President Obama and his new sidekick, incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, are promising something different for 2015—bipartisan cooperation—but what they are really selling is the old politics of “free trade,” which has done so much damage to our country’s shared prosperity. Be forewarned: the mighty propaganda machine of the power elites is cranking up for action.
First on the Obama-McConnell agenda is a trade agreement—the Trans-Pacific Partnership—that puts the same stale wine in a fancy new bottle. The TPP is supposed to unite twelve nations (led by the United States) in adopting new global rules that will advance the profit of multinational corporations and international financiers. The rules do this by preventing individual governments (including the United States) from enforcing their own national standards and values.
The negotiations, which haven’t been completed yet, are being carried out in secret, keeping ordinary citizens in the dark, unable to see what is being lost or gained, who wins and who loses. But the political action starts soon, because Obama and McConnell both realize they must first neutralize Congress, where many liberal Dems and conservative Republicans are deeply skeptical about—even hostile to—more free-trade excursions. The two leaders will ask Congress to enact “fast track” legislation, in which the House and Senate must surrender their right to amend or repeal any section of the TPP that finally emerges. The president has a pig to sell—but he won’t let senators and representatives (not to mention citizens) see it until they first agree not to tamper with any of the details; they can vote up or down, but they’re not allowed to change a word.
Does this approach sound undemocratic, even un-American? On the basis of a quarter-century of injurious trade agreements, the power elites are likely to get their way. They always have in the past, starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, thanks to Bill Clinton, and continuing with other agreements that enabled US manufacturers to shift millions of jobs to low-wage economies in Asia and Latin America.
The string of successful trade deals has always had two consistent qualities. First, the establishment experts who promised millions of new jobs for Americans turned out to be wildly wrong (or maybe lying). Second, dissenters in Congress were typically coaxed or bullied into going along. For an elected representative, “fast track” can be a money vote—and if you vote the wrong way, you won’t get the fat-cat contributions needed for your next campaign.
But wait. Maybe this time would be different, because the conventional political assumptions that prevailed for two generations have been splintered by the financial crash and deep recession. The continuing downside has revealed a darkening future for ordinary Americans, or at least afflicted them with suffocating anxieties. They don’t know how to hang on when wages keep sagging and debts keep growing. The economy is at last gaining real vigor, and learned economists are leading the cheers for this new dawn. But things still look pretty dark for most Americans, since most of the benefits in the “recovery” have gone to the top 1 percent.