what's the point of modern trade policy?

At my job, a major project has been the fight against the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Specifically, I organize EFF members to oppose the many digital policies that would impact how signatory countries implement laws—the underlying problem being that the negotiating texts are kept secret from the public while it’s overwhelmingly influenced by major corporate interests. So I spend a significant amount of time reading, and watching the politics behind US trade policy, in order to identify opportunities and targets for direct action.

Over the last 3 years or so that I’ve been watching these TPP talks unfold, one of the things that confound me is how proponents—mostly the White House and some Congress members—defend this and other secretly negotiated agreements. The primary argument is that enabling “free trade” and breaking down protectionist barriers will mean job creation and economic growth. Job creation and economic growth…they both sound like wonderful motives, but the implication that this means that more people, in the US, would live more prosperous, stable lives seems to be extremely dubious.

What we should be asking is, what kind of jobs would this lead to? And at what cost? For example, one of the big arguments I hear for the XL Keystone Pipeline is that it would lead to employment of thousands of workers. But first, how permanent are those jobs, will they be paid well, and what are they actually doing to promote a sustainable future? The jobs that project would create are those that would be paying individuals to literally help shove poison into the earth, and into our water. You can’t think about public policy in such a narrow, irrelevant frame as “job creation”, especially if that means nothing more than putting people at work at a task that doesn’t pay well enough for people to live healthy, decent lives.

When I hear that justification for a policy, what it sounds like to me is a more twisted version of trickle down economics. By helping mega-corporations to make more profit (even if it means infringing on people’s rights, even if it means putting peoples’ lives at risk) they can hire more people and spread that wealth all around. That’s just not how this happens though—companies aren’t incentivized to hire more people for the hell of it, because they can. They’ll only do it if it means yielding more or better product, so they can capture even more profit…

Now’s not the time to flesh this out as much as I’d like, but the point I want to get to is the huge deception of modern trade policy. What they, trade delegates, allege is being negotiated for the benefit of their nation, is actually only for the benefit of the wealthy, influential figures in that given nation. That’s why each country is willing to give up flexibilities on other policies as long as the dominant industry gets its deal. For instance, Vietnam may be willing to cave in to worse copyright rules, insisted by mainly Hollywood companies, as long as it gets better access to US’ textile/clothing markets. That isn’t a reflection of what the people of Vietnam want or need, it’s just that of the powerful textile manufacturing industry.

So if other countries agree to more extreme digital policies, it may harm future opportunities for the tech industry to thrive there. The US, in having the most flexible copyright rules, might be the country where starting certain tech businesses might be more conducive, while it forces other countries to worse rules that would prevent such industries to thrive there. Is this the point of trade agreements? I know for sure that they’re now solely there for the purposes of propping up private industry, but is part of the goal, the point, to have countries become more specialized producers for certain products?

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