A stream of consciousness on US trade policy and nationalism

Working in the trade policy space has really made me question my thoughts about nationalism and my own feelings about how I care about my home country, the United States.

So, some people have tried to get me say I hate America. Whether I’d expatriate and move somewhere else. Or question why I even bother fighting for democracy here when it’s seems so far gone into the depths of corporate depravity. Any one of my friends or family can tell you that in conversation, I can quickly slip into a various kinds of lamentations about the state of the U.S.—sad, angry, sarcastic—depending on my mood. I never restrain my disgust for its policies that seem ass backward to me.

But I complain about the U.S. because I love it. I want it to be better. I KNOW it could be better…

Before I go on, let me get one thing straight: I don’t think the U.S. is “the best,” I don’t think it ever was, nor will it ever be. Our culture or ideals (whatever that constitutes) aren’t inherently better or more enlightened than any other nation’s. The U.S. is to blame for some of the WORST atrocities of the last couple centuries. Like any world power, we have justified invading and slaughtering people for all kinds of horrific reasons, and continue to do so to this day. Americans have collectively acted like we’re entitled somehow in a way that no other country isn’t. That we know better than others.

Despite this, I have to admit that my cultural pride of being American is probably never going away. There’s something collectively raw about us. We’re stupid honest and don’t really care about formalities. I’m fascinated by, and myself a victim to, our ideological addiction to “freedom”…which may or may not be what undermines our own ability to ever create good common services (“How dare you make me contribute to something that we can all commonly enjoy!”). It’s like we’re united in our desire to have the right to say fuck you to each other.

We’re idiots. But it’s MY group of idiots. I can’t deny that I culturally identify with people here in a way that I don’t in other places…just for the simple reason that I grew up here. I recognize that we are flawed. Deeply deeply flawed. But what country isn’t? In terms of our bullying of the rest of the world, I’d like to remind everyone that any country with any power turns into a big asshole: England, France, Russia, China, Japan, and the countless other ego tripping countries/societies/tribes that have invaded and attacked anyone else weaker than them.

Anyway, I think the sense of entitlement U.S. has is the problem. Our leaders, along with some many millions of people who elect them, still believe that the U.S. has something the rest of the world doesn’t. Sure, we’re MUCH more armed with weapons and have multiple thousands more in the military than other nations. But that’s really not something to brag about. There are dozens of other countries that provide more economic stability for its people. Our educational system is falling behind, and our healthcare system lags big time. The amount of national resources we spend on the military is INSANE. It’s like we’re building a huge wall around us with weapons pointed at every direction, while our society inside becomes more feeble and unstable as we neglect to put resources towards basic infrastructural necessities.

So, how does this relate to trade policy?

Well I can only speak to the portions of the TPP that I know about: the digital policy provisions. Based upon that, and the little I know about the medicine patent provisions, it seems to confirm the idea that “free trade” policies that have been classically pushed forth by England, and now, the U.S., are really there to undermine economic development. It’s the basic premise of Ha-Joon Chang’s book Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective, the title of which refers to how these already develoPED countries try to deny the currently develoPING countries the protectionist policies they used themselves to bolster its own industries.

Recently, I realized that my work in TPP partially consisted of fighting this attempt by the U.S. to kick away the “technological” ladder for other countries. Like other things on the U.S. “free trade” agenda, it seem very likely to me that the U.S. is purposefully exporting bad digital policy to try to stunt other nations’ growth in the tech sector. This great article by Jonathan Band on the gross inconsistencies between U.S. domestic vs. foreign copyright policy made this point, although I’m not as optimistic as him that this inconsistency “gap” is closing.

