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The Trans-Pacific Partnership: What “Free Trade” Actually Means
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
The following is part 3 of a three-part exclusive series on the Trans-Pacific Partnership for Occupy.com
To discuss “free trade agreements” or the “free market,” we must first identify the theoretical versus the functional definitions of these terms – because theoretical definitions look at what those terms should mean, whereas functional definitions look at what the terms mean actually.
The theoretical definition of a “free market” is one in which every individual actor in the realm of exchange exists in a state of equality of opportunity; where all compete with one another to produce the best products at the cheapest prices for consumers, thus the most innovative and efficient producers succeed while others fail, unregulated – and unhelped – by the state. Within “free markets,” what we call “free trade agreements” are meant to reduce barriers such as tariffs, subsidies and regulations so that market “competitors” can freely move products and goods across borders and compete in an ever-expanding global “free market.”
The functional, or technical, definition of a “free market” is one in which the state regulates the market – the realm of economic exchange and activity – for the benefit of large transnational corporations and banks.
Barriers to profits, such as environmental, labor, safety and financial regulations, are dismantled. Meanwhile, subsidies and legal rights and protections are granted to major corporations, undermining competition and supporting monopolization. So while the rhetoric of “free markets” tends to be all about reducing state interference in the economy, in actuality state interference increases – but only for the benefit of large corporations and banks.
At the same time, state “interference” decreases in sectors that benefit the actual population, such as welfare, social services, pensions, healthcare, education, labor protections and so on. In the actual “free market,” these protections are dismantled, subjecting populations to “market discipline” quite unlike the large corporations and banks that receive direct protection against “market discipline.” The most obvious example of this is the post-2008 bank bailouts.
In a theoretical “free market,” all the banks that gambled badly would have failed and collapsed. But with the functional “free market” we have today, the banks went to the state and got bailed out with trillions of dollars of taxpayer money.
The same dichotomy exists for the term “free trade agreement,” which in theory is the opposite of “protectionism,” where states intervene in the market by establishing tariffs, regulations, subsidies and protections for various imports and exports, thus undermining the “free market.”
The technical definition, however, is one in which protectionism is rampant, with enormous subsidies and protective barriers, and very often includes thousands of pages of regulations and provisions. But because all of this is done to protect corporate and financial interests, it is called “free trade.” It is “protectionism” if the barriers, regulations and protections benefit the nation or population and prevent transnational corporations and banks from having unhindered access to the “market”?
Likewise, is it “free trade” if the barriers, regulations, and protections benefit corporations and banks at the expense of the nation and population? In actuality, so-called “free trade” is a drain on the economy, creates enormous national debts, undermines labor, creates poverty and exploitation, wastes natural resources and devastates the environment. However, it is very profitable for banks and corporations, so is endlessly repeated as something “good” and “necessary.”
In theory, “free trade” would enhance competition because it would allow all parties to compete on an even playing field internationally, thus companies would have to find ways to lower their costs of production while increasing their product standards, ultimately decreasing the final price to consumers. In this theoretical form of “free trade,” the best and cheapest product, the company that made it, and the consumer and society as a whole would all benefit.
The reality is the exact opposite: the production cycle is broken up (this is commonly called “offshoring”), which increases the use of transportation, resources and the overall cost of production, making the final product more expensive to consumers. Case in point is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), where competition between corporations is undermined while access to resources and markets is enhanced, subsidized and protected.
Corporate cooperation with each other and the state is enhanced while the poor, working and middle classes of Canada, the United States and Mexico are put in direct competition with each other. Corporations in Canada and the U.S. close their factories and move them to Mexico where labor is cheaper, increasing unemployment and poverty, destroying unions and labor protections, and forcing down wages while costs and corporate profits increase.
The role of the state is to regulate these markets and agreements for the benefit of the corporations and banks, and to force the populations to compete with each other in a race to the bottom: market monopolization for the elite, and market discipline for the population.
The break-up of the production cycle, especially from the late 1980s onward, has redefined what “trade” actually is. Typically, we think of trade as a system where countries export and import products or goods. With the era of “free trade,” the production cycle was no longer confined within national borders, and was broken up between several countries.
