President Obama is in Asia, partly to "reassure" partner countries that the U.S. is a strong ally and partly to push the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Both are to counter China's growing influence. While TPP is being sold as a "strategic" countermeasure to China, like other so-called "trade" agreements TPP does not help American workers; it hurts them.
Obama In Asia Pushing TPP
President Obama is in Japan as part of his "pivot to Asia" tour of Pacific countries. He is also visiting South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. The trip is meant to demonstrate U.S. diplomatic and economic efforts toward Pacific nations to counterbalance China's increasing influence in the region. Part of this effort is a big push to get TPP negotiations back on track and completed.
TPP is a massive "trade" treaty between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam. "Trade" is in quotes because only five of the treaty's 29 chapters actually deal with trade. Others set rules on investment, set limits on the ability of governments to regulate corporations, restrict a government's ability to spend its own tax dollars on goods made in that country (such as "Buy America" procurement policies) and other things well beyond the usual scope of what would be considered a trade agreement. This leads many to claim that the treaty is really about limiting the ability of governments to reign in the giant corporations. (For those not familiar with TPP, read all about it in ourfuture.org's TPP section.)
Most Workers Likely To Lose
The treaty is being negotiated in secret with lots of corporate involvement and not much involvement by stakeholders like labor, environmental, human rights, consumer and other groups that would be affected. But even though it is secret we know from leaks that TPP as currently negotiated appears to be designed to benefit a few giant corporate interests, while potentially driving the nail into the coffin of America's middle class.
Since NAFTA our "trade" agreements have gotten a bad reputation with the public. People have come to realize that these "free trade" agreements are causing companies to close American factories and open factories in countries with low wages and that allow companies to pollute. Pitting American workers against low-wage workers has encouraged employers to cut wages and benefits for those who are able to keep their jobs.
A September 2013 study, "Gains from Trade? The Net Effect of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement on U.S. Wages," by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), looked at the effect of past trade agreements and estimated what TPP would do if enacted. The study estimated that the TPP would force wages down (even more) for almost all U.S. workers.
The CEPR study estimated that U.S. economic gains would be only 0.13 percent of gross domestic product by 2025. In exchange for these small gains, according to the study, "... most workers are likely to lose—the exceptions being some of the bottom quarter or so whose earnings are determined by the minimum wage; and those with the highest wages who are more protected from international competition."
Any workers who don't lose would not win as a result of the "trade" parts of the treaty. "Rather, many top incomes will rise as a result of TPP expansion of the terms and enforcement of copyrights and patents." So everybody loses except those who own copyrights and patents.
In "'Trade' Deal Would Mean a Pay Cut for 90% of U.S. Workers," Public Citizen's Eyes on Trade blog explains just who would lose,
[CEPR's] Rosnick shows that if we assume that trade has contributed just 15% of the recent rise in inequality (a still conservative estimate), then the TPP would mean wage losses for all but the richest 10% of U.S. workers. So if you're making less than $87,000 per year (the current 90th percentile wage), the TPP would mean a pay cut.
But "everybody losing on wages" is not a bad thing for giant corporations; it's a good thing. As much as they can squeeze down labor costs, that boosts their bottom line. And they are exactly who is pushing for this treaty.
Enormous, Humongous Trade Deficits
The United States used to try to have balanced trade, often with a surplus. This means we were selling more to the world than we were buying. More money coming in than going our made us comparatively "rich." But since the free trade agenda that came along in the late 1970s, which was accelerated by the Reagan administration, we have been running continuing trade deficits. Then when we opened up trade with China, the deficit skyrocketed.
Now this trade deficit has reached enormous proportions, more than $700 billion before the recession. (It actually fell last year to $471.5 billion in 2013, from $534.7 billion in 2012.) Our trade deficit with China alone was over $318 billion last year.
In summary: the free-trade legacy so far.
- Trillions of dollars lost. We have an ongoing trade deficit bleeding money from our economy.
- Stagnant or falling wages for most of us. Pitting Americans against low-wage workers has forced US wages down.
- Millions of good-paying jobs lost. Most of these workers are getting paid much less now, if they can find work.
- Tens of thousands of factories closed, moved out of the country. This costs us our ability to make a living as a country.
- Entire industries lost. As we lose the factories and supply chains, entire industries disappear.
- Devastation of entire regions of the country. Nothing has come along to replace manufacturing in much of the country. Go take a look at Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, Lorain, Eria and so many other areas.
- Massive increase in income and wealth inequality. A few billionaires do great when labor costs decline and profits rise.
