Trans-Pacific Partnership

I have started to hear rumblings about this thing, obviously from the leftward-leaning types because rightward-leaning types would probably favor an enhanced business climate.

But even the wikipedia article seems pretty alarming. From the way it is written, it sounds like this is a pact designed to further expand the wealth gap and hamstring small business.

So what is the positive here? One of the issues it covers is IP, which seems to me to be already beyond reasonable limits, do we really need more of that? Do we really need more restrictions on what people are allowed to buy?

Most importantly, if this is a good thing for people in general, why are the terms under negotiation being kept confidential?

Please help me understand why I should not be concerned (yes, I am obviously biased and verging on poisoning the well with this OP, but I am willing to at least hear arguments in favor).

From the New Zealand stand-point, the USA is the elephant in the room. We have free public heathcare and a government body Pharmac buys all medicines. They drive hard bargains and often substitute generic drugs where these are equally effective.

In fact we have continual tv advertisements telling us we can insist on a specific drug rather than its generic substitute. These ads are funded by pharmaceutical companies. It must be frustrating for them to spend millions developing a drug only to see it copied five years later.

The American stance on Pharmac under the TTP is that New Zealand must buy directly from major pharmaceutical companies. Funnily enough we don’t agree. That would be a big hit on a small country.

Interestingly US federal agencies must buy drugs at full price but the VA and others can shop around.

There are other US demands such as controlling copyright which looks like pandering to the music/Hollywood industry. Not that they have much to fear in the TPP countries compared with Asia, Europe, and South America. But its still a big stick and we don’t like it.

As for the secrecy, the negotiators say they need to keep discussions and proposals confidential so they don’t get side-tracked by knee-jerk public reactions. I can kind of understand that.

Have you ever tried negotiating a complex agreement among many parties without things being kept from the public eye? It’s nearly impossible, and to be perfectly blunt about it, some degree of secrecy is perfectly normal – and even legally protected – in most government transactions that involve the early stages of policy formulation.

For example, internal deliberations of the US executive branch that involve advising the President are subject to executive privileged that courts very rarely challenge. Congress wrote the Freedom of Information Act to specifically exclude itself – you can’t file a FOIA to get your congressman’s email records on what he was thinking when he drafted such-and-such act. It’s become pretty much the norm in Washington that any major bill is first hammered out in secret, because extremists on either side have an increasing tendency to try to sink negotiations by taking things out of context and waging a war of soundbites.

You can be all for transparency, that’s great. And there should be some way to reveal to the public what issues are on the table that doesn’t compromise negotiations – but it gets a bit rich when people (not you, but those who are anti-negotiation in the first place, no matter what the issue) who want to sink an issue get upset that they don’t have more ammunition to torpedo the work being done.

So basically, they don’t want any of that pesky democracy getting in the way?

Being a voter doesn’t entitle you to know everything that you’d like. One has to use some common sense to know that diplomatic negotiations shouldn’t be held during the halftime show at the Super Bowl, for example.

If the voting public disagrees with what their leaders are doing, and they’re doing it anyway, that’s not democracy. And we’re not talking about fundamental rights here, where “tyranny of the majority” is an issue (and that still wouldn’t preclude, you know, telling people about it).

We’re talking about, basically, corporations writing international laws to benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else. But you think informing the public about this is the problem?

You should be concerned. Very concerned.

First of all, we don’t at the moment know everything that will be in the final agreement, but Wikileaks has released drafts of some parts, including sections on intellectual property and the environment. The content of those sections would appear to confirm your suspicion that “it sounds like this is a pact designed to further expand the wealth gap”.

What about the rest of the agreement? There’s a good article about it here. Some excerpts:

The TPP continues a direction set by Bill Clinton when he passed NAFTA, helped create the World Trade Organization and gave China new permanent access to the U.S. market. This policy can best be characterized as making the world an easier place to do business for multinational corporations. Aside from reducing tariffs, a global policy the U.S. has encouraged since the Roosevelt administration, NAFTA-style agreements have provisions that constrain domestic food safety, environmental and health regulations, shield foreign investment capital from domestic laws, and generally transfer sovereignty from the government to the corporate sector. Consequences of these kinds of trade agreements include offshoring of U.S. manufacturing and service-sector jobs, inexpensive imported products, expanded global reach of U.S. multinationals, and less bargaining leverage for labor.