The goal of the U.S. may be to give its own tech and content industries an advantage by making other copyright frameworks shit in other countries through the horrible, secretive trade policy process. But I’m pretty sure it’s going to fail for two reasons:

1) The Internet’s a force to be reckoned with. Seriously. Maybe I’m wrong here, but I really do think that the trade policy debate has gotten WAY more attention since they’ve included provisions that threaten Internet users. A big reason I think is that the Internet transcends national borders. We use the Internet to save the Internet…our ability to share intel and anger with each other about what’s going on in real time across the world really puts a damper on those closed-door, secretive corporate negotiation parties. I will guarantee (and will continue to work to exacerbate) users freaking out when state policies challenge what we have, and try to stifle our dream of an Internet that continues to thrive as the beautiful nebulous mess that it is.

2) The U.S. just isn’t as intimidating as it once was. I can’t imagine that countries that have signed trade agreements with the U.S. and got a bad deal out of it, weren’t aware about what was happening. But they probably felt pressured into agreeing to most of the terms. The way the U.S. is pretty much alone in pushing the worst copyright provisions in the leaked TPP chapter shows how other countries are a bit emboldened and unwilling to cave to them. When I went to the TPP negotiations, one of the main things we did was tell other negotiators how BAD the U.S. “Intellectual Property” proposals were. It’s looking like they get it. Chile and Canada even have better systems than the U.S., so they’re trying to hold strong against their demands.

I mean, I think it’s great that the U.S. is in less of a position to bully other countries. That doesn’t make me anti-U.S. though. I just want what’s best for us, and by extension, everyone else who then won’t have to deal with our bullshit as much. The pressure to be THE BEST MOST POWERFUL NATION OF ALL is what makes U.S. so horrible. If we’re not the most powerful, some American patriots may say, god forbid it’s going to be someone ELSE. Okay, if that’s the case then we clearly have a bigger problem on our hands. No concentrated power, whether in a government or in the global geopolitical system, should ever maintain hegemonic control.

Maybe this whole “I’m not here to make friends” approach to foreign policy is just an inevitable symptom of the nation-state system. I have all kinds of thoughts on that…but I gotta go pack to go to LA early tomorrow.

Wikileaked TPP: Some Thoughts on What Happened and What's Next

Something HUGE happened last week: Wikileaks published the full chapter on “intellectual property” issues from the secret text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. We didn’t have a current text of the agreement since February 2011, so we’ve only been able to guess based on sporadic, confidential intel about how those negotiations were going. Nothing we could’ve heard would’ve ever beat having the draft in front of us for us to analyze and figure out its impacts. The newly leaked chapter is from August 2013, so while it’s even a little bit out of date, almost everyone had already confirmed that they’ve made little progress on the text since then.

How it Happened

Civil society groups and public interest advocates from all over the world have known about this agreement for several years. We’ve been doing all we can to call attention to it. Policy experts have been meeting with negotiators on the sidelines to try to impact how the delegates set down their proposals in the backroom meetings. There were leaks here and there, but mostly it’s been a slow and frustrating. I say it’s like trench-warfare. We knew this thing would impact hundred of millions of lives, but it was all being done in secret, and it was all completely motivated and driven by what corporations wanted. TPP government reps started claiming that this was the end of the line and that it’d be completed and signed by the end of 2013.

Then seemingly out of the blue, the New York Times’ Editorial Board endorsed it. Well, they didn’t outright endorse it, but they sure as hell supported it, and did so in a disturbingly aloof way. First off, they didn’t mention any of the gaping problems with the secretive process. Nor did they truly engage with any of the actual substantive issues that they dismissively mention throughout the piece. The timing of it was completely strange too. As Parker said, if this piece came out at the beginning of the negotiations, praising the TPP’s noble, grand goals, then it probably wouldn’t have read as an endorsement. But it’s provisions (whether or not agreed upon) are on the table, and it’s been up for negotiations for over 2 years. No one would’ve read this piece and come away thinking that the Times was against it. The point of this piece was likely to appease some special interests and influence people who were completely ignorant of the issue to think this agreement is completely innocuous.

I’d imagine the point wasn’t to anger public interest advocates and thousands of Internet users from around the world, but it did a perfect job of it. This blog post about the endorsement went a bit viral on Reddit and Hacker News, and the story got picked up by the Washington Post. Rightly so. Everyone wanted to know why the Times was endorsing a policy instrument that was being kept from the public.