- Destruction of the middle class and maybe even our democracy. Just look around you.
Democracy Or Oligarchy?
The public "gets it" that these trade deals have really, really hurt regular, working Americans and TPP would continue free trade's devastation of the middle class. There is a revolt going on in both parties in the Congress. House Democratic Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have reaffirmed that they don’t agree with the current process and course of TPP. Tea party conservatives and progressives oppose TPP. Even many American corporations oppose the current TPP!
The public "gets it." Take a look at the Trade and Manufacturing section of the Populist Majority poll-aggregation website.
- "95% favor goods manufactured in America."
- "73% favor offering companies a tax break for every job they bring from overseas to the US." But current law gives tax breaks and deferrals for jobs, factories and profit centers shipped out of the country. Republicans are obstructing efforts to change this.
- 84% of the public "support a concerted plan to make sure that economic, tax, education and trade policies in this country work together to help support manufacturing." But that would be "government action" and "picking winners and losers" so it is opposed in the Congress.
- "60% say the US needs to “get tough” with countries like China in order to halt unfair trade practices, including currency manipulation, which will keep undermining our economy."
- "65% consider outsourcing, rather than a potential shortage of skilled workers, as the reason for a lack of new manufacturing jobs."
- "56% believe trade agreements that allow corporations to sue governments, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, should be rejected."
Democracy would say hold off on TPP. But a few giant, multinational corporations and the billionaires behind them want it. So in our corporate-dominated political system, it's full speed ahead for TPP.
Trading Our Economy For National Security Fears?
The history of this is that many in government believe that America’s national security interests are served by letting the big corporations cut these trade deals with countries like China and Japan, because security arrangements should have a priority over economic concerns. So they have worked to strengthen South Korea, Japan and even China at the expense of our own economy. This was a Cold War strategy. Now they are using China as a bogeyman to push the TPP, saying we need it to counter China's influence. Get all of these countries into this agreement and we'll be stronger than China.
This way of seeing the TPP as a way to strengthen these strategic partners allows those countries to extract concessions in the treaty negotiations that the giant corporations like, but that hurt our own country's economy. State Department and various National Security interests give this a go-ahead; they say this is good because it will elevate those countries. Meanwhile, our factories close, our own industries suffer.
Of course, even as this argument is used we do nothing about our massive trade deficit with China, we allow them to manipulate their currency and exploit workers.
The reality at this point is that it is now in the security interest of America to rebuild our own middle class, rebuild our infrastructure and competitive position, rebuild our education and research institutions, rebuild our own democracy. Real security comes from having a strong economy and a strong middle class.
We can do trade right. We can elevate the people and economies of other countries without exploiting working people around the world and destroying our own middle class.
Scott Paul of the Alliance for American Manufacturing wrote Thursday that "A Good Trade Deal Is Well Worth the Wait":
[L]ost in this rush to secure a pact is what the TPP (and every other trade agreement) should actually accomplish: A more balanced U.S. trade account that ultimately benefits the American middle class, which recent reports show could use some help right about now. Unfortunately, America's track record on trade policy has pushed our trade deficits in the wrong direction and weakened the middle class. And despite the Obama administration bromides that this will be a "21st century trade agreement," it's hardly certain that the TPP will be any different, at least when it comes to deterring currency manipulation.
With that in mind, I say a good trade deal is well worth the wait and effort.
We've already seen what's happened when trade policy is inexpertly wielded as a tool of foreign diplomacy. Consider the debacle of permanent normalized trade relations with China in 2000. In exchange for the promises of a more open Chinese society, a Republican Congress and a Democratic president removed the threat of annual review of tariffs on Chinese imports. This resulted in none of the hoped-for democratic reforms (if anything, China has used its funding stream courtesy of our burgeoning trade imbalance to become more belligerent) and ;massive job loss in the U.S. manufacturing sector.
But while China and Japan couldn't be more different in terms of domestic governance, they share a remarkable similarity in international economic policy: Both regularly distort their currency exchange rates to push their trading surpluses with the U.S. high and keep them higher. Despite that fact, no U.S. action has been taken against China or Japan for manipulating their currency. And though there is much secrecy around the details of the TPP proposal (of which Japan is a potential party and is, as the world's third largest national economy, the most important negotiator aside from the U.S.), a rule barring currency manipulation has most certainly not been discussed.
We can do so much better. Our government can negotiate for the American people instead of against them, as they have done. Step back, take a breath, wait ... Get the giant corporations out of the front seats of the process and go back and make NAFTA work for us and Mexican working people and farmers. Make trade work for the American people and Chinese working people.