Last Wednesday, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi repeated in no uncertain terms her opposition to granting President Obama authority to seek “fast-track” approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a mammoth “free trade” deal the US has been negotiating in secret since the days of George W. Bush. Fast-tracking the TPP—which Senate majority leader Harry Reid also opposes—would allow the administration to submit the treaty for an up-or-down vote, thus protecting it from any debate or discussion or amendments. Without that authority, the administration would have to take into account the vehement objections of labor unions and other opponents of the treaty, who rightly note that the pact—the text and scope of which have been zealously guarded from public scrutiny—would likely do irreversible harm to American workers and consumers; fast-tracking the TPP would allow its corporate backers and their congressional allies to run roughshod over the treaty’s opponents and avoid a much-needed debate.
If all this sounds familiar, it should: a common nickname for the TPP is “NAFTA on steroids,” and it is worth recalling now how clear it was twenty years ago (to anyone who cared to look) that NAFTA would have precisely the horrific impact on American industry, as well as on the global environment, that it has indeed had. In The Nation, writer after writer warned about NAFTA’s pernicious consequences, in terms that could easily be applied—with perhaps even more force—to the TPP today.
In our March 29, 1993 issue—after NAFTA had been signed by President George H.W. Bush but before Congress approved it—Noam Chomsky wrote in “Notes on NAFTA: ‘The Masters of Mankind’”:
One consequence of the globalization of the economy is the rise of new governing institutions to serve the interests of private transnational economic power. Another is the spread of the Third World social model, with islands of enormous privilege in a sea of misery and despair. A walk through any American city gives human form to the statistics on quality of life, distribution of wealth, poverty and employment…Increasingly, production can be shifted to high-repression, low-wage areas and directed to privileged sectors in the global economy. Large parts of the population thus become superfluous for production and perhaps even as a market, unlike the days when Henry Ford realized that he could not sell cars unless his workers were paid enough to buy cars themselves.
While President Obama has laudably dedicated the remainder of his term to reversing the alarming inequality that has gripped the country in recent decades, his push for TPP seems to demonstrate an insufficient historical awareness of the consequences of free-trade agreements. As Chomsky predicted, NAFTA has only worsened inequality, transferring unprecedented wealth and power from the working and middle classes to the bank accounts of the 1 percent:
The trade agreements override the rights of workers, consumers, and the future generations who cannot ‘vote’ in the market on environmental issues. They help keep the public ‘in its place.’ These are not necessary features of such agreements, but they are natural consequences of the great successes of the past years in reducing democracy to empty forms, so that the vile maxim of the masters can be pursued without undue interference.
In a special issue devoted to NAFTA, dated June 14, 1993, The Nation wrote in its lead editorial:
NAFTA is no simple exercise in good-neighborliness. It is a watershed in U.S.—and Mexican—economic history. To ratify the treaty is to condemn U.S. workers to more hard times, to confine Mexican workers in an economic ghetto utterly dependent on El Norte, to reduce the power of labor against ownership, to ravage the American industrial landscape and to transform forever the dream of America as a just and prosperous place of hope.