We discussed the domestic side of Free Trade. We analyzed the duplicitous casting of blame as opposed to taking responsibility for where we are and how to move forward. We now live in a world where the banana, the strawberry, the kiwi, the spoon and the cup holding this mid-March fruit salad could easily have all originated in separate countries. If we only talk about the town we eat the cup in, then we are missing a significant piece of this story. Free trade is passionately defended from all walks of political life. The convenience consumers enjoy when having bananas, strawberries and kiwis at will is, without a doubt, a modern feat and luxury.
These perks and our centric nature, focus our attention on consumer benefits, wider economic integration, resolving global poverty, and strengthening diplomatic ties. The spellbinding effects that the comforts of free trade have on our discourse create difficult conditions for supporters to understand skeptics' discontent.
I know what some people might think, who cares? It’s not my bargain, not my rights, not in my country, not my problem, pennies a day is better than nothing a day.
It's worth remembering that our nation's inception came out of colonial resistance. A moral objection to imperial temptations has a rich history within our social conscience and national dialogue. The Declaration of Independence demands: “as Free and Independent States, they [U.S. colonies] have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” Now we must ask ourselves, are we imposing our economic power and will on foreign nations to the point where they can no longer assert their right to self-determination?
Free trade agreements position the global order, in which everyone must live. When the structure allows for unfettered U.S. hegemony, it's our patriotic duty to make sure it doesn't undermine our national interest and values. Trade is vital to be sure, but there is a significant cohort, especially younger citizens, who fear that our unchecked economic dominance has infringed on other countries’ sovereignty, while simultaneously corroding our integrity.
The ground rule today: if the virtues of free trade are to be celebrated in full, then a more just arrangement of global commerce must come first. We, as the drivers of the global economy, have the ability to imbue a system that more adequately reflects our founding principles, social values and our national character.
You can’t fight world hunger, health epidemics or any moral issues in our world while simultaneously stripping away the rights of people and giving them to big business. An undeniable reality of free trade agreements results in the loss of political will on behalf of economically weaker signatory countries. Globalization has moved in the direction where it's appropriate for companies to push seed patents on sustainable farmers, tobacco companies influence health regulations of sovereign nations, and countries bidding for the World Cup having to change their laws in order to attract major corporate investors. This side of free trade is where liberals demand improvements, and for good reason. At the core of the left’s criticism of the global economic system lies the same dissatisfaction we have with centrist stances across the board—the general public isn’t the number one priority, corporate interests are.
A first step in rebalancing the global scales would be to defend nations’ right to pursue economic interests and fiscal policies independently. That would mean saying no, to the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes(ICSID) which exists to allow corporations to sue sovereign nations over laws that impede their profits. Allowing foreign entities to financially leverage weaker countries into adopting new laws and regulations that seek to maximize profits, often at the expense of the citizens’ standing, well-being and/or land. In just 2 of the 616 cases has a government used the ICSID to sue a corporation, that’s only .3 percent of the actions taken, and that seems like a pretty big red flag. Creating and endorsing an apparatus like the ICSID only perpetuates others’ economic plights, it only exacerbates their dependency on foreign aid, does nothing to increase America’s favorability ratings worldwide, and erodes the moral foundation of our society.
Another area for improvement is on the issue of patents, particularly ones related to pharmaceuticals. Protecting intellectual property is important, keeping the competition from simply stealing an idea and driving new innovations is valuable. However, for many, including Americans, medical patents can mean the difference between life and death.
Fun Fact: In 2001, when generic competition for HIV/AIDS drugs was allowed the price of antiretrovirals dropped from over 10,000USD per year, to around 100USD per year, a 99% reduction in price!
Just as upholding international labor rights can strengthen wages and regulation domestically, our stance on pharmaceutical patents effects American’s access to affordable medicine. And yet, it seems keeping drug prices astronomical is pharm’s primary concern. The left is struggling to form an admirable defense against the industry. ‘Progressive’ New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, exemplified this struggle by voting against an amendment that would make it legal for Americans to purchase cheaper medicine from Canada (funny, where are the “Free Trade” proponents on this one huh?). This just leaves many progressives questioning the political priorities of so many Democratic legislatures.
Here is where a revamped stance on free trade can help the left absorb youthful energy and intellect. If our politicians are only talking about jobs when trade agreements are mentioned, then it’s our responsibility to press them on the consequences of unrestrained free trade. It’s on us to convince them that what is good domestically is good internationally and vice versa. In an ever shrinking world, what is good for the gander is good for the goose because the two, at this point in our global history, are inextricable.
