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  • Eyes on Trade is a blog by the staff of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch (GTW) division. GTW aims to promote democracy by challenging corporate globalization, arguing that the current globalization model is neither a random inevitability nor "free trade." Eyes on Trade is a space for interested parties to share information about globalization and trade issues, and in particular for us to share our watchdogging insights with you! GTW director Lori Wallach's initial post explains it all.

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March 26, 2013

Expanded Analysis: U.S. Pharmaceutical Corporation Uses NAFTA Foreign Investor Privileges to Attack Canada’s Patent Policy

In December we reported that Eli Lilly, the fifth-largest U.S. pharmaceutical corporation, had announced its intent to use the extreme foreign investor privileges enshrined in NAFTA to directly challenge Canada's entire basis for granting patents.  Eli Lilly's audacious attempt, sparked by Canadian courts' invalidation of an Eli Lilly medicine patent, marks the first time a patent-holding pharmaceutical corporation has tried to use the extraordinary investor privileges provided by U.S. “free trade” agreements (FTAs) as a tool to push for greater monopoly patent protections, which increase the cost of medicines for consumers and governments. Because Canada has dared to enforce its own patent policy, Eli Lilly is demanding $100 million in compensation from Canadian taxpayers. 

We've just released an updated and expanded analysis of this worrisome NAFTA attack, available here.  In this expanded briefing paper, we uncover more bogus but dangerous legal claims that Eli Lilly asserts as backing for its attempt to take down Canada's entire legal basis for granting patents.  For example, the corporation accuses Canada of using a patent policy that "contravenes" the company's "expectations."  Eli Lilly claims that NAFTA guarantees the company the "right" to see its expectations fulfilled by the Canadian government.  To make such a cavalier claim, the company ignores the consistent opinions of multiple governments (including the U.S. government) that even NAFTA's sweeping investor protections guarantee no such "right," instead drawing on the inventive interpretations of FTA investor-state tribunals comprised of three private attorneys.  As the U.S. government stated in another NAFTA investor-state case, "if States were prohibited from regulating in any manner that frustrated expectations – or had to compensate for any diminution in profit – they would lose the power to regulate." 

Eli Lilly also invokes the national treatment privileges that NAFTA provides to investors (that governments should treat foreign and domestic investors alike), but instead of using NAFTA's already broad provisions, the company decides to invent a wholly new goverment obligation to foreign investors.  Eli Lilly complains that Canada's patent standards are different from those found in the U.S. and EU, and then asserts that Canada is obliged by NAFTA to enforce those foreign standards.  The notion of such a bizarre obligation is rather unprecedented even among the musings of creative investor-state tribunals.  In short, Eli Lilly is alleging that Canadian taxpayers should fork over $100 million because their government enforced its own patent laws rather than those of other countries.  

Not yet finished, the company alleges an additional national treatment violation by claiming that the Canadian courts' invalidation of its patent for an ADHD drug gives a prohibited advantage to Canadian generic firms that are now allowed to sell the drug.  Um, of course the removal of patents helps generic producers – it always does, but it does so regardless of whether the generic firms and/or the patent holders are foreign or domestic. Were Eli Lilly’s skewed logic to be accepted by the investor-state tribunal, any invalidation of a foreign investor’s patent, regardless of the basis, could be construed as a violation of FTA-protected investor privileges. 

Finally, Eli Lilly argues that Canada's invalidation of its patent monopoly in accordance with the country's established patent policy constitutes an "indirect expropriation" of the pharmaceutical giant's investment.  This avant garde legal claim, one rejected by most nations' courts, would require a government to compensate a corporation even for a nondiscriminatory regulatory policy that happens to diminish the value of the company's "property" (including, according to Eli Lilly, a patent monopoly).  In making this allegation, Eli Lilly skirts the fact that even NAFTA allows nations the flexibility to determine their own patent policy standards, and that such autonomously-defined standards cannot be the basis for claims of "expropriation."  

As far-fetched as Eli Lilly's allegations are, the anomalous investor-state system enshrined in NAFTA-style deals now empowers three attorneys sitting on a FTA-created tribunal (a body that has become notorious for imaginative and sympathetic approaches to investor claims), to determine the validity of Canada's patent policy.  Unfortunately, this radical system would be expanded by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a NAFTA-style deal being negotiated between the U.S., Canada, and nine other countries.  The TPP's leaked investment chapter would extend the scope of NAFTA's investor privileges to explicitly cover "intellectual property," making it easier for pharmaceutical corporations to launch Eli-Lilly like attacks on sovereign governments' patent polcies. 

