Last fall, many folks who follow these issues were somewhat dismayed by a weird NY Times editorial that appeared to endorse the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, while basically ignoring the many complaints about it. It wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but it did clearly support the agreement, concluding with:
A good agreement would lower duties and trade barriers on most products and services, strengthen labor and environmental protections, limit the ability of governments to tilt the playing field in favor of state-owned firms and balance the interests of consumers and creators of intellectual property. Such a deal will not only help individual countries but set an example for global trade talks.
The endorsement resulted in the Times being rightly mocked for endorsing a secretive agreement that the NY Times editorial writers had not seen (indeed, could not see). Apparently, some folks on the editorial staff took at least some of this criticism to heart, and have now released a new editorial that is much more critical of the TPP — in particular, the process around it.
That is, while the editorial still (rightly, in our opinion) supports the idea of lowering key trade barriers, it finally acknowledges that a lot of what the TPP is doing has little to do with removing trade barriers, and plenty to do with helping corporations push through global regulations that it could not get adopted domestically. Furthermore, it directly takes on the fact that the USTR is ridiculously secretive on the negotiation with everyone except big businesses that have direct access:
The Obama administration has revealed so few details about the negotiations, even to members of Congress and their staffs, that it is impossible to fully analyze the Pacific partnership. Negotiators have argued that it’s impossible to conduct trade talks in public because opponents to the deal would try to derail them.
But the administration’s rationale for secrecy seems to apply only to the public. Big corporations are playing an active role in shaping the American position because they are on industry advisory committees to the United States trade representative, Michael Froman. By contrast, public interest groups have seats on only a handful of committees that negotiators do not consult closely.
That lopsided influence is dangerous, because companies are using trade agreements to get special benefits that they would find much more difficult to get through the standard legislative process. For example, draft chapters from the Pacific agreement that have been leaked in recent months reveal that most countries involved in the talks, except the United States, do not want the agreement to include enforceable environmental standards. Business interests in the United States, which would benefit from weaker rules by placing their operations in countries with lower protections, have aligned themselves with the position of foreign governments. Another chapter, on intellectual property, is said to contain language favorable to the pharmaceutical industry that could make it harder for poor people in countries like Peru to get generic medicines.
The editorial further notes the problematic “corporate sovereignty” provisions that allow companies the ability to sue countries for regulations they dislike, noting how it could be abused by banks to block financial regulations (as an example). It further questions some of the predictions of economic benefits from these agreements.
Towards the end, it notes (as many of us have been pointing out for years) that the Obama administration, and the USTR in particular, only have themselves to blame for this mess:
To a large extent, the administration has only itself to blame. By keeping secret so much information about trade negotiations, which have ceased to be purely about trade matters like tariffs and quotas, the government has made itself a target for criticism. Mr. Obama and Mr. Froman argue that their critics have misunderstood or misrepresented their intentions. But that is precisely why the president should provide answers to the questions people have raised about these agreements. It is time for him to make a strong case for why these new agreements will be good for the American economy and workers.
Of course, considering how many times this has been pointed out, and the USTR’s only response is to push out blatant misrepresentations of the truth, it seems unlikely that anything is going to change any time soon.