In the last few months, trade has made its way to the top of Washington's political agenda. Some news sources have claimed trade to be the great policy debate of 2015, highlighting contentious bills such as Trade Promotion Authority (also known as Fast Track). More so than perhaps any other time in recent history, political leaders and civil society groups are speaking out against the current administration's plans to expand trading prospects overseas.
For the past five years, the U.S. government has participated in negotiations alongside 12 pacific-rim countries in hopes to secure a massive trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP has been constructed among corporate representatives and select leadership, while government officials have worked hard to make sure that the agreement's text has remained out of the hands of the public. Fast Track, a pending piece of legislation, would empower the executive branch to swiftly push trade agreements through Congress by stripping the ability of Representatives to fully debate and then amend the bill's text. Fast Track could potentially play a major role in passing the TPP.
It is important that we pause here to ask several questions. Who exactly are the ones with a vested interest in the TPP? Why would it be necessary to curtail a fully democratic process in order for the trade agreement to pass? And finally, why has the public at large been kept out of the negotiating process? These questions signal a need for a critical examination of how we, as a country, regulate trade in a globalized world.
Recently, 10 United Nations special Rapporteurs released a statement of concern around the TPP, saying, "While trade and investment agreements can create new economic opportunities, we draw attention to the potential detrimental impact these treaties and agreements may have... our concerns relate to the rights to life, food, water and sanitation, health, housing, education, science and culture, improved labour standards, an independent judiciary, a clean environment and the right not to be subjected to forced resettlement." The nature of trade has changed over time. Originally, trade expanded markets by eliminating barriers to exports and imports. For trading nations, this meant reducing or removing taxes or tariffs on different goods and services. Today, however, trade agreements are used to create new rules for labor, health and environmental standards. As a result, we see a host of concerns rise to the surface, with no room for them to be widely discussed in our current rhetoric on trade.
Analysis of past trade agreements (such as NAFTA and CAFTA) and a current breakdown of our involvement in trade negotiations point out one major dilemma: modern trade does not benefit everyone. Rising tide economics is often used to argue the opposite thesis, describing economic opportunity (in this case trade) as the tide that comes in to carry boats to a more prosperous place. Unfortunately, from what we've seen around the world, not everyone has a boat, or a boat that is built to withstand economic change. As a result, we see the damaging effects of poverty and forced migration when trade agreements take effect. Our potential for turn-around as a global society to assist these newly marginalized communities has been incredibly slow, in many cases because the persistent argument that 'trade benefits all' has been so ingrained in our foreign policy. We see this one-sided argument largely because those who are representing us at the negotiating table are almost entirely from the other side of the economic spectrum.
In the case of the TPP, the Washington Post reported that of the 566 members on advisory committees, private industry and trade groups make up a combined 85 percent of representatives. What we have, in sum, is a complete lack of balance between the private and public sector. In trade legislation, as a result, we see nuanced principles on drug patents and optional environmental regulations unbeknownst to the average person. As trade agreements further resemble business transactions, it becomes all the more critical that we know whose to gain and what's at stake both at home and abroad.
Although the TPP has remained confidential, WikiLeaks has released several portions of the text online. In reviewing the available information, several chapters reveal controversial rules that would have a sweeping impact on the global economy. Senator Warren has stated, "If the American people would be opposed to a trade agreement if they saw it, then that agreement should not become the law of the United States.” Unfortunately, this might be a reality for the TPP. Mechanisms such as Fast Track may be a necessary procedural move by the Administrationbecause of just how unfavorable terms of trade are for the general public.
According to an article on Al Jazeera, one bright point for justice seekers is the unique level of "robust and educational debate" around current trade issues. Public interest groups have actively pressed for transparency and fair regulatory standards, which has had an instrumental influence in starting to parse out the many layers of interest behind TPP and Fast Track. Respected economists like Paul Krugman have publicly questioned if there are truly any gains to be had in light of so many regulatory concerns. Krugman has written that any possible benefits to increased free trade would be "swamped by other factors, like changing currency values."
The White House has supported the TPP for several reasons, including geological influence, and the hope of improving the way other countries self-regulate. These ideals seem to fall short, however, when our government becomes quick to compromise. Currently, our trading partners are not evaluated on their human rights records. Were we to hold countries to a higher standard before entering agreements would this not provide more incentive to improve human trafficking conditions, for example? When we have tried to regulate, as we did under CAFTA, for labor standards and worker protections, the provisions put in place did not have the strength to truly make a difference. In turn, what we see from many is a fear that the TPP will simply replicate trends of the past and fail to make any progress, if not put us farther behind.
Trade has changed from the simple economic tool that it once was. It's important that we continue to actively engage in who is benefiting from trade deals as we constantly question what's at stake. The fight for trade justice necessitates creating a new rhetoric for everyday people.
-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she received her degree in International Affairs. She is currently living and working in Washington, D.C.