Will Eli Lilly prove successful in undermining Canada's patent laws to protect its patent monopoly in the ironic name of "free trade?"  The outcome of the corporation’s investor-state attack under NAFTA is critical for those seeking to safeguard countries’ ability to determine their own patent standards, a prerogative that is essential for preventing patent “evergreening” and ensuring access to affordable medicines. It is critical not just so that Canadian taxpayers can make sure that the demanded $100 million goes to more worthy ends than enhancing Eli Lilly’s profit margin, but to avoid emboldening other pharmaceutical firms contemplating the launch of similar investor-state demands against other governments that dare to set their own patent policies. As the Eli Lilly case gets underway, negotiations for the TPP and its proposed expansion of the investor-state system continue. Stopping the NAFTA expansion deal presents health advocates with today’s biggest opportunity to halt the advance of the system that empowered Eli Lilly’s audacious threat.

For more analysis of this threat, click here to see our newly expanded briefing paper.  

March 21, 2013

New Report Spotlights Trade Rules' Conflict with Sound Financial Regulation

The 2008 global financial crisis reaffirmed the need for robust regulation to address the increasingly reckless banking and financial sector. One of the most important regulatory tools in this post-crisis era of reform is the use of capital controls to regulate cross-border finance, a policy that even institutions long-opposed to capital controls, such as the International Monetary Fund, have now formally recognized as beneficial. However, there is growing concern that the rules of trade and investment treaties may not provide enough policy space for countries to take advantage of these necessary regulatory measures.

In response to this concern, a task force convened in June of 2012 in Buenos Aires, Argentina to review the rules of the WTO and various Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) and examine the extent to which global trade rules are compatible with the ability to deploy effective capital control regulations. The result of this meeting is a comprehensive report released this month titled Capital Account Regulations and the Trading System: A Compatibility Review, which is comprised of chapters written by experts from around the globe (including Todd Tucker, former Research Director at Global Trade Watch and former editor-in-chief of Eyes on Trade).

The report highlights several alarming areas where trade and investment treaties conflict with and impede the ability to use important regulatory tools such as capital controls.  It goes on to offer several changes that should be made to outdated trade policies to ensure that countries have sufficient policy space to take the regulatory measures necessary to avoid future financial crises.

Unfortunately, despite concerns expressed by members of civil society, economists, policymakers, and various other international experts, the current negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are on track to lock in the antiquated trade model of extreme deregulation, including a prohibition of bans on risky financial products and a restriction on now widely-endorsed capital controls.

Click here to check out the full report.

March 18, 2013

Don't Be Fooled by Data Tricks: The Case of the Dueling Korea FTA Press Releases

On Friday we sent out a press release exposing the export-chilling, deficit-expanding, job-eroding track record of the Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on the first anniversary of its implementation.  That same day, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) sent out a press release singing the export-boosting praises of the Korea FTA.  What could explain this riddle of dueling press releases?   

Some basic data tricks.  USTR’s press release relied on five sleights of hand to gussy up the unsightly Korea FTA data and generate some misleading, albeit rose-colored, conclusions:

  • Cherry-picking.  Overall U.S. exports to Korea have fallen 9 percent under the FTA.  USTR first tries to get around this inconvenient fact by simply “disregarding” particularly large exports that declined (e.g. corn) so as to produce a sanitized illusion of an increase in “total U.S. exports.” (By “total U.S. exports” they mean “some U.S. exports, excluding particularly important export sectors that would contradict our argument of a total export increase.”)  USTR saves most of its FTA-touting words for some narrow sectors that were export-increasing exceptions to the export-falling rule of the Korea FTA.  For example, while total U.S. agricultural exports to Korea have plunged 29% under the FTA, USTR spotlighted export rises in specific agricultural products like soybeans and grape juice.  Such “soybean-picking” avoids the essential question: what has been the total effect of the Korea FTA on U.S. exports and jobs?  The inconvenient answer: a loss. 
  • Using the wrong timeframe.  The USTR press release acted as if the Korea FTA was in effect for the full 2012 calendar year, though it only took effect on March 15, 2012 (hence the timing of the press release).  The agency errantly compared the full year of data for 2011 with the full year from 2012, claiming the results to be due to the Korea FTA.  This timeframe starts and ends too soon.  An accurate assessment of the Korea FTA’s legacy would begin the data comparison with the first full month in which the FTA was actually in effect: April 2012 (vs. April 2011).  Also, the timeframe would not stop with the end of 2012, but with the most recent month for which we have data: January 2013.  Perhaps USTR decided to omit January because it marked the highest monthly U.S.-Korea trade deficit on record.  Whatever their reasons, the timeframe mistake skews each starry-eyed data point that USTR presents in its release. 
  • Ignoring imports.  As per usual, USTR has examined only one side of the trade equation.  The word “imports” doesn’t appear once in their press release.  But in the same way that exports are associated with job opportunities, imports are associated with lost job opportunities when they outstrip exports, as dramatically seen under the Korea FTA.  Under the deal, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea has swelled 30 percent, costing tens of thousands of U.S. jobs.  By ignoring rising imports, USTR claims a gain for auto manufacturers under the FTA.  But while U.S. auto exports to Korea have increased by $65 million under the deal, U.S. auto imports from Korea have ballooned by $2.3 billion.  The resulting 18 percent increase in the U.S. auto trade deficit with Korea is a net loss for U.S. automakers, not a net gain. 
  • Counting foreign-made “exports.”  USTR once again inflates the value of U.S. exports by counting goods that actually are made overseas – not by U.S. workers.  These “re-exports” are goods made elsewhere that are shipped through the United States en route to a final destination.  To assess what the Korea FTA has actually meant for U.S. jobs, our release eliminated re-exports in calculating the 9 percent drop in U.S.-made exports to Korea under the deal. 
  • Forgetting about inflation.  It appears that USTR forgot to adjust its numbers for inflation, an omission that artificially magnifies the value of U.S. exports in 2012 relative to 2011.  All of the data contained in our press release is properly inflation-adjusted to show a truer picture of U.S. exports under the Korea FTA – a picture that unfortunately does not look too pretty without all of USTR’s cropping and airbrushing.    