I wish I knew if this is what triggered it, but it was a day or two after that when Wikileaks began to tweet about the TPP incessantly. Others started asking me questions and saying things to me that, in retrospect, all would’ve been some slap-in-the-face hints that it was coming…but I was still completely oblivious. I guess I was sort of in denial that the thing I’ve wanted most to happen in my work would suddenly come to be.

So it was published on the Wikileaks site on Wednesday morning. Julian Assange was on a live video feed that morning, saying that they were up for several nights to make it publishable. Likely, they had to be extremely careful about hiding traces of the content that could reveal the individual who handed the draft over to them. We at least know that all of the copies of the text have had a kind of watermark/DRM on them to make it harder to share, in addition to a required signature to a NDA that could punish them for doing so.

It was an exciting day to say the least.

Leaks Don’t Make Up for Lack of Transparency

…In fact, they only help to emphasize the utter ridiculousness of hiding the proceedings from the public in the first place.

It goes without saying that this leaked chapter is going to be an immense help in helping us understand the dynamics of the talks between countries and allow us to have a more accurate analyses of the current text on the negotiating table. The other amazing thing about it comes from the very fact that Wikileaks published it. As a whistle-blowing organization, their work to publish this text has helped to brand TPP as the perversely undemocratic thing that it is. If we’d gotten the text by some other means, I don’t think it would’ve created nearly a quarter of the same public attention it got by virtue of Wikileaks releasing it.

I’m deeply grateful to them, and also proud for doing it in the way that they did. They partnered with some of the most respected trade and copyright+patent policy analysts out there, including Public Citizen and KEI, and were able to present it in a very eloquent way. They’ve been a bit quiet for a little while now and this was a perfect way for them to have hoisted themselves back into the limelight.

So What Next?

I think the first thing to remember is that the TPP is far from a one-off thing. They’ve enacted a lot of the same provisions in other bilateral agreements, tried to pull the same thing with ACTA, and are going to continue to do so with the EU-US trade agreement. The corporations are out there influencing policymakers, and they want our laws to be designed to benefit their profits at any cost.

This agreement is just one of many ugly symptoms of a system that justifies public policies on purely economic grounds. Besides all the cronyism that truly does exist, it’s only logical that policymakers are going to listen to corporations and their promise to create jobs. Why? Because these private institutions seem to be the most stable investment. You can calculate how much these companies are worth, how much capital they have. You have hard numbers about the numbers of people they employ. I think these industries have sway over lawmakers in selling them the hope of stability they seem to hold in their sheer size. This is one big part of the equation that needs to change.

I see TPP as being just one of the many battles we’re going to have to win to take back our autonomy from private corporate interests, and reassert our goal of enacting law for the benefit of our various communities. As a user, I’m appalled that Hollywood can get away with regulating my technology and culture. As a patient, I’m horrified that companies want to have a right to sequester medical discoveries so they can make a bigger profit off of human lives. And as a person who believes in law for the common good, I’m not going to stand for policies that elevate corporate rights at the expense of everyone else’s well-being.

If we win this one, we’ll use it to build up the triumph of democracy.

Cooperatives: The Hope for Trickle Up Democracy?

An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” — Arthur Miller

I spend a lot of time thinking about how and why our laws are created. Each rule is a way to resolve a specific problem or to achieve a certain objective. Law is a way for us to have a common understanding of how we all interact each other. Taken altogether they can reflect the priorities of our society: for example, which social programs we fund or what kinds of activities we prohibit. But all of that is assuming there’s a functional system in place to enact law based upon addressing real issues in peoples’ lives. When they don’t, or in practice result in causing more difficulties for everyone, then there’s a problem with how that society designs its own rules.

We’re now way beyond the point of asking whether the US political system is broken. The question now is how we fix it.

