10 Tall Tales on Trade: Fact-Checking Obama’s Top Trade Official
Yesterday was a difficult day for U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman. He had to go before Congress and explain how the administration’s plan to expand a trade model that has offshored U.S. manufacturing jobs and exacerbated middle class wage stagnation fits with President Obama’s stated “middle class economics” agenda.
Inconveniently for Mr. Froman, it does not.
That did not stop Froman from trying to paint the last two decades of Fast-Tracked, pro-offshoring trade deals – and the administration’s plan for more of the same – as a gift to the middle class.
The facts he cited to support this depiction actually sounded great. They just didn’t have the added advantage of being true.
Here’s a rundown of the top 10 fibs and half-truths that Froman uttered before the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee yesterday in his sales pitch for the administration’s bid to expand the NAFTA “trade” pact model by Fast-Tracking through Congress the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
1. Fast Track Puts Congress in the Driver’s Seat (of a Runaway Car, without Brakes or a Steering Wheel)
Froman: “[Fast Track] puts Congress in the driver’s seat to define U.S. negotiating objectives and priorities for trade agreements.”
Okay, let’s go with this analogy. If reviving Fast Track puts Congress in the driver’s seat, it also removes the brakes and steering wheel. Reviving Fast Track would empower the administration to negotiate and sign a sweeping “trade” pact like the TPP – implicating everything from the cost of medicines to the safety of food to the reform of Wall Street – before Congress had any enforceable say over the deal’s contents, even if they contradicted Congress’ stated negotiating objectives. Goodbye steering wheel. Congress’ role would be relegated to an expedited, no-amendments, limited-debate vote on the already-signed deal. Goodbye brakes.
Also, if we’re talking about Fast Tracking the TPP, the car is already going 60mph. As a couple of members of Congress pointed out to Froman, the administration has been negotiating the TPP for more than five years, and Froman himself stated that TPP negotiations are in their endgame. Even if Froman’s assertion were true that Fast Track allows Congress to define priorities for trade agreements (rather than ensuring that such priorities are not enforceable), it’s a little late for members of Congress to be naming priorities for a deal that has been under negotiation since 2009 and that Froman hopes to close in the coming months.
2. A Trade Surplus with Our FTA Partners (Does Not Appear in Official Government Data)
Froman: “You take all of our FTA partners as a whole, [and] we have a trade surplus. And that trade surplus has grown.” Froman also claimed that the United States has a trade surplus in manufactured goods with its FTA partners. And he tried to use red herrings to explain away the surging U.S. trade deficit with Korea under the Korea FTA.
These claims defy official U.S. government data. Data from the U.S. International Trade Commission show that the United States has a $180 billion U.S. goods trade deficit with all free trade agreement (FTA) partners (in 2013, the latest year on record). In manufactured goods, the United States has a $51 billion manufacturing trade deficit with all FTA partners. Froman claimed otherwise, in part, by counting billions of dollars’ worth of "foreign exports" – goods produced abroad that simply pass through the United States without alteration before being “re-exported.” These goods, by definition, do not support U.S. production jobs.
Contributing to our FTA deficit is the 50 percent surge in the U.S. goods trade deficit with Korea in just the first two years of the Korea FTA, which literally was used as the U.S. template for the TPP. This deficit increase, owing to a drop in exports and rise in imports, spells the loss of more than 50,000 American jobs in the FTA's first two years, according to the ratio used by the administration to claim the pact would create jobs. Froman tried to explain away the ballooning U.S. trade deficit under the Korea FTA as due to decreases in corn and fossil fuel exports. But even if discounting both corn and fossil fuels, U.S. annual exports to Korea still fell under the FTA, and the annual trade deficit with Korea still soared. Product-specific anomalies cannot explain away the broad-based downfall of U.S. exports to Korea under the FTA, which afflicted nine of the top 15 U.S. sectors that export to Korea. The disappointing results also cannot be blamed on low growth in Korea since the FTA. Though Korea's growth rates in the last several years have not been spectacular, the economy has still grown since the FTA (3 percent in 2013), as has consumption (2.2 percent, adjusted for inflation, in 2013). Koreans are buying more goods, just not U.S. goods.
3. We Wish to Ensure Access to Affordable Medicines in the TPP (but Big Pharma Won’t Let Us)
Froman: “In negotiations, like TPP, we are working to ensure access to affordable life-saving medicines, including in the developing world, and create incentives for the development of new treatment and cures that benefit the world and which create the pipeline for generic drugs.”
