Why would anyone support the TPP?
“Why would anyone support this?”
We’d just finished an episode of the Green Majority that focused on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and one of the cohosts who had been listening was baffled.
“I honestly, don’t get it.”
I didn’t have an answer, and I knew this was a problem. If you can’t explain why someone would support something, you don’t know it well enough to critique it.
The Trans Pacific Partnership is an agreement between twelve countries that would reduce tariffs, harmonize some regulations, and encourage trade. It’s been sold as everything from a generic free trade agreement to the “gold standard” of global trade. On the flip side, it’s detractors have argued that it is an “affront to democracy” that will hurt the environment, weaken labour protections, kill the internet, and “dismantle public health safeguards.”
And it’s this dichotomy in response that has fascinated me since the full text of the agreement was released in November 2015. This difference is perhaps best displayed by the astoundingly ho-hum reaction to the deal from the folks over at NPR’s Planet Money podcast, which, to paraphrase was “nothing interesting to see here, we generally support it.” Contrast that to the near apocalyptic response from much of civil society.
So I dove in.
The first thing you realize pretty quickly is that when you get down to it, it’s hard to call the TPP a free trade deal. It’s about globalization, certainly, and reduces tariffs between the signatories, but these are ultimately overshadowed by other parts of the agreement. Lawrence Summers, a former economic advisor to President Obama states, “the era of agreements that achieve freer trade in the classic sense is essentially over.” Instead, he sees these new trade agreements as “protection of investments and the achievement of harmonization and establishment of standards in areas such as intellectual property.” With this in mind it should perhaps not be surprising that a number of Democratic economists who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), including Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, are now speaking out against the TPP.
So why is the TPP being pushed by a Democratic President? Well, to quote Krugman’s previous take on NAFTA, “It’s foreign policy, stupid.” Summers identifies the TPP as the only meaningful nonmilitary component of U.S. foreign policy towards Asia. And I don’t think this can be understated. To some degree, while activists everywhere bemoan the TPP as part of the continued takeover of “corporate America,” the United States government seems to be making the case that “hey, corporate America is still America,” and that sentiment is what is important.
This fact should give environmentalists fighting the TPP reason for pause. Not because concerns about the agreement are invalid, but because knowing the goals behind its writing should influence our strategy. For as much as we wish this not to be the case, simply put, the environment isn’t serious business. Despite the fact that we’re only a few months removed from a global agreement to fight climate change, the environment is still treated like a special interest when compared to the “seriousness” of military action, the economy, and foreign policy.
This to some extent explains the difficulties that we have when fighting the trade deal on the basis of the “chilling effects” that Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDS), which allow foreign businesses to sue governments if they feel a domestic law discriminates against them, can have on government regulation. Because while one should certainly be concerned that the number of ISDS lawsuits are on the rise, they are still relatively rare, especially for rich nations. Canada for example, is the most sued nation under NAFTA, and yet it only occurred 35 times between 1995–2015. The United States for its part has never lost an ISDS lawsuit. So while these lawsuits can definitely represent a slippery slope, it’s hard to make the case that the next slide will be our last.
Despite all of this, the TPP does have an Achilles heel, a pressure point that opponents must coalesce around if we’re to stop it: its expansion of intellectual property (IP) regulations. The new IP regulations would impact pharmaceutical companies, the internet, and the music and movie industries by extending American copyright laws to all the nations who ratify the deal.
If Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) is getting political about something, people should stand up and listen. MSF has begun campaigning against the TPP on the basis that the extension of intellectual property regulations will decrease the availability of generic drugs, which both MSF and healthcare workers rely on worldwide. These real life consequences, coupled with the fact that even in the extremely pro-TPP publication The Economist you can find quotes like: “The Petri study concludes that a more inclusive Pacific free-trade deal with weaker rules on state-owned firms and intellectual property would lift income gains for the original 12 TPP members, including America, to $760 billion — more than double the boost from TPP,” shows that expansion of IP protection does not even have the backing of many economists who might support the rest of the deal.
And thus, the heel is revealed. The far reaching consequences of the deal are not unique to the pieces about IP regulation. This collision of expensive drugs hurting vulnerable people and the fact that this danger is a result of something that pro free trade economists do not support, however, should be enough to force even the most “serious” person to second guess the TPP. The global economy is incredibly complex and I feel about as confident in my ability to speak about it as I would organic chemistry. However, within the context of IP protections, we can stand on the shoulders of experts from both sides of the issue, and maybe use the words of these giants to fell the beast.
On the TPP, it’s time for environmentalists to put down our own arms and become the microphone. Listen to the doctors, the artists, and yes, the economists. Do not ratify the TPP.