All of the recent talk surrounding free trade deals has been, like much of politics today, reduced to catchphrases and soundbites. It is difficult to have substantive debate and conversation about this topic when the President of the United States can simply sum up an existing deal as “bad” and his idea for replacement or renegotiation as “tremendous” without giving any kind of detail, background, or reasoning. I cannot speak for the President, but I can say that any modern free trade deal must, regardless of the minutiae, exact terms, and exact phraseology contain provisions for collective bargaining in emerging markets, some degree of patent protection for US companies, and must be openly negotiated.
The single biggest argument against free trade is that some believe that it will lead to the inevitable outsourcing of jobs. To some degree, this is true. We will lose low paying, old economy manufacturing jobs—the kind of jobs that we should be actively trying to replace anyway. What we gain is a larger market in which to sell new economy goods and an increase in our ability to promote good policy across the globe.
In order to kill two birds with one stone, all new trade agreements (and any existing ones that Trump somehow thinks he is capable of re-negotiating, should they actually be renegotiated) need to contain collective bargaining agreements in emerging economies. This would guarantee that workers in the United States are more competitive with workers in the developing world in terms of wages, as collective bargaining deals would increase average wages in those developing nations. We can all agree that higher pay in other countries is a global win-win. We lose fewer of our jobs (both old and new economy jobs), reduce the levels of slave labor in the developing world, and fuel new markets that will now be able to buy more of our goods that we create in the United States.
In addition to labor--related regulation, we must also guarantee the validity of existing US patents in new markets. Patents are, and have been, absolutely crucial to innovation and the production of many goods, including life-saving pharmaceuticals. Without the guarantee of profitability, and in the face of extraordinary research and development costs, many of these drugs would never have seen the light of day. Even Jonas Salk and his team sought a patent for the polio vaccine before his famous “patent the sun” quip (it was ineligible for a patent, and was already fully funded anyway—thus not really in need of a patent). Now, I do not believe that there is any merit to increasing the amount of time that these patents are in force, just enforcing the timetable already in place. By allowing goods to be sold in other markets we are already creating the opportunity for profitability—the entire point of patents.
Finally, any trade deal must be discussed in the open; no more closed-door negotiations. We already face far too many barriers to having an informed public with the rise of “fake news” and the barrage of flat-out lies coming from the White House. Everybody needs to be able to form an actual, informed opinion based on the text of the deal and the nature of the deal without relying on the talking heads. Yes, this requires that people pay attention, and actually care about fine details and policy, but without this we are headed down a road to nowhere.
Aligning Founding American Values with American Policies: Puerto Rico
I spent time studying human rights and resistance art in Puerto Rico this past January and if there is one thing that was abundantly clear, Puerto Rico is not a sovereign nation. It’s written on the walls, from the rapid changes while walking down city blocks from family neighborhoods to U.S. run corporations, to the graffiti roads shouting calls for independence. If the domestic poster child of ‘Free Trade’ policies is the Rust Belt, Puerto Rico must be up there (though the list is substantial) for exemplifying the effects on unregulated ‘Free Trade’ policies abroad (abroad, in quotes here because No, PR is not the US, and yet, Yes, PR is a part the US’).
Not-so-Fun Fact: a territory given to the USA at the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898, Puerto Rico was a completely sustainable agricultural island—it’s tropical for Ronald’s sake. Today, it’s food supply is not comprised of 85% imports.
As it happens with economic transition, and trade/globalization policies of the past 30 years have been a heck of a metamorphosis (Ohioans know this well), it is imperative to plan for what will come post-transition. If policies or politicians are not in place to support the public’s economic standing throughout the transition, there will most certainly be people, institutions, and/or corporations ready to take advantage of the shifting ground under their feet. They will sell it as a lifeline, to the people and to the government, but generally it’s a prolonged death sentence to their national autonomy. These are the circumstances that then blur the line between sovereignty and dependence, sovereignty and privatization, sovereignty and colony. This is why Puerto Rico is such an exaggerated case, because it’s only ever been quasi-autonomous to begin with and it’s leaders only ever had partial-power. So in trying to manage the island’s affairs, US policies and multinational corporate pressures, they have been stuck with almost no choices, and yet all of the blame.
Free trade advocates argue that removing tariffs and adapting favorable taxes will make foreign direct investment (FDI) more enticing for multinational corporations. Puerto Rico did just that: Act 22 and Act 73 do a number of things to incentivise FDI, one being removing all taxation on property owned by US corporations, again raising the question around Puerto Rico's political status since it is technically owned by America. Recently, congress created PROMESA, a group created to ‘help’ Puerto Rico pay off its over-70 billion dollar debt which subjects all of the island’s spending to U.S. regulation. Imagine what people would say if the federal government imposed such policies on say, Texas? Supporters of states’ rights would call to secede from the Union.
