Carolyn Kaster / AP

Full speed ahead on secretive trade deal

The record of trade agreements past is that the US loses and its competitors grow rich. The TPP will be no different

December 17, 2014 2:00AM ET

Early next year, after the 114th Congress begins meeting, a new Washington coalition will move quickly to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation trade agreement that will destroy American jobs, restrict individual liberty and burden American taxpayers. Oh, and it will do so without any real debate.

The coalition pushing approval consists of multinational corporations eager to escape the rigors of competition, Republican lawmakers who talk free markets but act as enemies of competition and President Barack Obama, as loyal a friend as Wall Street and multinational corporations have ever had in the White House.

The broad strokes of the proposed agreement show it is not about lowering the few remaining tariffs and trade barriers, with a few exceptions such as easing Japanese protections for domestic farmers so cheap California rice can be sold in Tokyo.

At least the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative does not call it a free trade agreement, because it is anything but. Rather, it is a trade-restriction agreement that protects monopolists, large corporations and various state-owned enterprises from the rigors of competition while diminishing worker rights and gutting environmental rules and food safety inspections.

The agreement would even let foreign companies seek damages if U.S. or state rules threaten their profits. Plaintiff companies would not have to sustain damages to collect damages from American taxpayers. They would only need to show a threat to their profits, leaks from the trade talks have revealed. Under previous trade deals, American taxpayers already have paid $3 billion in damages, with $14 billion in claims still in litigation.

Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, believes approval is nigh. He told The Washington Post that the TPP will “make sure the Japanese economy will really get out of the deflation which has continued for the past 15 years. Because we have not yet fully gotten out.”

Fine for Japan, but the pact would add to deflationary pressures in the U.S., where so much money has piled up with the wealthiest that far too little circulates among the vast majority. This imbalance causes weakening demand for goods and services, which discourages investment in productive business activities, promoting a vicious cycle of falling prices that could easily slip into full-blown deflation. If you think inflation is bad, be warned: General deflation would be an enduring economic nightmare.

A poor track record

The record of trade agreements past is that the U.S. loses and its competitors grow rich. I see no evidence this one will be any different.

Until 1995, the U.S. enjoyed trade surpluses with Mexico. But after the North American Free Trade Agreement kicked in, the U.S. trade deficit became so severe that our deficit each month now exceeds Mexico’s annual deficit before the agreement.

A bilateral trade deal with China was, the federal government told us, supposed to result in a U.S. traded-goods deficit of no more than $1 billion a year. Instead it is closer to $1 billion a day.

In 2011, the last full year before a South Korean trade deal took effect, we ran a monthly deficit in goods of $13.1 billion. This year it will approach double that, Census Bureau data show. That’s great for Seoul but not for American workers.

A draft of just one TPP chapter, labeled QQ, has become public. WikiLeaks posted the 30,000-word document, covering intellectual property rights such as drug patents and movies, which you can read here

That congressional Republicans favor fast-tracking TPP has an 'Alice in Wonderland' quality, given GOP attacks on Obama's supposed dictatorial use of executive orders.

Secrecy, complexity and finely detailed rules are the tools of exploiters who can and will use them to crush competition and protect their privileges, undermining the benefits of competitive markets, just as Adam Smith warns us in “The Wealth of Nations”:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Fast track = little debate

Don’t expect a vigorous congressional debate exploring the agreement and its implications, especially for workers, before it becomes the law of the land.

Obama wants Congress to fast-track the agreement, which would mean perfunctory congressional hearings followed by an up-or-down vote within 90 days, no amendments allowed. That congressional Republicans favor fast-tracking has an “Alice in Wonderland” quality, given GOP attacks on his supposed dictatorial use of executive orders. (He has issued far fewer executive orders per year than any other president in the last century.)

Secrecy and fast track are not how democracy is supposed to work. They are also a glaring contradiction of candidate Obama’s transparency promises in 2008.

The whole idea of self-governance is that we will hear out every side and come to decisions after reasoned — and even unreasoned — debate. It’s messy and slow and does not always produce the optimal results, but sunshine is also the best antidote to dictatorial rule and abuse of power.

If you have hardly heard of the proposed TPP or its European twin, the proposed Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, and have little to no idea of just what it is about, that is no surprise. Only a handful of us have written about the agreement, mostly to a collective shrug from the public.

That disinterest is understandable because when all the major news organizations fail to follow a story, people reasonably assume it must not be important. But these trade deals are critically important.

Veil of secrecy

Some of my journalistic friends and competitors say it is next to impossible to get into print, even in the back pages, or on the air with trade stories because officials will not talk specifics. Of course, aggressive reporters break through veils of secrecy all the time, from diplomatic strategies to corrupt and bungled CIA operations like the torture of innocents wrongly suspect of terrorism to labor negotiations.

The real reasons trade talks get little attention are that officials refuse to say anything of substance on the record that understanding trade economics, treaty law and related issues requires a lot of time. Sadly, most journalists rely on what official sources say rather than their own reporting.

The TPP is not totally secret. If you represent any of about 500 big U.S. companies involved in negotiating its terms, you are in the know. The tiny, elite universe of trade lawyers enjoys not just insider power but big money from client fees.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., wanted to read the agreement. To get access, she had to submit to a search for paper, pen, pencil or tape recorder, at the behest of the U.S. trade representative. She told me she could not make heads or tails of the documents — pages of tables with no guide to their meaning interspersed with jargon. Complexity is usually not a barrier for Slaughter, a microbiologist with a master’s in public health and an expert on arcane House procedural rules.

Eventually you will get to the read the agreement — after it becomes the law of the land. So why the secrecy now? Because if you could read it well in advance, after experts translate the jargon into plain English, its anti-competition, anti-worker, anti-environmental and anti-safety provisions would stir demand to tear it up and start over — and where’s the easy profits in that?

David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at The New York Times, teaches business, tax and property law of the ancient world at the Syracuse University College of Law. He is the best-selling author of “Perfectly Legal,” “Free Lunch” and “The Fine Print” and the editor of the new anthology “Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter