“This is not a trade agreement. It’s about intellectual property and dispute settlement.”
As opponents and advocates of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) continue to battle it out, the debate over the agreement has largely focused on the issue of trade – whether jobs will be lost or gained, what the agreement will do to our trade deficit, and other related matters.
It’s worth pointing out that the United States already trades heavily with the other 11 nations included in the TPP talks. As Paul Krugman says, “this is not a trade agreement. It’s about intellectual property and dispute settlement; the big beneficiaries are likely to be pharma companies and firms that want to sue governments.” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has been particularly critical of the so-called Investor State Dispute Settlement provisions, which would empower corporations to use international courts to sue the U.S. government and others who are enacting regulations and protections that harm their profits.
The Obama administration is arguing that the deal is instead about trade and increasing American exports abroad. They have set up a web page on the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) site listing the benefits of exports from each of the fifty states in order to argue for the Trans-Pacific agreement.
Yet an obscure government document put out by that very same office makes Warren’s case for her. The office puts out an annual report on “foreign trade barriers” around the world, going country by country to list complaints the U.S. government has about their laws with respect to commerce. If you read the 2015 report, you’ll quickly see that many of the complaints are about laws designed to promote environment, labor, and anti-monopolistic practices – and relate only vaguely to the larger issue of trade and tariffs. The complaints seem more focused around opposing regulations that restrict the rights of multi-national corporations and their investors.
The introduction to the report lists a number of regulations that the USTR lists as “trade barriers”; these include “sanitary and phytosanitary measures” and “lack of intellectual property protection.” This would potentially open up the USTR to considering, say, MP3 file sharing or a food safety law as trade barriers.
Let’s look at just a few of the specific “barriers” they cite:
FOOD SAFETY: The USTR report repeatedly criticizes measures countries are taking related to food safety. In Argentina, the USTR is critical of a requirement that U.S. pork be shipped frozen or tested for trichnosis. In Guatemala, the report objects to Guatemala’s practice of fumigating 90 percent of U.S. agricultural products that are imported, saying these fumigrations “increase the cost of U.S. agricultural exports to Guatemala.” Hong Kong recently passed a code banning marketing of infant formula to children up to three years old, the USTR says it is “continuing to engage” with the government on that particular measure, questioning whether it is “more restrictive than relevant international standards.”
GMOs: The USTR frequently complains about countries limiting food derived from biotech crops. The report complains that “India’s biotech rules have not been notified to the WTO.” South Korea’s system for approving of biotech goods is “redundant” and leading to “disruptions to exports of U.S. biotech products.” Kuwait’s relatively new system to label biotech goods is listed as a barrier to trade.
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY: The report complains that the “scope of patentable subject matter is extremely restricted under Argentine law,” referencing “innovators in pharmaceutical and agricultural chemical sectors” – which is a way of saying pharmaceutical companies don’t have enough right to declare patent monopolies and control the prices of their drugs. With regards to Chile, the USTR complains that there is an “inadequate legal basis” to sue for infringement of copyright.
None of this is to say that labor, environmental, health, and other regulations are not sometimes used as inadvertent trade barriers to protect industries from competition. Take, for example, the U.S. ban on Canadian pharmaceutical drugs, which mostly serves to enrich our own domestic industry. It does show, however, that our “trade” agreements are increasingly about protecting corporate rights by taking aim at laws protecting the public interest, not increasing actual trade and exports.