The most controversial part of NAFTA is the investment provision. It not only removes the risks usually associated with offshoring production to low-wage countries. It also allows foreign corporations investing in the U.S. extra-legal rights to dispute American environmental, labor or consumer protections in foreign tribunals favorable to corporate interests, to demand taxpayer compensation for having to meet the same norms as domestic firms. NAFTA is just one agreement; U.S. trade agreements, including the World Trade Organization, also allow imposition of indefinite trade sanctions if the U.S. does not change its domestic laws to meet the pact’s limits on financial, environmental and other public interest regulation. Recent cases of U.S. law being slammed by the WTO include dolphin-safe tuna labeling requirements, country-of-origin meat labeling and the ban on candy and clove-flavored cigarettes. In addition, states and municipalities must bear the cost of helping to defend their regulations in international tribunals (such as California spending $8 million to successfully defend its right to ban the harmful gasoline additive MTBE or regulate mining on state lands).

I spoke with a few other international trade experts, and they gave me some more detail on what is in [the TPP]. Lori Wallach, of Public Citizen, says the agreement strengthens investor provisions, allowing a whole set of new disputes to be removed from the U.S. courts and remanded to international tribunals run by corporate trade attorneys.

Some of these include natural resource concessions from the federal government, contracts to run utilities (public-private partnerships), and procurement contracts relating to infrastructure construction. In order words, if a government entity wanted to prioritize awarding a government contract to a local firm, the TPP would allow foreign firms to challenge this as a TPP violation. And the challenge wouldn’t be in an American court, it would be held in an international tribunal.

There are also concerns that the TPP would undermine access to HIV drugs and other essential medicines in countries that sign the agreement. A spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders even claimed, “Bush was better than Obama on this.” The ACLU claims that the copyright provisions in the TPP are “the biggest threat to free speech you’ve never heard of.” A former White House staffer told me that the USTR is simply working for the copyright industry to get legislative changes through trade agreements it couldn’t get when the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was stopped.

The essence of democracy is replacing those leaders when the electorate doesn’t like the job they are doing. Democracy isn’t a pie-in-the-sky ideal where a majority is always happy with their government.

If it turns out to be as awful as you think it to be, it’ll probably fall apart like the Free Trade Area of the Americas. And, to be honest, I think you’ve made up your mind on this issue already, regardless of the substance of the final agreement.

I think it’s just silly to expect that good agreements get negotiated in completely transparent processes. There’s a balance to be struck between transparency and the necessary privacy to allow people to compromise and not be embarrassed by their concessions; and right now it seems pretty clear that people who are against the agreement are using the transparency argument to try to block something they’ve decided is bad in any circumstance.

If they vote them back into office after the fact, it is.

The parts that have leaked make it clear that the secrecy is not based on the above stated justification, but is instead intended to hide unpopular special-interest agendas that have already been rejected in the normal political process, in the hope of ramming them through before the voters find out what’s going on.

(In any case, if you actually believe your stated argument, you must logically conclude that the parties to the negotiation should give up and go home now that their secrecy has been compromised. If you argue that they should continue, you are conceding that secrecy is not, in fact, necessary.)

Except that, at least in the United States, every major trade deal that I can think of has been subject of hearings, debates, amendments, and votes that’s taken quite a while.

For example, it took a year from the time Bush signed NAFTA in 1992 until Congress passed it. The South Korean and Colombian trade deals each took about four years from signing to passage. CAFTA took about a year between signing and approval.

You’re using the term “rammed through” as if the thing would be unveiled and voted on short time later. If that is what you’re implying, you either don’t know how long Congress takes to examine trade deals or you’re peddling a conspiracy theory.

Would you like some whipped cream on that false dilemma sundae? There’s really no need for me to respond substantively to such a silly question. ETA: And it ought to be a felony to involve the word “logically” in such a horribly phrased argument.