The result was that a large percentage of what we call “trade” is actually one corporation moving parts or goods to a subsidiary or another corporation in a different country, to continue the production cycle until it returns to the home country as a finished product for consumption.
This is referred to as “intra-industry trade” (transporting parts or goods between corporations) or “intra-firm trade” (transporting parts or goods between a corporation and its subsidiaries). When the parts move across borders, often several times before the final product is created, customs agents at borders register the cumulative value of those products as a “traded” good, and these numbers are then used to determine the “actual contribution” of that good to the economy.
For example, a product which has parts manufactured in Canada, assembled in Mexico, and sold in the United States, would have to cross borders several times before it becomes a final product. Each time the parts cross a border, the total value of those parts at that time of transport gets registered as an import/export, instead of differentiating between the value added at each part of the production cycle. Thus, the statistics of exports and imports become heavily skewed and inflated since they do not account for “value-added.” While the production cycle is broken up over several countries, the determination of “value” is not broken up to fit the actual trading system as it exists.
For a hypothetical comparison to reveal how absurd this process is, imagine a country that attempts to measure the total education of its population by including in its statistics the degrees and credentials of all the tourists who entered the country for short periods of time. The recorded education level of the country’s population would be enormously inflated, since the educated tourists entering the nation would not be staying and contributing their education to the benefit of the society. Something similar happens when parts move across borders several times before they become a finished product, yet have their total value registered each time they cross a border.
According to a report from a Canadian think tank, the Conference Board of Canada, if countries were to apply a “value-added” measurement of trade instead of using inflated numbers applied to the cumulative value of a good, the actual contribution of trade to a country would rapidly diminish. In conventional measurements, trade accounts for 35% of Canada’s economy, but with the value-added measurement, it drops to 24%. These manipulations are important because they serve as a basis for claiming that countries like Canada are “trade dependent” nations, which justify implementing more “free trade” agreements.
When a country imports more than it exports, it builds up a large amount of debt called a trade deficit. When a country exports more than it imports, it establishes a trade surplus. However, because the process of determining the value of imports and exports is enormously inflated and misleading, countries are saddled with inflated and inaccurate debts. They are then pressured into reducing those debts through austerity measures, which punish those countries’ populations into poverty.
Apple is a great example of this process, often hailed as one of the great corporate success stories, being enormously profitable and therefore “good for the economy.” As the Asian Development Bank Institute in Tokyo reported in 2010, while Apple is a U.S.-based company, the iPhone is itself considered to be a Chinese export to the U.S. The iPhone is produced in many different pieces and parts through several Asian and European countries, which are then transported to China where they are assembled and shipped to the United States and elsewhere.
The estimated value of the Chinese laborers in assembling the iPhone was 3.6% (or $6.50) of the total value of the finished product, estimated at $178.96 in 2009. Yet, the wholesale cost of the shipped iPhone is credited to China as an export. China was merely the last stop in the production cycle, but China records the total value of the finished product as an export, while the United States records it as an import. Thus, the researchers at the Asian Development Bank Institute concluded that “even high-tech products invented by U.S. companies will not increase U.S. exports.”
Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), commented, “What we call ‘Made in China’ is indeed assembled in China, but what makes up the commercial value of the product comes from the numerous countries… The concept of country of origin for manufactured goods has gradually become obsolete.”
If trade statistics were adjusted to reflect the actual value contributed to a given product by a country, the U.S. trade deficit with China (which in 2010 stood at $226.88 billion) would likely be cut in half. In 2009, the iPhone left the United States with a $1.9 billion trade deficit with China, but if the value-added approach to determining trade statistics were applied, the United States would have a $48 million trade surplus with China (in relation to the iPhone alone).
With the production cycle broken up and scattered around the globe, this adds enormous costs to transportation of equipment, machinery, goods and products between these nations, which in turn requires enormous quantities of oil and fuel to facilitate this transport system, and thus produces unnecessary amounts of pollution. Because of the high costs of transportation, fuel, and assembly, the value of the end product goes up, making it far more costly than if it were simply produced in one or two countries.
With countries determining their exports and imports based on inflated and inaccurate statistics, populations are saddled with enormous debts and thus the financial cost of breaking up the production cycle lands on the shoulders of the population, who were already subjected to increased competition between labor forces, reduced environmental and social protections, dismantled subsidies and regulations, increased personal debt and poverty.