These words play politics with people’s lives. They cloak the tragic reality that if the TPP would take effect as USTR has proposed, with leaks showing even greater monopoly protections for pharmaceutical corporations than in prior pacts, people would needlessly die for lack of access to affordable medicines. A new study finds, for example, that the TPP would dramatically reduce the share of Vietnam’s HIV patients who have access to life-saving antiretroviral medicines. The study reveals that while 68 percent of Vietnam’s eligible HIV patients currently receive treatment, U.S.-proposed monopoly protections for pharmaceutical corporations in the TPP would allow only 30 percent of Vietnam’s HIV patients to access antiretrovirals. As a result, an estimated 45,000 people with HIV in Vietnam who currently receive antiretroviral treatment would no longer be able to afford the life-saving drugs.
Froman also indicated in the Senate hearing that USTR is pushing to include a special monopoly protection for pharmaceutical firms that contradicts the Obama administration’s own stated objectives for reducing the cost of medicines in the United States. President Obama’s budget proposes to reduce a special monopoly protection for pharmaceutical firms with regard to biologic medicines – drugs used to combat cancer and other diseases that cost approximately 22 times more than conventional medicines. To lower the exorbitant prices and the resulting burden on programs like Medicare and Medicaid, the Obama administration’s 2015 budget would reduce the period of Big Pharma's monopoly protection for biologics from 12 to seven years. The administration estimates this would save taxpayers more than $4.2 billion over the next decade just for federal programs. However, Froman suggested yesterday that USTR continues to push for the 12 years of corporate protection in the TPP, which would lock into place pharmaceutical firms’ lengthy monopolies here at home while effectively scrapping the administration’s own proposal to save billions in unnecessary healthcare costs.
4. Most Exporters are Small Businesses (that Have Endured Slow and Falling Exports under FTAs)
Froman: “15,600 firms export from Pennsylvania. Almost 90 percent of them are small and medium sized businesses. And the question is whether with these trade agreements we can create more opportunities for these kinds of businesses.”
Implying that exporting is mainly the domain of small businesses because they make up most exporting firms is like implying that the NBA is a league of short people because most NBA players are shorter than 7 feet tall. The reason small and medium enterprises (defined as 500 employees or less) comprise most U.S. exporting firms is simply because they constitute 99.7 percent of U.S. firms overall (in the same way that those of us below 7 feet constitute more than 99 percent of the U.S. population). The more relevant question is what share of small and medium firms actually depend on exports for their success. Only 3 percent of U.S. small and medium enterprises export any good to any country. In contrast, 38 percent of large U.S. firms are exporters. Even if FTAs actually succeeded in boosting exports (which they don’t, per the government data noted below), exporting is primarily the domain of large corporations, not small businesses.
As for whether “with these trade agreements we can create more opportunities” for small firms, the record of past FTAs suggests not. Under the Korea FTA, U.S. small businesses have seen their exports to Korea decline even more sharply than large firms (a 14 percent vs. 3 percent downfall in the first year of the FTA). And small firms’ exports to Mexico and Canada under NAFTA have grown more slowly than their exports to the rest of the world. Small businesses’ exports to all non-NAFTA countries grew over 50 percent more than their exports to Canada and Mexico (74 percent vs. 47 percent) during a 1996-2012 window of data availability. The sluggish export growth owes in part to the fact that small businesses’ exports grew less than half as much as large firms’ exports to NAFTA partners (47 percent vs. 97 percent from 1996-2012).
5. We Try to Be Transparent (with the Corporate Advisors Who Can Access Secret Texts)
Froman: “And to ensure these agreements are balanced, we seek a diversity of voices in America’s trade policy. The Administration has taken unprecedented steps to increase transparency… We have held public hearings soliciting the public’s input on the negotiations and suspended negotiating rounds to host first-of-a-kind stakeholder events so that the public can provide our negotiators with direct feedback on the negotiations.”
“A diversity of voices” is an odd way to describe the more than 500 official trade advisors with privileged access to secretive U.S. trade texts and U.S. trade negotiators. About nine out of ten of these advisors explicitly represent industry interests. Just 10 of the more than 500 advisors (less than 2 percent) represent environmental, consumer, development, food safety, financial regulation, Internet freedom, or public health organizations. It’s little wonder that so many of these groups, excluded from setting the content of the TPP, have denounced leaked TPP texts as presenting threats to the public interest. And as for the claim of “unprecedented steps to increase transparency,” the reality is closer to the opposite. When the Bush administration negotiated the last similarly sweeping trade pact – the Free Trade Area of the Americas – USTR published the negotiating text online for anyone to see amid negotiations. In a step backwards from the degree of transparency exhibited by the Bush administration, the Obama administration has refused repeated calls from members of Congress and civil society organizations to release TPP texts. This secrecy limits the utility of the public hearings and stakeholder events that Froman touts, as it is difficult to opine on a text you are prohibited from seeing.
