The trade debate is reaching a fever pitch, as Congress moves toward a vote on whether to pass fast track trade authority that will grease the skids for the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership deal and other trade deals.
The debate features the most unlikely bedfellows. President Obama is going all out for fast track, lining up with the Republican congressional leadership and the Chamber of Commerce and business lobby that have obstructed virtually all of his agenda. The opposition is led by the vast majority of Democrats in the Congress, virtually the entire activist base of the Democratic Party and the entirety of the labor movement, all of whom have stood with the president in the trenches.
With Republicans in charge of the Congress and the business lobby writing checks, the president has the most powerful coalition and the least convincing argument. His argument in favor of fast track and TPP runs up against history, reality and equity.
The history of our trade accords since NAFTA and the WTO is one of unprecedented trade deficits. Companies have shipped good jobs abroad. Countries have rigged their currencies to capture our markets. Incomes have stagnated and working people have paid the price.
Every president promises that this time is different, that this deal will expand exports and create jobs. In fact, each deal does expand exports, but each expands imports even more and costs far more jobs than they create. Worse, they drive down wages here in order to compete with oppressed wages aboard. There is no longer any question that the way we have run our trade and tax policies has contributed to declining wages and increasing insecurity here at home.
The reality that fast track proponents must face is that the current system of trade is out of whack. Capital has been globalized, but human rights and worker rights have not. The result is an uneven playing field in which more and more of the rewards of growth go to those at the top, and less and less goes to workers here at home.
The president, like all presidents before him, says this time is different. But the reality is that this deal was negotiated with corporate interests at the table and the American people locked out of the room. The U.S. government has pushed hard to give the drug companies special protections (raising drug prices abroad). Special licensing requirements shield doctors and lawyers from competition with lower wage professionals from abroad. Foreign corporations get their own private legal system to pressure government. Workers and environmentalists get nice words, but no right of action.
President Obama, if he had his way, would create an economy that could work for working people. He’d raise the minimum wage, increase the ability of workers to organize, provide extensive retraining and benefits for workers displaced by trade or technology, capture the lead in the green industrial revolution and much more. But the very allies who stand with him on fast track oppose every measure that might make fast track and TPP work for working people. The president argues the case for a level playing field, but his allies — the Republican majorities in Congress, the business lobby — keep the field slanted against working people.
Today, America is plagued by extreme inequality. The country known as the land of opportunity offers its citizens less opportunity than other developed nations. The American dream has become a fantasy. Our global policies aren’t the only reason for this, but they are one contributor to it. The cycle of drugs-in-jobs-out must end. We need to go another way. Fast track sends us the wrong way.