So if “free trade agreements” are bad for people, bad for labor – at home and abroad – and bad for the environment and the nation as a whole, why are they pursued?
The answer is simple: they create enormous profits for banks and corporations, whose losses are subsidized by the state. In an actual “free market,” breaking up the production cycle would be far too costly to be a rational choice for a corporation, but because the state takes on the cost of doing so (largely through its trade deficit), the process continues.
When it comes to agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it is not difficult to see what the results will be: increased subsidies, protections and regulations for the benefit of large corporations and banks (notably the 600 corporations involved in secretly drafting the agreement over recent years) and decreased protections, subsidies and regulations that benefit the population, environment and society as a whole.
The TPP advances corporate monopolistic protections through intellectual property rights; undermines labor protections, putting the working class of 11 different nations in direct competition with one another; dismantles environmental protections and financial regulations; and expands corporate rights and privileges to allow undemocratic corporate institutions to challenge national laws through an unaccountable international tribunal of corporate lawyers who are given powers to overturn national laws or demand immense compensation from any nations that hinder those corporations’ “potential profits,” thus further increasing the heavy cost of “free trade.”
The Occupy movement and other activists have a strong mandate to oppose the TPP and all related “free trade agreements.” Popular opinion is swinging against “free trade” as people seem instinctively to recognize – even without all the details – that such agreements undermine labor, increase debt and benefit only the rich.
But while public opinion may oppose the TPP in principle, the bigger problem is that “the public” does not know the TPP even exists. This is a challenge that the Occupy movement can step up to: promoting an educational campaign that crosses borders, organizing international protests and actions against the TPP, and establishing a “free market” of resistance based upon the “free trade” of information.
As corporate rights expand and democratic rights decrease, so must people demand an end to the TPP. Organized resistance, information and action have stopped “free trade agreements” in the past, and they can – and must – do so in the future. The coming corporate tyranny of the Trans-Pacific Partnership can only be defeated through a democratic movement of Transnational People Power.
Our already frail and dying democratic institutions lack the capacity to take up the challenge, so the challenge now rests with the people alone.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, with a focus on studying the ideas, institutions, and individuals of power and resistance across a wide spectrum of social, political, economic, and historical spheres. He has been published in AlterNet, CounterPunch, Occupy.com, Truth-Out, RoarMag, and a number of other alternative media groups, and regularly does radio, Internet, and television interviews with both alternative and mainstream news outlets. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project and has a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership: This is What Corporate Governance Looks Like
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
The following is the first installment of a three-part exclusive for Occupy.com on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Originally published at Occupy.com
In 2008, the United States Trade Representative Susan Schwab announced the U.S. entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks as “a pathway to broader Asia-Pacific regional economic integration.” Originating in 2005 as a “Strategic Economic Partnership” between a few select Pacific countries, the TPP has, as of October 2012, expanded to include 11 nations in total: the United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia, with the possibility of several more joining in the future.
What makes the TPP unique is not simply the fact that it may be the largest “free trade agreement” ever negotiated, nor even the fact that only two of its roughly 26 articles actually deal with “trade,” but that it is also the most secretive trade negotiations in history, with no public oversight, input, or consultations.
Since the Obama administration came to power in January of 2009, the Trans-Pacific Partnership has become a quiet priority for the U.S., which overtook the leadership role in the “trade agreement” talks. In 2010, when Malaysia joined the TPP, the Wall Street Journal suggested that the “free-trade pact” could “serve as a counterweight to China’s economic influence,” with Japan and the Philippines both expressing interest in joining the talks.
In the meantime, the Obama administration and other participating nations have been consulting and negotiating not only with each other, but with roughly 600 corporations involved. The TPP is accelerating the most dangerous free market policies of previous U.S. administrations, bestowing unprecedented powers and privileges upon Trans-National Corporations (TNCs) while dismantling regulations and laws without any democratic oversight or input.
This three-part investigative series examines the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a legally binding trade agreement for advancing transnational corporate tyranny and dismantling domestic democratic accountability.
I. Trade Representatives: The Global Corporate Lobby
Who negotiates trade agreements? The answer is simple: trade representatives. The term “trade representative” is essentially another way of saying “corporate lobbyist.”
