economics should actually work. I would love it if we just got rid of the tariffs, the barriers, and the subsidizes right now…but I know that won’t happen, so I’m willing to take the compromise that we will only do it if the other guy does it as well; hey, it benefits everyone that way, but rationally it shouldn’t require a mutual stepdown.
Third, let’s say Obama’s team brings back some idiocy that has other countries ramping up their barriers, and tariffs, and subsidizes (I can’t see the other nations be so willing to shoot themselves not just in the foot but intentionally taking the sawed off shotgun to the face that such an action would indicate, but for sake of argument let’s go there)…well then you have 2 months to read the bill see it and I can’t see two branches of Congress being equally as stupid. Protectionist the country over are already going to be calling a good agreement terrible and it’s going to be an uphill fight with Paul/Warren leading the charge against sanity, so I don’t think an actually bad agreement will stand a chance. (Also if it is a good agreement understand that everyone who is against it will certainly be doing it for their crony friends, usually while decrying cronyism, Elizabeth “Dance with Bullshit” Warren, I’m looking at you).
Back Door Deals Are Always Against The People’s Interest
Okay, but behind all of this is a brainless populist attitude that all negotiations should be conducted in the public eye. That any negotiation should be held in public, that bills written in shady, smoke-filled back rooms are against the people, that if it is not done in the eyes of the public it is clearly the work of evil. Because the openness of the France Council of Public Safety or the rather open actions of the Chancellor of Germany in the early 1930’s was so great.
But this isn’t a new call. It’s been a populist call for centuries dating back to the anti-Federalists who would rather have sought destruction of the nation through the Democracy of the Articles of Confederation rather than admit that a Republic is the only way to guarantee a nation’s survival. Luckily the forces of Republican who wanted the Constitution won. But that hasn’t stopped the populists from whining ever since.
The argument goes that all these laws that we hate were created in backroom deals and thus we can’t have that.
This is stupid for three for reasons.
The first is have you ever tried to have a committee write something? Think back to all those terrible group projects you had to do in school. Did a group ever write anything? Even the best group projects in history, one person wrote the document, and others may have reviewed and made suggestions but one person has to write the damn thing. Now imagine a group project on an international level. You can’t have the populations of 9 nations all clamoring on what should be in it during the drafting stages, it just doesn’t work. Nine nations will already all be trying to write this, nine is more than enough voices in this group.
The second is that lots of great things come from backroom deals. Does everyone forget that the Constitution was written as a backroom deal (ironically early populist Samuel Adams said he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy”…even then populists opposed good legislation just because it was written behind closed doors). In fact, I’d wager almost every good piece of legislation was written behind closed doors. It’s not where it’s written that matters. Where it is written doesn’t matter. What matters is whether there is an appropriate time for debate, discussion, and deliberation. Obamacare isn’t terrible because it was written behind closed doors; it’s terrible because idiots rushed it through before anyone could possibly actually see what was in it. If Obama had a C-SPAN camera there with the writers it would still be a disaster because he just didn’t care about people’s opinions or what was good for the country. Yeah it’s really easy to scream at the closed doors, but just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s relevant.
The TPP agreement will be viewable by Congress and the public for two months before it gets voted on. If that wasn’t the case you might have a case for this being a crony backroom deal, but it is not the case.
The third can imagine negotiations that are done in public.
God help up if the negotiations were public. Then foreign powers could enlist publicity firms to make things they wanted to seem popular in the public eye, have every national poll endorsing what the other powers wanted and thus cutting our negotiators off at the knees. Or think about how a normal negotiation goes you can sometimes make an offer you’re not serious about to tease out of your opposite to find out what they’re willing to negotiate on even though you never had any intention of moving on what you just mentioned…but hey can’t you imagine how well that will go if your strategic feint is open to public opinion. Negotiating is like a game of poker, there is a lot of bluffing involved…but hey, let’s try it the populist way of everyone having to show all their cards at all points in the game. I’m sure that will make for a great strategy.
I’ll be the first to admit the final version of the agreement may not be something we want…but we won’t ever get there unless we give them the same powers every president in previous years has had to negotiate treaties of this sort. Yes Obama’s an idiot, but in this rare case his goals and reason seem to be going hand in hand (and I thought we argued that it’s not Barry personally we opposed it was his policies) so when his policies seem correct we should follow them for as long as they seem correct. Yes we’ll have to use the two months we get to review the entire agreement, but that should be more than enough time to do so. So let’s give the White House the powers previous presidents have had and hopefully get a more capitalistic world out of it.