Odds favor ‘house’ in high-stakes trade talks

Oct. 12, 2013 @ 07:23 AM

A friend of mine who plays blackjack cannot resist asking for one more card even when he is three or four points shy of being busted.   That he experiences the inevitable outcome of losing and does it again and again demonstrates how the notion “this time it’s going to be different” can easily shove both history and math right out of the picture.  The blinding light of an elusive reward can distract us from close examination of risk.

Our country is at a high-stakes table betting much of our economic future on the fairness of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement being negotiated with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.  We need to stop and think and not let “having a trade agreement” or “this time it’s going to be different” hurry us into signing a bad one.  Again, the odds favor the “house”… over 600 multinational companies who get to participate in the negotiation process.

The over-promised benefits of global trade --  expanding markets and  mega corporate profits -- serve as a distraction from the less laudable outcomes like insuring cheap labor, obtaining patent extensions, rolling back or freezing each country’s laws regarding worker and environmental health and safety, and country of origin, locally produced and GMO food labels which may be more of the real deal.  You and I have no idea what is in the TPP, but the corporate “trade advisors” who have a lot to gain and the ear of American trade representatives know every word.  Their interests do not align with our needs and the axiom that not everyone who kneels with you prays with you is more often true when the stakes are high.

After NAFTA kicked in, unemployment in North Carolina jumped more than two percentage points as we lost one out of three manufacturing jobs to structural collapse. Government spent vast sums on unemployment payments and other benefits for trade-affected workers. Though the TPP text has been kept secret even from members of Congress, we do know that only five of its 29 chapters deal with traditional trade issues while 17 chapters on non-trade issues impose limits on financial oversight, domestic food safety, health, environmental and other policies called “investor rights” that can supersede member countries’ future laws and regulations.

Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch dubs the TPP “NAFTA on steroids” and warns that the investor-state dispute mechanism included in the pact “empowers corporations to skirt national courts and sue our governments before tribunals of private-sector lawyers operating under UN and World Bank rules to demand taxpayer compensation for domestic regulatory policies that investors believe diminish their ‘expected future profits’.”

Congress has a role, but it may be limited. “Fast Track,” a Nixon-era legacy, creates a legislative expressway without on- or off-ramps for trade agreements so that they bypass regular scrutiny by barring amendments, allowing only 20 hours of debate and 30 days in the House or Senate vote. Every word carefully written over a five-year period to insure corporate gain must now be vetted for its harm to American families by the Congress, the media and the public.

So far they haven’t been allowed to see it.

The President has asked for Fast Track but a letter has been signed by many members of the House Democratic Caucus raising concerns about Fast Track in this case. Our Congressmen David Price and G. K. Butterfield have been asked to consider signing, not in lack of support of global trade or our President, but as a measure of the complexity of the issue and a recognition of what is at risk. No one is against trade, just trade that hurts hard-working American families. We cannot bet on hunches, hopes or continuing good will. We must slow down, think hard and learn from prior experience the importance of complete understanding of terms and that Congress’s job is to stand firmly between bad policy and every person on your street..

Harry Payne is senior counsel for policy and law at the N. C. Justice Center and a former chairman of the N.C. Employment Security Commission.