To prove this point, it would be useful to quickly glance over the biographies of the important U.S. Trade Representatives (USTR) since the George H.W. Bush administration, when USTR Carla A. Hills was lead negotiator for NAFTA and the WTO.
Embedded within the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Hills had a long career in government and was the USTR from 1989 to 1993, after which she established and became CEO of Hills & Company, an international consulting firm with a focus on global trade and investment for clients such as the Coca-Cola Company, Procter & Gamble, American International Group (AIG), Novartis, Bechtel, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Inter-American Development Bank, Pfizer and Chevron.
A few accolades: Hills is a member of the board of the Council on Foreign Relations, Gilead Sciences, and is on international advisory boards for Rolls Royce, the Coca-Cola Company and JPMorgan Chase. She is also a member of the Trilateral Commission, the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Following Hill, from 1993 to 1997, the U.S. Trade Representative was Michael Kantor, who now advises corporate clients as a partner in the law firm Mayer-Brown. A member of the board of CBRE (a real estate services company), Kantor also serves on the advisory boards of ING USA and Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm.
Next in line, from 1997 to 2001 the USTR was Charlene Barshefsky, who is now on the boards of American Express, the Estée Lauder Company and Intel; like Hill, she is a member of both the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations.
The USTR from 2001 to 2005 was Robert Zoellick, who afterwards served as Deputy Secretary of State, Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs from 2006 to 2007, and President of the World Bank from 2007 to 2012. Following Zoellick, from 2005 to 2006, the USTR was Rob Portman, a U.S. Senator who was a possible running mate for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
And only after him did Susan Schwab, the USTR from 2006 to 2009, commit the U.S. to joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Schwab has since joined the boards of FedEx, Caterpillar and Boeing. Based on the evidence of her and her predecessors’ tenures, it is safe to say there has been a significant interchange between “trade representatives” and “corporate representatives” — to the point where it is almost impossible to distinguish them apart.
Now let’s get even more caught up to speed on appointed “government officials” so we can know exactly what we’re talking about.
In 2008, as Obama was campaigning for president, he stated, “I have done more to take on lobbyists than any other candidate in this race. I don’t take a dime of their money, and when I am president, they won’t find a job in my White House.”
Within a week of becoming president, Obama changed his mind and his “transition team” (responsible for selecting the Obama cabinet) became co-chaired by John Podesta, co-founder with his brother Tony Podesta of the Podesta Group, a major Washington lobbying firm.
Podesta was Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff and, as co-chair of Obama’s transition team, he declared his team was implementing “rules that are the strictest, the most far-reaching ethics rules of any transition team in history.” A top lobbyist whose firm has represented clients ranging from Wal-Mart, BP and Lockheed Martin to the Egyptian military dictatorship, Podesta appeared the ideal figure to implement Obama’s “strict” rules against hiring corporate lobbyists, right?
A little further background: the Podesta Group counts among its recent lobbying successes the stalling of a Senate bill which was calling on Egypt “to curtail human rights abuses.” The Group’s website also boasts that it “challenged” Wall Street reform after “one of the world’s largest banking firms came to the Podesta Group seeking help with their opposition” to proposed regulations for banks.
Thus, it should come as little surprise that part of the “strictest” and most “far-reaching ethics rules” announced by John Podesta in relation to lobbying was that no official could be appointed to the Obama administration if s/he had been an active lobbyist within the previous two years. Luckily for Ron Kirk, Obama’s U.S. Trade Representative, these “strict” rules only applied to the Washington D.C. area; and since Kirk was a corporate lobbyist in Austin, Texas, for the investment bank Merrill Lynch (before it was taken over by Bank of America in 2008), the “far-reaching ethics” promised by Podesta didn’t reach Kirk.
Kirk’s main priority since becoming USTR has been the Trans-Pacific Partnership, worked on in secret for nearly four years with several other countries and 600 corporations. President Obama has called it “a next-generation trade agreement” and a “model” for future agreements.
But not everyone agrees.
In May of 2012, more than 30 legal scholars from nations that will be affected by the TPP signed a letter addressed to USTR Kirk expressing their “profound concern and disappointment at the lack of public participation, transparency and open government processes in the negotiation” of the TPP.