6. Supporting Manufacturing and Higher Wages (Is a Goal in Spite of Our Trade Policies)
Froman: “In 2015, the Obama Administration will continue to pursue trade policies aimed at supporting the growth of manufacturing and associated high-quality jobs here at home and maintaining American manufacturers’ competitive edge.”
The only objectionable word in this sentence is “continue.” Since NAFTA, we have endured a net loss of nearly 5 million manufacturing jobs – one out of every four – and more than 57,000 manufacturing facilities. While not all of those losses are due to NAFTA, the deal’s inclusion of special protections for firms that relocate abroad certainly contributed to the hemorrhaging of U.S. manufacturing. The U.S. manufactured goods trade balance with Canada and Mexico in NAFTA’s first 20 years changed from a $5 billion surplus in 1993 to a $64.9 billion deficit in 2013. The U.S. Department of Labor has certified (under one narrow program) more than 845,000 specific U.S. workers – many of them in manufacturing – as enduring “trade-related” job losses since NAFTA due to the offshoring of their factories to Mexico or Canada, or import competition from those countries. And under just two years of the Korea FTA, U.S. manufacturing exports to Korea have fallen. Overall, the United States has a $51 billion trade deficit in manufactured goods with its 20 FTA partners. Reviving manufacturing and reviving Fast Track for the NAFTA-expanding TPP are incompatible.
Froman: “At a time when too many workers haven't seen their paychecks grow in much too long, these jobs typically pay up to 18% more on average than non-export related jobs.”
Froman neglects to mention a key reason that too many workers haven’t seen their paychecks grow: NAFTA-style deals have not only incentivized the offshoring of well-paying U.S. manufacturing jobs, but forced these workers to compete for lower-paid service sector jobs, which has contributed to downward pressure on wages even in non-offshoreable sectors. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about three out of every five displaced manufacturing workers who were rehired in 2014 experienced a wage reduction. About one out of every three displaced manufacturing workers took a pay cut of greater than 20 percent. As increasing numbers of American workers, displaced from better-paying jobs by current trade policies, have joined the glut of workers competing for non-offshoreable jobs in retail, hospitality and healthcare, real wages have actually been declining in these growing sectors. A litany of studies has produced an academic consensus that such trade dynamics have contributed to the historic increase in U.S. income inequality – the only debate is the degree to which trade is to blame. The TPP would not only replicate, but actually expand, NAFTA’s extraordinary privileges for firms that relocate abroad and eliminate many of the usual risks that make firms think twice about moving to low-wage countries like Vietnam – a TPP negotiating partner where minimum wages average less than 60 cents an hour, making the country a low-cost offshoring alternative to even China.
7. The TPP Supports an Internet that Is Open (to Lawsuits for Common Online Activity)
Froman: "We will continue to support a free and open Internet that encourages the flow of information across the digital world."
Repetition of this platitude has failed to assuage the concerns of Internet freedom groups that point out that leaked TPP texts do not support Froman’s assurances. In a July 2014 letter, an array of Internet service providers, tech companies, and Internet freedom groups wrote to Froman about leaked TPP copyright terms, some of which resemble provisions in the defeated Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which could “significantly constrain legitimate online activity and innovation.” Noting the deal’s terms on Internet service provider liability, the groups stated, “We are worried about language that would force service providers throughout the region to monitor and policy their users’ actions on the internet, pass on automated takedown notices, block websites and disconnect Internet users.”
8. Our Exports Have Grown (More Quickly to Non-FTA Countries)
Froman: “Our total exports have grown by nearly 50 percent and contributed nearly one-third of our economic growth since the second quarter of 2009. In 2013, the most recent year on record, American exports reached a record high of $2.3 trillion...” “By opening rapidly expanding markets with millions of new middle-class consumers in parts of the globe like the Asia-Pacific, our trade agreements will help our businesses and workers access overseas markets...”
U.S. goods exports grew by a grand total of 0 percent in 2013. The year before that, they grew by 2 percent. As a result, the administration utterly failed to reach President Obama’s stated goal to double U.S. exports from 2009 to 2014. Most of the export growth Froman cites – which is less than half of the administration’s stated objective – came early in Obama’s tenure as a predictable rebound from the global recession that followed the 2007-2008 financial crisis. At the abysmal export growth rate seen since then, we will not reach Obama’s stated goal to double 2009’s exports until 2054, 40 years behind schedule.