If we want trade policy that behooves the majority, rather than an expansion of the damaging Korea FTA model, then we have to look honestly at the Korea FTA track record.  If instead we twist the data to make mistakes look like successes, we are binding ourselves to the replication of failure.  

March 15, 2013

On Anniversary of U.S.-Korea FTA Implementation, U.S. Exports Down 9 Percent, Imports from Korea Up and Deficit With Korea Swells 30 Percent, Undermining Obama Export and Job Growth Goals

Though U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement Outcomes Are Abysmal, Obama Pushes for Trans-Pacific and European Agreements Based on Same Model

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The actual outcomes of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that took effect one year ago, March 15, have been exactly the opposite of what the Obama administration promised, Public Citizen said today. Despite government data once again demonstrating the damage caused by yet another “trade” agreement based on the model of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Obama administration is trying to sell massive Trans-Pacific and European agreements based on the same model with the same false promises.

U.S. export growth to countries with pacts like the U.S.-Korea FTA has been particularly lackluster; growth of U.S. exports to countries that are not FTA partners has exceeded U.S. export growth to countries that are FTA partners by 38 percent over the past decade. In contrast to the Obama administration’s promise that the U.S.-Korea FTA would mean “more exports, more jobs,” U.S. goods exports to Korea have dropped 9 percent (a $3.2 billion decrease) since the Korea FTA took effect, in comparison to the same months in the year before FTA implementation. U.S. imports from Korea have climbed 2 percent (an $800 million increase). The U.S. trade deficit with Korea has swelled 30 percent (a $4 billion increase). The January data from the U.S. International Trade Commission show that the U.S. trade deficit with Korea skyrocketed 81 percent above December’s level, topping $2.4 billion – the largest monthly U.S. trade deficit with Korea on record. The ballooning trade deficit indicates the loss of tens of thousands of U.S. jobs.

“I suspect that most Americans are likely to be angry with the politicians who got us into another one of these NAFTA-style deals, rather than surprised at the damaging outcome. Polls show that majorities of U.S. independent, Democratic and GOP voters consistently oppose these deals because they think they are bad for their families and the American economy,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “The Obama administration is inviting the public to focus on the debacle of its Korea Free Trade Agreement by using the same failed claims to push a Trans-Pacific FTA with 10 Asian and Latin American nations that is literally based on the Korea FTA text.”

The decline in U.S. exports under the Korea FTA contributed to an overall disappointing U.S. export performance in 2012, placing the United States far behind Obama’s stated goal to double U.S. exports by the end of 2014. At the sluggish 2012 export growth rate of 2 percent, the United States will not achieve the president’s goal until 2032, 18 years behind schedule.

“The data show that these Obama administration-supported FTAs are undermining the national goals set by the president of boosting our exports, reviving U.S. manufacturing and creating American jobs,” said Wallach. “This kind of data makes everyone wonder just why the administration keeps pushing so-called ‘trade’ agreements like the Korea FTA, and now the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that facilitate offshoring, ban Buy American provisions and erode manufacturing jobs, utterly contradicting the president’s domestic agenda.”

