Sunday, January 12, 2014

Fast Track and Free Trade

Fast track negotiating authority, or the more benignly named Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), is a Presidential authority granted by the Congress to negotiate trade deals with other countries. Under this process, once a trade deal has been signed, Congress can vote only to accept or reject it in toto. The Congress does not have the right to modify any portion of the trade deal. In addition, it has only 60 working days to study and discuss the deal.

Unless you don't follow any politics, you would have no doubt come across a few articles with words like "TTIP", "TPP", or "TAFTA" in the headlines, and most likely ignored it because it did not seem related to the economy. Well, wrong decision. The Obama administration, i.e. the executive branch, is seeking fast track or TPA authority once again to negotiate trade deals with EU (TTIP - Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and TAFTA - Trans Atlantic Free Trade Agreement) and a bunch of Asian countries (TPP - Trans Pacific Partnership). All these trade deals are made under the assumption that increased trade benefits all parties involved. There is, perhaps, recognition that it affects adversely at least some segments of society, but that the overall benefits outweigh them.

I'm not sure what kind of public discussion took place when the original fast track authority was granted to the Nixon/Ford administrations in 1974-75. I could go back to newspaper articles from then to find out what was happening. For reasons I will explain below, I don't expect to find much in the newspapers. The most famous or infamous free trade deals signed under the fast track authority are the Canadian-American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which was signed in 1988, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was signed in 1993. Actually, I'm not sure about when exactly these deals were signed. There is some time lag (the 60 days) between the USTR (United States Trade Representative) signing the deal and it coming into effect. Still, 1988 and 1993 seem quite right.

When you try to look into accounts of public discourse on these trade deals in the US newspapers, you hardly come across anything substantive. Apparently, there was quite some discussion about CAFTA in Canada. Hardly anything in the US. By the time it came to NAFTA, because Mexico was involved, there was lot more discussion in the US. I'm not sure how much was reported (I really dont know - I did not scour through the nytimes archives). One important source of information - first person accounts - is CSPAN. Search for "NAFTA" and you'll have at your fingertips hours and hours of videos of discussions on free trade from 1987 to 2013. Of course, listening to hours and hours of video is, unless your work is related to aspects of trade policy, a terrible pain. Fortunately, CSPAN allows you to make clips from videos and I have identified a few videos from the CSPAN archive that I found particularly useful in becoming better educated about trade policy. You can find the full videos and clips here. I will write more about the contents of the videos themselves in a few days.

In the meantime, if you are interested in reading about trade, you can read some of the articles by Alan Tonelson, who writes incessantly on trade related issues at, literature at Global Trade Watch, and a book titled "Taking Trade to the Streets: The Lost History of Public Efforts to Shape Globalization" by Prof. Susan Ariel Aaronson, now at George Washington University. I'm sure there are many other books on this topic but this the only one I've read a little of and it is interesting. Lori Wallach, one of those few people who tried to argue against NAFTA and Fast Track in 1991 and also against TPP/TTip/Fast track now is out with a book "The Rise and Fall of Fast Track Trade Authority," which from her involvement on this issue then and now, seems to be worth reading. How can I forget to mention DemocracyNow?

You can also listen to some of the events related to trade at well-known think tanks. However, you will be sorely disappointed if you think there will be debate. Almost all of them believe that free trade is manna from heaven. I have rarely seen substantive debate on these issues at the think tanks. Even left-leaning think tanks like Center for American Progress hardly pay any attention to trade related issues or the trade deficit. What is sad is that newspapers do not write enough about this. It looks like in business and economics journalism, writing about trade and labor related issues is not sexy enough! Wall Street Journal may create a twitter handle called @WSJCentralBanks but I doubt they'll ever create one called @WSJTrade or even @WSJFreeTrade and report all that is unreported on this issue.

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