Poor governance is often scapegoated as the single cause of increased debt, but it’s congress that has created the conditions for the island’s crisis. Loss of industry has increased pension liabilities, the stripping of bankruptcy rights, and allowing the island to serve as a corporate tax haven have all contributed to Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. Massive economic migration to the U.S. in search of better wages shows the desperation many on the island are forced to grapple with. Just like in Greece and Argentina, Puerto Rico’s circumstance was viewed as a financial opportunity for investors. The actors engaging in this brand of opportunistic investing have been dubbed “Vulture Funds”. They are purchasing foreign debt and holding foreign populations as financial hostages and using a position of strength to subjugate those without. This is as clear an illustration there can be of a morally compromised and valueless economic system. At the end of the day, the economic drivers are doing something very similar to Puerto Rico as they are to the working class of the United States—weakening their political, social and economic agency in the name free market policies.
I want to pose a question in looking at possible change: When we spend money, do we think of what we are gaining or losing post-transaction, when we invest do we think of the land and people that allowed the transaction to be possible? My call is to change the pace through which we treat our market system, assign value to the dollar not only in what it is providing for us, but to who and what is needed to be in existence for that dollar to be spent. To acknowledge exploitation in a market is to put one’s self at ethical stake within the transaction. Divestment is a concrete way to communicate our dissatisfaction with the current economic system and a way to actively inject our values into the global market.
The rules of Globalization must begin to reflect our morality, and free trade is the mechanism to make that happen. It carries access points for communities to voice themselves, but what weight can those voices possibly carry when a system is in place to exploit weakened people (home and abroad)? Puerto Rico’s resources have become commoditized for global development while the voices of its people are ignored. We have been gifted with the power of owning and using United States currency. As citizens we can use that power and understand that where we spend can directly endorse a system. This agency is important because it puts power back onto the consumer.
Since our dollars are the same ones used by Puerto Rico, the realities of neo-colonialism are being understood by our generation in order to create a system in the future that is conscious of the disempowerment within global spending. Free trade, we know, means something very far from free people, not to mention, free governments.
Now, what are we going to do to change that?
Conversation with a Trade Activist
Cheryl McGovern has been a long time activist and worked for years as a California Water Quality specialist for the EPA. She worked tireless with the “Flush the TTP” campaign to get the Obama Administration to drop the secretly negotiated free trade agreement. We reached out to her to gain a better understanding of the work that is being done to elevated the the conversation around Free Trade Agreements.
As an organizer, what aspects of the TTP were the most crucial in building support for the agreements removal?
I would say strongly, consistently, and extensively educating the public about how the TPP would hurt America and result in job losses was the most crucial aspect for defeating the TPP. This information linked anti-TPP to Trump (and Pro-TPP to Hillary) so when he won the election Obama would drop it. It became politically toxic. Also, an unprecedented array of organizations joined together in a powerful and diverse coalition to stop the TPP. Groups united against the TPP extended well beyond labor unions and included consumer, Internet freedom, senior, health, food safety, environmental, human rights, faith, LGBTQ, student and civil rights organizations.
When a future trade agreement is proposed, what are fundamental questions everyone (public, politicians, media) should be asking?
A. Who will benefit from it?
B. Are the negotiations open to the public?
C. Does it honor the sovereignty of our country's federal, state, and local laws?
D. What benefits do the American people (consumers and workers) get from it?
E. Who is promoting it?
F. Will it protect the environment specifically and broadly, i.e. protect and or improve quality globally of air, land, water, species habitats?
G. Does it protect or enhance workers and indigenous people's human and civil rights?
H.Does it promote open and fair competition?
I. Will it increase domination or control of markets by certain corporations through increased copy right patents (drug companies) removal of safety requirements (GMOs and pesticides)?
J. Does it give an unfair advantage to some large corporations by reducing consumer, worker, governmental, and environmental rights and protections.
K. Does it have a corporate dispute resolution mechanism that is outside the American legal system that has the power to override American sovereignty?
Why should Americans be concerned with Trade Agreements, even if they may not see an immediate or personal impact?
International trade agreements may have the power to override our laws. This means minimum wage, 40 hour work week, drinking water standards may be eliminated if they limit corporate profit making. Everyone drinks water everyday....
Outside of protesting during presidential elections, what is the best way to deliver opposition to trade agreements?
Popular Resistance and Public Citizens are groups to go to learn more about resist efforts and to get involved in.