Many of the sectors that the Obama administration promised would be the biggest beneficiaries of the Korea FTA have actually been some of the deal’s largest losers. U.S. pork exports to Korea have declined 18 percent under the FTA relative to the same months in the year before FTA implementation, while beef exports have fallen 9 percent and poultry exports have plunged 41 percent. While U.S. auto exports to Korea have increased 7 percent under the FTA, U.S. auto imports from Korea have surged 17 percent, causing an 18 percent rise in the U.S. auto trade deficit with Korea.

Read additional analysis of the government data on U.S. trade with Korea under the U.S.-Korea FTA.

March 14, 2013

Ecuador Moves to Annul U.S.-Ecuador BIT, Denounces Investor-State System

800px-Texaco_in_Ecuador
Chevron is using the investor-state system to avoid paying $18.2 billion to residents of the contaminated Lago Agrio region in Ecuador (pictured above).

As global criticism of the investor-state dispute system mounts, Ecuador is taking concrete steps to secede from pacts that enshrine this system, which exposes the country to direct attacks on its public interest policies from foreign investors.  In 2009, Ecuador formally withdrew from the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an institution which facilitates foreign corporations' legal claims against sovereign governments' policies. On Monday, President Rafael Correa put forth a bill to request that Ecuadorian lawmakers annul Ecuador's Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) with the United States, declaring that such treaties “favor foreign investors over human beings.”

The U.S.-Ecuador BIT binds Ecuador to the controversial investor-state system, which uniquely empowers foreign investors to directly challenge a country’s environmental, health, and other public interest laws by claiming that they violate BIT-created investor privileges and threaten “expected future profits.” These cases skirt national court systems and are instead decided by private three-person tribunals composed of arbitrators who bill by the hour. If a corporation wins, taxpayers of the losing country are expected to foot the bill, with no cap on the awarded amount (and even if a country “wins,” they often have to pay exorbitant court fees).

Ecuador has seen some of the most egregious examples of these cases, so it is not surprising that President Correa would want to protect Ecuador’s citizens from further lawsuits.  For instance, after 18 years of persistence, residents of Lago Agrio in the Ecuadorian Amazon won a historic ruling of $18.2 billion dollars against Chevron for the massive contamination of the region between 1964 and 1990 which is alleged to have caused a cancer epidemic and decimated local indigenous groups.  Instead of complying with the Ecuadorian court’s ruling, Chevron has so far made good on its promise of "a lifetime of appellate and collateral litigation" in order to avoid paying out the award.  To evade justice, Chevron launched an investor-state case against Ecuador under the same U.S. BIT that Correa now seeks to annul.  The tribunal in that case ordered the Ecuadorian government last year to interfere in the operations of Ecuador’s independent court system so as to stop enforcement of Chevron's $18.2 billion penalty. 

To add insult to injury, last October Ecuador was slammed with a record $1.8 billion judgment in a case filed by Occidental Petroleum -– the highest amount to ever come out of an ICSID tribunal. The company launched the case against Ecuador under the same U.S. BIT that Correa hopes to annul.  Occidental asked for billions in damages after the company violated a contract with the government, prompting the government to terminate Occidental's investment as contemplated by Ecuadorian law.  To impose a $2.4 billion penalty on Ecuador's taxpayers (including interest and fees), the investor-state tribunal employed astonishing leaps of logic that a dissenting member of the tribunal described as "egregious." 

Ecuador is not alone in its resistance to the harmful investor-state system. As the “egregious” judgments continue to pile up (tribunals have already awarded over $3 billion to foreign corporations under U.S. BITs and free trade agreements, and more than $15 billion is still pending), more countries are denouncing the investor-state system:

  • The Brazilian Parliament has refused to ratify any investor-state agreements.
  • India has made a move to abolish investor-state dispute clauses in Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).
  • South Africa is re-examining its policy on investor-state disputes and has refused to renew BITs with the EU. 
  • Bolivia and Venezuela have also pulled out of ICSID.

Unfortunately, a leaked draft text of the investment chapter tells us that these harmful rules are being replicated and expanded under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a NAFTA-style "free trade" agreement currently under negotiation between the U.S. and 10 Pacific Rim nations. Australia, a TPP negotiating Party, has already refused to be subjected to investor-state dispute settlement as part of the deal, and other TPP negotiating Parties have grown increasingly wary of the prospect.  Now more than ever, it is crucial that other countries join the lead of Ecuador, Australia, et al. and refuse to bind themselves to a radical system that puts their environmental quality, public health, and sovereignty at risk.

