A report released by the U.S. International Trade Commission last week found, as Deirdre Fulton notes, "that the controversial trade deal" — the Trans-Pacific Partnership (also known by some as NAFTA on steroids) — "will produce negligible economic benefits while damaging most Americans' jobs and wages."
To a large extent, the report falsifies — or, at least, calls into question — many of the key premises of the Obama administration's argument in favor of the far-reaching pact.
President Obama, himself, has stepped into the fray and lobbied aggressively for the agreement, often demeaning those who speak out against it. He has made it clear that he views the passage and implementation of the deal as a crowning achievement that will ultimately cement his legacy as an advocate of free trade and economic development worldwide.
He has insisted that the deal will boost growth, create jobs, "promote American values," "protect American workers," and erode unnecessary trade barriers.
The agreement's contents, however, differ wildly from the advertised product.
Indeed, much of the discussion of the deal's potential effects on economic growth is, in fact, a red herring, a distraction that prevents discussion of the underlying purpose of trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
So-called "free trade agreements," in short, are not enacted to grow the economy. And they are certainly not enacted to protect workers. They are enacted to grant business greater control over the global economy.
This point is far from controversial — or, frankly, original.
Critics of the "trade" deal — from the liberal mainstream (Paul Krugman) to the activist left (Ralph Nader) — have noted that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is hardly a trade deal, at all.
"Is he completely unaware of the nature of the argument?" a puzzled Krugman asked in response to fellow New York Times contributor Greg Mankiw who, in a piece written in April of last year, praised the "wisdom of free trade" in the context of the debate about the TPP that was, at the time, raging in Congress.
"One thing that should be totally obvious," Krugman continues, "is that it's off-point and insulting to offer an off-the-shelf lecture on how trade is good because of comparative advantage, and protectionists are dumb."
And here's the key point underlying Krugman's gripe with Mankiw: "For this is not a trade agreement," Krugman writes, referring to the TPP. "It's about intellectual property and dispute settlement; the big beneficiaries are likely to be pharma companies and firms that want to sue governments."
For Krugman, Mankiw's entire piece was a diversion, one that served to direct attention away from "the issues that need to be argued" — namely, the parts of the agreement that, for instance, grant corporations the right to sue governments for lost profits, effectively giving business the power to manipulate the policies of sovereign nations and undermine regulations that safeguard the public against corporate overreach.
We are seeing this now, on a smaller scale, in Uruguay, where the tobacco giant Philip Morris is suing the country over its cigarette packaging laws, which require "manufacturers to cover at least 80 percent of the packaging with medical warnings and graphic images."
Philip Morris is claiming that, by implementing these regulations designed to improve public health, the government of Uruguay is violating the terms of an investment treaty with Switzerland (the location of Philip Morris International's operational headquarters).
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If TPP is made the law of the land, this kind of case will become a common occurrence: Big companies, empowered by the legal clout granted by the agreement, will be permitted to sue governments — in secret tribunals — over future profits lost due to laws and regulations.
Those asserting that the TPP is a brazen corporate power-grab, then, are not far off — in fact, they are closer to the mark than those who insist that the agreement is about trade, or growth, or workers' rights.
While Krugman has gone off the rails in his antagonism toward Bernie Sanders throughout this year's primary process, his voice in opposition to the TPP, and in illuminating its true purpose, is an important one. And it is a point at which he and activist groups can converge in rejecting an agreement that, like other deals of this kind, will harm workers and the environment.
To thwart the TPP, mass organization will, of course, be necessary — and it has, in many countries, already begun. But it will also be necessary to re-frame the debate in such a way that reveals the deal's underlying objectives.
Most agree, Johnson notes, that trade is good. But it is evident that the TPP is more about empowering multinational corporations than anything else.
As Vox's Timothy B. Lee observes, "Previous trade deals have removed so many trade restrictions that there just isn't much room for further progress." This, in essence, means that "the nature of trade agreements has shifted. They're no longer just about removing barriers to trade. They've become a mechanism for setting global economic rules more generally."
In a democratic society, one would expect that working people — those who will be disproportionately affected by an agreement of this kind and magnitude — would have some clout at the negotiating table. In the case of the TPP, however, as Lee points out, "it was secretive, it was dominated by powerful insiders, and it provided little opportunity for public input."
It was, in short, precisely what we would expect from a government that has granted disproportionate influence to the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
As Alleen Brown reported in The Intercept last year, massive corporations, from General Electric to Nike, had relatively unhindered access to the negotiations, while groups representing workers were kept in the dark, forced to rely on Wikileaks for details.
The entire process — from the lobbying by President Obama to the secretive negotiations to the successful attempt to forcefully ram the agreement through Congress — is an indictment of America's political establishment. Democrats, while they put up a mild fight, did not do nearly enough in opposition to the deal, and they eventually capitulated. Republicans, predictably, sided with corporate interests, even if it meant also siding with a president they have so persistently obstructed.
We have been told this agreement will be good for trade, good for growth, good for workers, and good for the environment. But the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. And, judging by the actual substance of the deal, the goal is not to promote growth or free trade. The goal is to further enrich and empower the already rich and powerful.
"If you make the facile assumption that the TPP is actually about free trade," writes Mike Masnick, "then you might be confused about all the hubbub about it. If you actually take the time to understand that much of what's in there has nothing to do with free trade and, in fact, may be the opposite of free trade, you realize why there's so much concern."