Foreign Policy Blogs

The Trans-Pacific Partnership: How the 1% Continues to Steal Us Blind


As ordinary Americans are continuously distracted by Holiday shopping deals, Dancing With the Stars, and things in their own, personal lives, the wealthy one percent class of elites that we hear so much about has kept its eye on the prize. Ordinary Americans might be wondering if the Dow Jones Industrial Average is at record highs, why has unemployment remained at around seven percent? Why has underemployment (discouraged workers and part-timers who seek full-time work) remained even higher? Why are ordinary Americans working longer hours for less pay? Why has America’s standard of living decreased for this new millennial generation?

Answering such questions is not a simple task. However, at this point in time it is important to understand that the global economic order is dominated by neoliberal institutions. That is to say, institutions that prioritize the principles of privatization, deregulation, and trade liberalization in the pursuit of an ever-increasing accumulation of capital.

Proponents might say that this free-market, hyper-capitalism is the most successful economic system the world has ever seen: the system constantly re-invents itself by advancing technologically and by discarding inefficiencies. Human beings are ourselves being overtaken by the efficiency of machines. After all, who needs to pay a deliveryman $30,000 per year while paying part of his healthcare insurance when you can simply invent a drone to do the job? As a former worker at Stop & Shop supermarket, I saw how many cashier positions (which were already low-paid enough) were gradually eliminated to introduce the new “self-scan” technology.

Critics might say that the profits made in this system are concentrated to such an extent within the one percent wealthiest class that income distribution in the world, much less in the United States, has reached completely unacceptable levels of unfairness, if it wasn’t at such levels already. The modest regulations and safety nets that were fought tooth and nail for and won by America’s activists and working class during a near century long struggle against nefarious business practices by the corporate elite are at risk now more than ever under this economic model. More and more Americans need to seek government welfare in the form of food stamps, Medicaid, and unemployment benefits in order to survive with any dignity. More and more Americans are losing their physical wealth in the form of their homes, businesses, land, and possessions which is transferred to the one percent who trawl in their rewards after creating the conditions for such robbery to be permitted by their reckless and amoral financial actions.

This thievery is not always so overt. Sometimes it happens right under our very noses. And thus, we come to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed regional free trade zone involving the countries highlighted in the map above. The agreement’s framework has been negotiated between the twelve countries since 2008 in complete secrecy. It was only last month that documents released by Wikileaks revealed many of the grand design plans, and they are very troubling to say the least.

Firstly, there is a lot of legalese over suggested intellectual property provisions, specifically with respect to access to prescription drugs. In short, patents held by the some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical corporations would be used to monopolize and control the region’s various healthcare systems by forcing parties to the TPP to purchase brand name drugs. For a more extensive analysis, you should read Michelle Chen’s excellent piece in Dissent Magazine.

Trade disputes would be adjudicated by an unelected panel of arbitrators and would allow foreign corporations to sue the United States. For example, if there is a risk to an investment made by a multinational corporation (perhaps the MNC does not comply with U.S. federal environmental laws), they can bring a civil suit before the panel and quite possibly be awarded damages if the unelected, unaccountable arbitrators decide in their favor. After all, such regulations can hurt profits. The consequences of such an incident would likely be the drastic curtailment of valuable regulations pertaining to environmental and labor standards across the board so as to reduce the odds of the state being sued again.

Lobbyists for many of America’s largest corporations — General Electric, Goldman Sachs, and Pfizer were named specifically by renowned journalist Bill Moyers — are pressuring President Obama to push for a straight “up and down” vote when the framework of the deal is ready to be ratified. That is to say, there will be very little time to read the agreement in its entirety, much less comprehend the more nuanced aspects of it. 132 members of Congress signed a letter addressed to U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Ron Kirk asking for “broader and deeper consultations with members” of Congress, as is the legislative branch’s Constitutional right.

Despite that petition, the Obama administration has negotiated the deal in almost complete secrecy. I say almost because you can be sure some of the corporate giants mentioned above know full-well the particulars of the agreement and are chomping at the bit ready to utilize all of the provisions of the TPP to further enrich themselves at the expense of the working class, the sick, and the environment.

Opinions on trade liberalization among Americans has been on a steady decline since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in 2010 shows more than half in America feel free trade hurts the country, which is up significantly from prior studies in years past. 83 percent of blue-collar workers blame the phenomenon of outsourcing for the struggling economy. Others agree cheap imports hurt small, American businesses.

And yet I would hazard a guess these very same people would refuse to give up their Japanese-manufactured cars, their Chinese-assembled Ipods, their Korean-made Samsung Galaxies. I would also hazard a guess that these are the very same people who line up at 4am, or earlier, outside of retail stores on Black Friday to purchase these commodities at discounts. Until a shift in public consciousness allows ordinary Americans to connect the dots between these types of secret trade deals, cheap foreign imports, and the race to the bottom that defines our neoliberal economic order, we will all of us remain powerless to change this prevailing narrative.

Photo: Gaius Publius @



Tim LaRocco
Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.

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