The problem with initiatives like Rootstrikers is that it’s trying to use the system to fix the system. Our lawmakers aren’t doing their job of addressing their constituents’ needs, because they’re more often representing the interests of those that have the money to finance their election campaigns and spend the resources to convince lawmakers that their enterprises are crucial to the economy and the creation of jobs. Lawmakers are already failing to represent their constituents’ interests on more specific policies, so how would they even begin to address the brokenness of our campaign system? Especially when all of the private, wealthy interests combined have a stake in keeping the system rigged in their favor?

I think we need to step back a little and address a larger element at play: the extreme power that corporations themselves have to influence government. While greater taxation and regulations can remedy some of the symptoms, they’re just patches to the underlying problem that big companies largely dictate state policies in their favor, in the interests of their CEOs, board members, and investors. Corporate executives will make any decision to maximize profit, even if it means laying off their workers or giving them terrible working conditions.

And that’s the point: corporations don’t even function in the best interests of their own employees because they don’t need to. Many times, they’re even economically incentivized to undermine their own workers’ interests. Which is why it’s necessary to have a paradigm-shift about what it means to have a successful, valuable private enterprise. As of now, all we measure and celebrate is how much wealth and resources they accumulate. What if companies were at least forced to prioritize the interests of their very own employees?

Co-operative businesses are a direct challenge to the corporate business model. Co-operatives are by design enterprises that function in the interests of its workers, consumers, and communities. The model for management in co-ops vary widely, but there’s always going to be the assurance that the enterprise won’t do anything harmful to its workers in the name of maximizing its profits.

I think that a large part of the reason why our democracy is broken is because most people lack shared decision-making and ownership in their work. A mass adoption of the co-operative business model may atomize the economy in a way that fosters more community awareness and a heightened value for the commons. On a more practical level, it’ll force people to be more engaged with others and learn how to negotiate and compromise in a way that I think most people just don’t have the opportunity to do outside of their nuclear families.

Not all types of businesses should be co-opted into co-ops (sorry, had to do that). I’m also not saying co-operatives are going to be the be all end all towards a perfectly stable, more equitable society. But I think promoting co-operative businesses are a step in the right direction, not just for democratizing workplaces but also because they could lead to better services in general.

Can you imagine if you could join a co-op insurance company? You would pay your dues every month and feel completely safe knowing that if anything were to happen to you, you’ll be taken care of. They won’t have a reason to swindle you out of coverage, since it exists to protect you and all of its members.

How about co-op publishers? It would do everything to provide the best service for its writers and creators. It may even have “member readers” so it’d be intimately familiar with all sides of the consumption experience. A co-op publisher likely wouldn’t push for harsher, more extreme copyright enforcement provisions since it’ll also be concerned about its readers’ interests.

And even credit unions, which really are just co-op banks. I have accounts at two different credit unions, and they don’t change up the fees without proper warning. I love knowing that they’re likely not taking giant financial/investment risks at their members’ expense.

In general, I’m getting tired of only thinking about problems and their temporary solutions without coming up with some effective strategies to move past them. I’m definitely not the only one. When people lament about the Occupy Movement, or act like it was a big waste of time, I have to disagree with them. Up until that point, huge swaths of the population was simply in denial that our problems were institutional. I think a lot of people felt that they were alone in suffering. What Occupy did was bring people together to share their experiences of living with economic insecurity.

Strong communication and patient consideration are necessary for coming to shared decisions, but both of these I think, take tons of practice and it’s always going to come with its frustrations. By building enterprises that themselves necessitate regular exposure to collaborative problem-solving and shared responsibility, maybe we’d all grow to be better at civic engagement.

However we do it, it’s time to take back our democracy. It’s not enough to hope and plead that the system is capable of reforming itself.


a mini-stream of consciousness:

working on several new side projects, some of which are more minor than others. But still! I’m excited that I’m finally building/painting things again. One involves an educational/tech for social justice group that I helped run during college, the others are visual art pieces in various electronic/non-electronic media.

I wish I were more awake to do write more but I’m barely able to keep my eyes open. =_=