Froman ironically uses this export growth drop-off to argue for more-of-the-same trade policy (e.g. the TPP). The data simply does not support the oft-parroted pitch that we need TPP-style FTAs to boost exports. In the first two years of the Korea FTA, U.S. exports to Korea have fallen 5 percent. Overall, 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 30 percent over the last decade. That’s not a solid basis from which to argue, in the name of exports, for yet another FTA.
And if we’re seeking to export to those countries that are growing the fastest, then the TPP is the wrong trade pact. Of the TPP countries with which we do not already have an FTA, all but one are actually growing more slowly than the per capita growth rate of the East Asian and Pacific region overall.
9. Increases in Food Exports (Have Been Swamped by a Surge in Food Imports)
Froman: “In 2013, U.S. farmers and ranchers exported a record $148.7 billion of food and agricultural goods to consumers around the world.”
Yes, U.S. food exports have increased, but not nearly as much as food imports. In 2013, the total volume of U.S. food exports stood just 0.5 percent higher than in 1995, while imports of food into the United States had more than doubled (growing 115 percent since 1995). Existing FTAs have contributed to the imbalanced food trade. The average annual U.S. agricultural deficit with Canada and Mexico under NAFTA’s first two decades reached $975 million, almost three times the pre-NAFTA level. And under the first two years of the Korea FTA, U.S. agricultural exports to Korea plummeted 34 percent. Smaller-scale U.S. family farms have been hardest hit. About 170,000 small U.S. family farms have gone under since NAFTA and NAFTA expansion pacts have taken effect, a 21 percent decrease in the total number.
10. The TPP Takes Heed of NAFTA’s Mistakes (and Builds on Them)
Froman: “I think the President has made clear that as we pursue a new trade policy, we need to learn from the experiences of the past and that’s certainly what we’re doing through TPP and the rest of our agenda. For example, when he was running for President, he said we ought to renegotiate NAFTA. What that meant was to make labor and environment not side issues that weren’t enforceable, but to bring labor and environment in the core of the agreement and make them enforceable just like any other provision of the trade agreement consistent with what Congress and the previous administration worked out in the so-called May 10th agreement.”
When candidate Obama said in 2008 that he would renegotiate NAFTA – a pact that had become broadly unpopular for incentivizing the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing jobs – most people probably didn’t imagine that he meant expanding those offshoring incentives further. But the TPP would extend further NAFTA’s extraordinary privileges for firms that relocate abroad to low-wage countries (like TPP negotiating partner Vietnam). Most people also probably would not expect “learning from the experiences of the past” to lead to an expansion of the monopoly protections that NAFTA gave to pharmaceutical corporations, thereby reducing the availability of generics and increasing the cost of medicines. But Froman himself stated yesterday that such corporate protections – antithetical to textbook notions of “free trade” – are part of the TPP’s NAFTA-plus provisions.
And though Froman touts the May 10 deal as an improvement over NAFTA for labor rights, a recent government report has shown the May 10 provisions to be ineffective at curbing labor abuses in FTA partner countries. A November 2014 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found broad labor rights violations across all five surveyed FTA partner countries, regardless of whether or not the FTA included the labor provisions of the vaunted May 10 deal, including unionist murders in Colombia and impunity for union-busting in Peru. Several of the TPP negotiating partners are notorious labor rights abusers – four of them were cited in a recent Department of Labor report for using child and/or forced labor. Vietnam, meanwhile, outright bans independent unions. Why would incorporation of the same terms that have failed to curb labor abuses in existing FTAs be expected to end the systematic labor rights abuses of TPP partners?
And despite the May 10 deal’s environmental provisions, the TPP’s extraordinary investment provisions would empower thousands of foreign firms to bypass domestic courts, go before extrajudicial tribunals, and challenge new domestic environmental protections as "frustrating their expectations." Corporations have already used such foreign investor privileges under existing U.S. FTAs to attack a moratorium on fracking, renewable energy programs, and requirements to clean up oil pollution and industrial toxins. Tribunals comprised of three private attorneys have already ordered taxpayers to pay hundreds of millions to foreign firms for such safeguards, arguing that they violate sweeping FTA-granted investor privileges that the TPP would expand. Provisions, such as those in the May 10 deal, that call for countries to enforce their environmental laws sound hollow under a TPP that would simultaneously empower corporations to “sue” countries for said enforcement.