March 08, 2013

U.S. Trade Deficit with Korea Soars to Highest Point on Record under FTA

The just-released monthly trade data from the U.S. International Trade Commission reveals an expanding U.S. trade deficit with the world as U.S. exports dropped and imports rose in January, relative to December of last year.  But the deficit picture is even starker for U.S. trade with Korea under the tenth month of the Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA).  While U.S. goods imports from all countries rose 3% in January, U.S. imports from Korea soared 18%.  While U.S. goods exports to the world slipped 6%, exports to Korea fell 8%.  And while the U.S. trade deficit with the world climbed 21% in January, the deficit with Korea jumped 81%.  January's U.S. trade deficit with Korea topped $2.4 billion -- the largest monthly deficit with Korea on record.  In short, another month of trade with Korea under the Korea FTA has produced another month of remarkably large job-displacing trade imbalances

The U.S.-Korea trade imbalances of recent months are remarkable not just in comparison with most other U.S. trade partners, but in comparison to how U.S. trade with Korea looked before the Korea FTA took effect in March of last year.  In nine of the ten first months of the FTA's implementation, including the most recent month, U.S. exports to Korea fell below pre-FTA levels (relative to the same months in the prior year), spelling an overall 9% fall in exports under the FTA.  In six of those ten months, including the most recent month, U.S. imports from Korea exceeded pre-FTA levels, yielding a 2% increase in imports under the FTA.  As a result, the U.S. trade deficit with Korea under the FTA's first ten months is 30% -- or $4 billion -- larger than in the same months before the deal took effect.  The graph below summarizes this none-too-pretty picture for U.S. jobs, depicting the difference between Korea trade levels under the FTA (April 2012-January 2013) and those occurring in the same months one year earlier, before the FTA took effect.  

As Obama administration trade negotiators meet in Singapore this week to hash out the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive expansion of the Korea FTA model, they should take a gander at this data. If the Obama administration hopes to fulfill its promise of a rebirth in U.S. manufacturing, a restoration of middle-class wages, and a recovery of decent jobs, it cannot afford to sign another sweeping FTA that expands upon the Korea FTA's sorry track record.  

March 8 Korea Trade

March 06, 2013

Florida Gets Organized to Stop the TPP

This guest post comes from Dominique Aulisio, a concerned community member from Lakeland, FL:

Earlier this year, Alisa Simmons, Global Trade Watch’s National Field Director, came to Florida to speak at engagements in nine cities throughout the state to expose and explain the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement. The speaking tour came together thanks to a true grassroots effort on the part of individuals and organizations determined to push past the silence on the TPP from the Obama administration and the media. Together we organized events in Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Gainesville, Orlando, Lakeland, Tampa, Immokalee, Lake Worth, and Miami. At each stop, community members who are aware of the negative impacts of NAFTA or are simply wary of expanding corporate power came out to learn about the TPP.

In Orlando, community members and Central Florida Jobs with Justice met with Senator Nelson and Senator Rubio’s offices. We thanked Senator Nelson for signing onto Senator Al Franken’s (D - Minn) letter concerning jobs and labor standards in the TPP. We asked that both Senators demand a release of the TPP negotiating text for review by Congress and the public. We also asked that they vote “No” on “Fast Track,” which would allow the Obama administration to ram approval of the TPP through Congress, without members having a chance to say what should or should not be in the secretive TPP text.

Throughout the speaking tour stops, we found that most attendees had never heard of the TPP before the tour. Many reacted with surprise and anger when they learned about the provisions the Obama administration is secretly negotiating that give more power to corporations. Many responded with comments about “global corporate governance” and “loss of national sovereignty” when they learned about the private tribunals the TPP will create to allow corporations to sue countries for impacting profits by enforcing their own environmental and labor laws. Participants were stunned when they learned that aspects of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) are being swept under the rug in the TPP, and that there are provisions included to ease offshoring of jobs, decrease food safety standards, and decrease access to medication. One student at Florida State University said, “It just sounds preposterous that it’s being allowed to happen.”

In each city, participants showed great interest in learning more about the TPP and educating their communities. A truly diverse and vibrant network has sprung up organically to facilitate further trainings and organize demonstrations throughout Florida. Various actions are taking place across the state this week, culminating with a march on Saturday the 9th, as negotiators meet for the 16th round of TPP talks in Singapore. We are thrilled that so many people across the state feel as passionate as we do about stopping the TPP, and we invite others across the country to join in on the week of action. Communities in Florida are convinced that the TPP is a bad deal for us here in the States and also find it crucial to show solidarity with people around the world who will be negatively impacted by the TPP. 