The whole point of the “fast track” procedure is to take all that messy democracy out of the equation.

I didn’t say they have to be happy with it. But there’s a big gap between pandering to the public’s whim and sneaking around behind their backs.

No, actually I’m a big fan of free trade. I’m not a fan of deception, corporate welfare, rent-seeking and blocking competition. So if this TPP treaty ends up more like the former, I may support it. But it’s not looking likely, and how would I even know, being a big secret and all? How do YOU know what to think about it?

They don’t have to broadcast every conversation in order to inform people “we’re discussing this, and leaning towards that”. The fact that there was even a treaty being discussed only came to light recently. That’s more like “deception and conspiracy” than a simple “lack of transparency”.

After what fact? The one voters aren’t allowed to know about?

When you say that the negotiations only recently came to light, what do you mean, “recently?”

The ultimate question has to be about goals. Should this treaty be designed to benefit the largest number of people, or should it be designed to benefit the fewest? If it is not accomplishing the preferable gain (seems to me any treaty really ought to provide a reasonable balance of gain for all parties), then why should it be supported? At present, according to the wiki article, given the parties involved in shaping the negotiations (very large businesses), the net gain looks like it will be highly skewed against the largest number of people. This might also explain the secrecy.

I think that a sure sign that we won’t like what we see if it is ratified is that no consumer rights organizations have been allowed to participate (or have been given very little time to speak).

Check the publications from organizations like the EFF, the CDT, EPIC and others for their take on the TPP.


That’s my ignorance showing. I didn’t know there were negotiations going on. I found that out when the first Wikileaks reports came out. But the fact that we’ve been in negotiations since 2009 apparently slipped by me.

I don’t think that significantly dulls my point, however. Knowing the negotiations are happening is a nice start. But knowing what they are about, is more important. For example, I don’t think anybody knew there was a whole chapter about copyrights and patents, let alone what was in it, until late last year. The negotiations themselves don’t have to be broadcast, but once it’s written down on paper, you think the people of the US would have a right to know what our representatives are planning to sign.

Certainly nobody felt the need to keep these negotiations secret from big businesses. Why shouldn’t the voters of the signatory nations have a say as well?

Nobody felt the need to keep the negotiations secret from American labor unions, either. From what I can tell – and I’m not an expert in how trade agreements are negotiated – the implication that ONLY big business is allowed to see proposals and consult with the American negotiators seems to be a conclusion that many have leaped to without evidence. The USTR has a whole advisory committee that has a dozen or more senior union representatives, and it appears that they are engaged in the process as well.

Let’s be clear: I haven’t been tracking this issue closely at all. I vaguely knew something was being discussed, but I don’t blame the negotiators for that. If you didn’t know that intellectual property was being discussed in a general sense, whose problem is that? Yours, it seems - since this fact sheet from November 2011 lists 20 areas where the parties are attempting to reach agreement on various trade issues. Intellectual property is listed right there.

I don’t know if this is going to be a good agreement or a bad agreement. But there’s no harm in letting diplomatic negotiations play out for a little while before we can see what the parties have agreed to and whether its a good deal for the US or not.

It seems to me that the TPP is the left-wing equivalent of the right-wing criticism of Obama negotiating with Iran to end that nuclear program: in both issues, critics are leaping to torpedo the whole thing before anyone really knows where the talks are heading. I think that’s foolish. I say let the talks proceed, and see what kind of deal the US gets on either potential agreement. If it is a bad deal, the US can turn it down. (I’ve already given an example where the US decided to let a free trade agreement basically drop from the agenda, that would be CAFTA.) Personally, I hope the agreement includes some stronger standards for protecting labor and the environment.

And the idea that ONLY big business gets input with the USG on this agreement is apparently wrong; and the notion that the agreement is going to be rammed down Congress’ throat in a hasty manner is an assertion that is utterly ignorant of how past free trade agreements have been considered by Congress.

Er, you keep dodging the issue of “fast track”, which is designed to do precisely that (i.e. bar amendments and establish a severely accelerated timetable for limited debate followed by a vote).