In late June of 2012, more than 130 members of Congress followed this up with a letter that they signed and sent to Kirk urging transparency in TPP negotiations, and an inclusion of Congressional consultations, stating: “We are troubled that important policy decisions are being made without full input from Congress.”
In his not-to-worry response, Kirk reassured the public: “I believe … that we have very faithfully operated within the spirit of the Obama administration to have the most engaged and transparent process as we possibly could.”
Meanwhile, the TPP has received strong endorsements from large transnational corporations and their official lobbies, such as Thomas Donohue, the CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who told the Financial Times that, “[t]his must be an agreement with high standards. These standards will set the bar on regulatory coherence, investment and intellectual property.”
Part of these “high standards,” according to a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group (APEC), are “deep commitments that go beyond tariff reduction and pass existing World Trade Organization standards.” In other words, it goes far beyond “trade.” This was confirmed by Iwan Azis, the head of the Asian Development Bank’s regional integration office, who stated that the TPP was intended to deal with “behind the border” issues, typically decided by domestic policy, and “which go beyond the normal scope of trade agreements” including issues of labor, environmental and intellectual property standards.
Azis commented: “As a concept, this is definitely something big… This is so comprehensive, it is like a Grade A agreement.” The TPP is designed “to be a structure on to which other nations, including possibly South Korea, and eventually even China, could be bolted.”
At the 2011 APEC summit, Chinese president Hu Jintao stated: “China supports the goal of the regional integration of the Asia-Pacific economy, using the East Asian free trade zone, full economic partnerships in Asia and the Trans-Pacific Partnership as foundations.”
The aim of the TPP appears to be in establishing a core “trade bloc” in order “to create a gravitational force that would bring others in,” according to Karan Bhatia, the Vice-President for international law at General Electric and a former deputy U.S. trade representative. Ultimately, this objective includes bringing both Japan and China into the fold.
In May of 2012, Kirk stated that he “would love nothing more” than to have China join the TPP, following the more immediate additions of Mexico, Canada, and Japan. And in November of 2011, President Obama spoke to the Australian parliament, explaining: “I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia Pacific a top priority… The United States is a Pacific power and we are here to stay.”
One observer and critic has noted that the TPP has the potential to become a new “global trade agreement.” Charlene Barshefsky, the USTR from 1997 to 2001, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal in October of 2012 in which she strongly endorsed the TPP as a “crucial opportunity” to overcome “barriers to innovation.” Referring to the TPP as the “most important trade negotiation of the past decade,” Barshefsky wrote that it “will set the terms of trade for many years in the world’s most economically dynamic region.”
Gary Horlick, who is rated one of the world’s top international trade lawyers with a long career representing major U.S. and global multinational corporations, and more than 20 countries in international trade negotiations and disputes – and who was the first Chairman of the World Trade Organization’s Permanent Group of Experts on subsidies – commented on the TPP: “This is the least transparent trade negotiation I have ever seen.” As part of this “transparency,” participants in the negotiations had to sign a memorandum of understanding which forbids them from releasing any “negotiating documents until four years after a deal is done or abandoned.”
What Horlick referred to as the “least transparent trade negotiations” he had ever seen, Kirk referred to as “the most engaged and transparent process” possible. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that Kirk has access to the draft document and observes and participates in the negotiations, unlike the representative bodies of governments or their populations.
So let’s call this what it is: a transnational corporate coup over the democratic process and public accountability.
Kirk explained that “there’s a practical reason” for all the secrecy in the negotiations over the TPP: “for our ability both to preserve negotiating strength and to encourage our partners to be willing to put issues on the table they may not otherwise, that we have to preserve some measure of discretion and confidentiality.”
Indeed, this is “practical.” After all, as he explained, if the talks were not done in secret, the public would be aware of what was being discussed, and if the public knew what was being planned, they would oppose it.
So secrecy is necessary in order to make the agreement as undemocratic and unaccountable as possible, to ensure that corporations get what they want while the public remains in the dark. Deceptive and saturated with disdain for democracy, certainly, but “practical” nevertheless.
Part II of Marshall’s investigative series on the Trans-Pacific Partnership will appear Wednesday.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People’s Book Project. He also hosts a weekly podcast show, “Empire, Power, and People,” on BoilingFrogsPost.com.