March 04, 2013

Ahead of Singapore Round of Trans-Pacific Partnership Negotiations, U.S. Public Opposition to Deal Grows

More Than 400 Civil Society Groups Call for Transparency and Core Principles for International Economic Pacts, While the AFL-CIO Releases New Organizational Resolution Criticizing Direction and Process of TPP Talks

WASHINGTON, D.C. – With the sixteenth round of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations slated to begin today in Singapore, opposition to the deal in the United States continues to mount. More than 400 groups representing a diverse range of causes – from labor rights, to environmental conservation, to public health, to Internet freedom and much more – have signed on to a letter to Congress calling the lack of transparency in TPP negotiations “inconsistent with democratic principles” and outlining expectations of how key issues should be addressed in commercial agreements of the 21st century.

Adding to the criticism, on February 27, the AFL-CIO released an executive council statement questioning the current path of TPP negotiations. It stated, “The United States cannot afford another trade agreement that hollows out our industrial base and adds to our substantial trade deficit.” It continued, “We do not need another trade deal that simply boosts corporate profits by encouraging offshoring good jobs while undermining wages, benefits and worker rights. We must do better.”

Members of Congress have been signaling their growing concern with the TPP process and substance with respect to threats to American manufacturing and Buy American procurement preferences, the undermining of Internet freedom and more.

President Barack Obama has called for completion of the TPP, which would be the largest U.S. trade agreement since the 1995 World Trade Organization, by early October. To date, Congress and the public have been denied access to draft texts of the massive pact, which has been under negotiation for three years.

Only five of the TPP’s 29 chapters pertain to traditional trade matters. The rest would set policies to which the U.S. Congress and state legislatures would be required to conform U.S. non-trade policies relating to regulation of energy and other services, financial regulation, food safety, procurement policy, patents and copyright policy, and more.

The draft pact also includes NAFTA-style foreign investor rules that facilitate job offshoring by removing many of the risks and costs of relocating U.S. production to low-wage countries. Among TPP negotiating countries is Vietnam, the lower cost offshoring alternative to China.

March 01, 2013

The Obama Administration Wants to Sell You a Used Trade Policy

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) just released the 2012 annual trade report and 2013 trade agenda of the President.  It reads a bit like a used car salesman trying to do his best with a lemon.  The report/car’s well-polished sheen looks pretty… until you take a peek under the hood. 

Take the first sentence: “Trade is helping to drive the success of President Obama’s strategy to grow the U.S. economy and support jobs for more Americans.”  Almost makes you forget that last year’s non-oil trade deficit rose to a five-year high, implying the loss of millions of jobs, doesn’t it?  How about the second sentence: “The Obama Administration’s trade policy helps U.S. exporters gain access to billions of customers beyond our borders to support economic growth in the United States and in markets worldwide.”  That’s an interesting way to frame a year whose sluggish two percent export growth rate put us 18 years behind schedule in achieving Obama’s export-doubling goal.  The report continues on with its pitch, trying its darndest to pretty up what amounts to a year of ugly trade policy impacts for workers and consumers, and what appears to be more of the same planned for the 2013 trade agenda. 

Before you buy this “certified pre-owned” trade policy, let us help interpret some of the report's glossy claims:

Fast Track

The report’s first page features these two sentences: “To facilitate the conclusion, approval, and implementation of market-opening negotiating efforts, we will also work with Congress on Trade Promotion Authority. Such authority will guide current and future negotiations, and will thus support a jobs-focused trade agenda moving forward.”  Those lines have prompted a frenzy of press speculation that the Obama administration could ask Congress for Fast Track, the controversial tool that presidents from Nixon to Bush II have used to seize Congress' constitutional prerogative to set trade policy.  Fast Track has been newly euphemized as "Trade Promotion Authority." (It's not a "clunker," it's a "mechanic's dream.")  Much of the press hubbub has been over whether or not Congress would or should revive the "politically contentious" Fast Track authority for Obama. But that's not the right question. We should be asking: what kind of trade negotiating system should replace Fast Track?  It's time for a modern, democratic trade negotiating process to replace an autocratic Fast Track system that predates disco. 

It's interesting that the administration decided to devote two lone sentences to Fast Track in a 382-page report. Why not be more forthright in heralding a new push for Fast Track?  Because when asking for something unpopular, it makes sense to whisper.  And Fast Track is vastly unpopular.  Before being allowed to die in 2007, Fast Track was a Nixon-conceived attempt to sidestep checks, balances and other pesky features of a democratic republic by taking from Congress its Constitution-granted prerogative to determine trade policy. In one fell swoop, Fast Track 1) delegated away Congress’ authority to choose trade partners and set the substantive rules for “trade” pacts that have deep ramifications for broad swaths of non-trade domestic policy, 2) permitted the executive branch to sign and enter into FTAs before Congress voted on them, 3) forced a congressional vote on FTAs, and 4) suspended amendments and truncated debate when that vote occurred.  It was under this legislative luge run that we got NAFTA, CAFTA, the Korea FTA, etc.  Fast Track's extreme approach has created many an opponent (right, left, and center), spurring politically costly battles for past presidents that have attempted to wrest the unpopular authority from Congress.  

