The Trans-Pacific Partnership, POTUS, Secrecy and Inequality

While no doubt the main event in the political world today is the Senate’s handling of the surveillance state (whether libertarian presidential candidate Rand Paul will delay debate on the reform bill “USA Freedom Act” long enough to cause the USA Patriot Act to expire at midnight) a no less pressing issue is the bill to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a bill that would allow President Obama to freely negotiate trade deals with eleven countries. The Senate approved that negotiation authority about a week ago, to be taken up in the coming weeks in the House, but some Senators have bemoaned the current fiasco over Patriot Act extensions as being caused by unwisely spending precious time on the TPP rather than expiring bills on surveillance and infrastructure funding, implying that the trade deal is rather inconsequential compared to the national security risks posed by letting the Patriot Act expire. On the contrary, the trade deal is massively important as its passage will have long term consequences for the continual decline of the middle class, thereby increasing economic, political and social inequality, and as the usefulness of the Patriot Act is modest at best, debate on TPP should be considered more important. As such, today I want to speak on the TPP while the media focuses on Senate dealings with the Patriot Act as an act of affirming that indeed the discussion on trade is more important than the discussion on surveillance. That is not to say that a discussion on surveillance is not crucial, only that the trade agreement will have a far more concrete impact on peoples’ lives.

The secrecy surrounding the written deal should be troubling in itself for failing to meet the governmental transparency that is necessary for a just democracy to be just that. Putting the issue of the importance of transparency for-it-self aside, this secrecy makes it near impossible for the public to know if the deal will benefit or harm them. Near impossible, because leaks of the document have made it clear that the major benefactors are corporations who would profit from requirements that participating nations more strictly enforce intellectual property rights — wins for Hollywood and Big Pharma. We don’t need leaks to know that there will be losses of American manufacturing jobs due to cheaper labor costs in the lands of our trading partners. So, the trade deal would have corporations make more money and restructure the American job market so that, upon more jobs being exported to trade partners, there are more workers competing for less jobs, which will drive down wages. Corporates will make more money, passing that wealth onto CEOs and shareholders, and middle class Americans will make less, expanding the income gap, and with it, intensifying economic, political and social inequality.

When confronted with challenges that the secrecy prevents Americans from knowing whether the deal is good for them, President Obama has remarked that it is not that the document is secret, it’s just that the deal isn’t finished, so there’s not much point in making the text as it currently stands public. This point fails to account for the fact that the current text is in a locked room in the basement of the capital and can only be viewed by Congressmen and women (their aides with proper clearance may accompany them), and that if they take notes while reading the document they are not allowed to keep those notes. That all sounds like pretty strict secrecy.

Not admitting that this amounts to secrecy, President Obama notes that despite these restrictions, the public can trust that the deal is good for them because they can trust him given his record. In an interview published in the Wall Street Journal, President Obama argued that, “when people start suggesting that these are secret deals, that there’s some hidden agenda, I have to remind them of who I am and what I’ve been doing for the last six and a half years [for the middle class] and – and ask them maybe to – to keep things a little bit in perspective.”

It seems the argument is that,

The policies I have supported have been good for the middle class.
I support TPP.
Therefore TPP must be good for the middle class. 
This argument is not very reassuring because it is an inductive argument from analogy (see my writing here for more on such arguments), where given the similarities between two or more things, it may be cogent to conclude another similarity. In order for the argument to be convincing the known similarities between two things have to be relevant to the similarity that is being inferred. If the similarities are irrelevant to the similarity being inferred then it is a weak argument from analogy. The similarity in question is that of being policies that President Obama supports. Is the fact that President Obama supports a policy relevant to whether it is good for the middle class? No, rather, a policy has properties that are relevant to it being either good or bad for the middle class, and so it is these properties that President Obama should reference as to why he is pushing for TPP. That is to say, the properties that a policy has are far more relevant to whether the policy is good for the middle class than whether President Obama supports the policy. If we are to have good reason to believe that TPP is good for the middle class we must know the specifics of TPP, not just that President Obama is in favor of it.

The public needs to know about the trade deal being negotiated so that they can share their concerns to their Congressmen and women, and just as crucially, Congressmen and women should be able to make drastic amendments to the deal if such a deal is to be made. It is true that if the documents were to be made public almost no citizens would read it, and so if voters did contact their representatives it would be about generalities about trade promotion, not the specifics of TPP. But this would be a drastic improvement, as having the TPP documents held in secrecy creates the appearance that the deal it not open to public debate. Making the process public would do much to create an atmosphere where Americans think government is accessible in those crucial times when the decisions the government makes will significantly impact the lives of Americans.


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  1. #1 by siriusbizinus on May 31, 2015 - 9:31 pm

    This posts reminds me of the episode of “Frontline” broadcast last Tuesday. People talked about how the President asked for Congress’s approval for airstrikes on Syria; they mentioned how it was an awful mistake for the President to seek Congress’s approval prior to launching a military action. It’s disheartening to see such rhetoric, especially that we are technically supposed to get Congressional authorization before engaging in war.

    On top of this, even if we excused the President’s argument, there is still evidence that he has not kept the middle class’s best interests at heart. He’s broken campaign promises (Gitmo is still open…), and he’s ordered drone strikes on U.S. citizens abroad. For quite a few mistakes of Bush, we have a President who is willing to capitalize on all of them while expanding use of them.

    This deal is being kept secret. If I can’t find a copy of it to evaluate it, then it is a secret. To argue otherwise is to insult my intelligence. When did we become a nation ruled by a benevolent elite? Because this sort of patronizing rhetoric from the President sounds exactly like that.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on June 1, 2015 - 9:41 pm

      Thanks for your comments, they strike me as dead on.

      You said, “even if we excused the President’s argument, there is still evidence that he has not kept the middle class’s best interests at heart”. This is very true. President Obama’s argument was essentially, “the policies I’ve supported in the past have been good for the middle class so it’s fair to infer that the reason I support TPP is because it’s good for the middle class.” But if the policies he’s supported in the past haven’t been good for the middle class then we have poor reason to think that his support of TPP is because it is good for the middle class. Whether POTUS’s policies have been on the whole good for the middle class is a difficult question to answer; it seems likely we will need a few years after his presidency to see what consequences they will have for the middle class.

      It’s also worth noting that the argument, “I’ve supported policies that are good for the middle class, I support TPP, thus, you can take my word for it that TPP is good for the middle class” isn’t very good when the Republican support for TPP makes it such that the implicit argument would be “I’ve supported policies that are bad for the middle class, I support the TPP, thus, you can assume that TPP is bad for the middle class”. Republican support for TPP makes POTUS’s argument very questionable indeed.

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