If Fast Track carries such political liability, why is the Obama administration pursuing it?  Well, according to today's report, it's to “facilitate” the passage of FTAs like the TPP (see below).  But if the TPP is such a “high-standard” agreement, what’s the harm in letting Congress get a good look at it, rather than handcuffing their involvement with Fast Track?  Doing so would save Obama the political grief of a Fast Track fight.  Or maybe there’s something even more objectionable about the TPP itself that requires Fast Track’s unparalleled sequestration of congressional power to get the deal enacted?  

Again, the choice is not Fast Track or no Fast Track.  It's Fast Track or a sensible model of trade policymaking for a modern democracy.  A new model of delegated authority would respect Congress' responsibility to play the lead role in determining the outcome of “trade” deals that intend to rewrite policies regarding financial regulation, immigration, climate and energy policy, healthcare, food safety, etc.  

Trans-Pacific Partnership

USTR reiterates throughout the report its standard definition of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as “a high-standard regional trade agreement that will link the United States to dynamic economies throughout the rapidly growing Asia-Pacific region.” (italics added)  The primary problem with this pitch is that we’re already quite linked with these economies -- as in, 90 percent linked.  The United States already has trade deals with six of the seven largest TPP negotiating economies, which constitute 90 percent of the combined GDP of the negotiating bloc.  The TPP “dynamic economies” with which we don’t already have liberalized trade include Vietnam, where annual income per person is $1,374, and Brunei, which has a population smaller than Huntsville, Alabama.  As we’ve said time and again, this deal is not primarily about trade. 

What is it about?  It's about banning Buy American policies that support U.S. jobs; discreetly enacting provisions of the congressionally-defeated, Internet-freedom-threatening Stop Online Piracy Act; restricting safety standards for imported food; empowering foreign investors to directly challenge governments’ public health and environmental policies while demanding taxpayer compensation for “expected future profits;” counteracting efforts to reregulate Wall Street; giving pharmaceutical corporations better tools to undermine drug cost containment policies; and more.  USTR appears to have omitted such details in today's report.   

Under a section entitled “Inclusion of stakeholders at Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations,” USTR boasts that “Stakeholder engagements and briefings provided an opportunity for the public to interact with negotiators from all of the participating countries and provide presentations on various trade issues, including public health, textiles, investment, labor and the environment.”  We have indeed given such presentations…while TPP negotiators were simultaneously scheduled to be on the other side of the negotiating venue.  It’s hard to engage trade negotiators who are supposed to be in two places at once.  We do appreciate the attempt at engagement, but would appreciate a more concerted effort

After patting its back for being “open” and having “unprecedented direct engagement with stakeholders,” USTR includes this: “At the same time, the Administration will vigorously defend and work to preserve the integrity of confidential negotiations, because they present the greatest opportunity to achieve agreements that fulfill U.S. trade negotiation objectives.”  Here USTR is trying to explain the equivalent of a used car's missing motor: an unbending commitment to not release the TPP negotiating text.  While claiming “unprecedented” engagement with stakeholders, USTR’s decision to keep the TPP negotiating text secret from the public, the press, and even congressional offices is “unprecedented” among 21st-Century trade deals of this scope.  The World Trade Organization (WTO), hardly a paragon of transparency, posts key texts online for public review. In addition, when the last major regional “trade” agreement (the Free Trade Area of the Americas) was at the same stage as the TPP is now, the text was formally released by the U.S. and other negotiating governments (in 2001). It’s hard to claim genuine engagement with stakeholders when those stakeholders cannot see the thing in which they hold such a stake. 

Trans-Atlantic FTA

The report reiterates President Obama’s State of the Union surprise: that the United States intends to not just negotiate a NAFTA-style pact spanning the Pacific (the TPP), but also one spanning the Atlantic. In brief discussion of the Trans-Atlantic FTA (TAFTA), the report says, “Such a partnership would include ambitious reciprocal market opening in goods, services, and investment, and would offer additional opportunities for modernizing trade rules and identifying new means of reducing the non-tariff barriers that now constitute the most significant obstacle to increased transatlantic trade.”  But this deal, even more than most, is not about trade.  Says who?  USTR itself.  U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, in a briefing on the deal said that the administration has resisted including the word “trade” in the name of the deal “because it is so much broader than trade.” 

With tariff levels already quite low between Europe and the United States, this FTA appears to be primarily about those “non-tariff barriers” standing in the way of “regulatory coherence.”  What might such opaque terms mean?  In the past, they have been code for a lowest-common-denominator approach to reducing all those safety, environmental, health, financial stability and other domestic regulations that corporations have not been able to roll back via domestic pressure.  “Trade” deals provide a handy forum in which to write binding rules that contravene such regulations.  What regulations in particular might be on the hoped-for chopping block?  European firms have already taken aim at U.S. financial regulations, while U.S. corporations have long been annoyed by Europe’s tougher policies against unsafe food, GMOs, and carbon emissions.  Big agribusiness, oil and gas, chemical, and financial firms on both sides of the Atlantic may be hoping to undermine such policies in a new TAFTA, to the detriment of, well, just about everyone else. 

Exports and Jobs

The report informs the reader that “Data from 2012 showed that every $1 billion in U.S. goods exports supported an estimated nearly 5,400 American jobs...”  Good to know.  What about an additional $1 billion in imports?  As per usual, USTR trumpets the gains of exports without looking at the other side of the trade equation.  In the same way that exports are associated with job opportunities, imports are associated with lost job opportunities when they outstrip exports, as dramatically occurred last year.  The non-oil U.S. deficit in goods rose six percent in 2012 to $628 billion, the largest non-oil U.S. trade deficit in the last five years.  According to the Obama administration’s own math, that degree of negative net exports implies the loss of 3.4 million jobs.  That data from 2012 didn’t make it into the report. 

Readers of Eyes on Trade know that U.S. exports to Korea under the Korea FTA have been faring particularly poorly: they fell 10 percent in 2012 after the deal took effect (compared to the same months for 2011).  How did USTR deal with this inconvenient truth in its annual report?  It didn’t.  With respect to the three FTAs implemented in 2012, the report states “…in 2013 we will work with Korea, Colombia, and Panama to ensure that the bilateral trade agreements that went into effect last year continue to operate smoothly…”  A ten percent fall in exports for a deal that was sold under the unrelenting promise of “More Exports. More Jobs?”  Real smooth.  It seems that these are not the things one mentions in an annual report when one’s accompanying agenda for the next year includes more of the same FTAs (e.g. TPP), sold under the same “More exports. More jobs” pitch.   

Buy American and Green Procurement Policies

Wonder why our exports and job growth has been so sub-par recently?  USTR thinks it has found the answer—that scourge of our economic woes called “localization.”  Here’s what the report has to say on the topic: “We are also actively combating “localization barriers to trade” – i.e., measures designed to protect, favor, or stimulate domestic industries, service providers, and/or intellectual property (IP) at the expense of goods, services, or IP from other countries…Localization barriers to trade that present significant market access obstacles and block or inhibit U.S. exports in many key markets and industries include: requiring goods to be produced locally; providing preferences for the purchase of domestically manufactured or produced goods and services; and requiring firms to transfer technology in order to trade in a foreign market…Building on progress made in 2012, the localization taskforce will coordinate an Administration-wide, all-hands-on-deck approach to tackle this growing challenge in bilateral, regional, and multilateral forums…” 

Before the USTR dedicates the few hands it has on deck to scour the globe for pernicious localization policies, it might want to check out a few of our own.  Namely, Buy American.  This program, widely-supported among Republicans, Democrats and independents, provides a textbook example of USTR’s definition of a “localization barrier.” Buy American explicitly “provides preferences for the purchase of domestically manufactured or produced goods,” by requiring that U.S. tax dollars be spent on domestic firms when the U.S. government purchases construction equipment, vehicles, office supplies, etc.  Did USTR have in mind the elimination of this job-supporting program? Their trade agenda would certainly indicate so –- the TPP and other FTAs ban the Buy American treatment for any foreign firms operating in new FTA partner countries. 

“Localization” also implicates Buy Local and other green procurement policies that governments are increasingly using to transition to a greener economy.  Ontario, for example, has employed a renewable energy program that requires energy generators to source solar cells and wind turbines from local businesses so as to cultivate a robust supply of green goods, services, and jobs.  The program has earned acclaim for its early success in generating 4,600 megawatts of renewable energy and 20,000 green jobs.  But one group hasn’t had much acclaim to offer: the WTO.  In a ruling at the end of last year, the WTO decided that the successful program’s local requirements violate WTO rules.  Today's report confirms indications that USTR now also intends to take on such climate-stabilizing “barriers to trade." Last month, the United States initiated a WTO case against India, attacking buy-local components of its solar energy policy.  A refurbished trade agenda that undermines an urgently-needed clean-energy agenda?  Sounds like a lemon. 

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