That was the big takeaway from an Organizing for Action conference call last night with one of President Obama's top advisers. Besides spending an hour not answering a few pre-selected questions, White House communications guru David Simas provided the several hundred Obamabots who phoned in with some handy talking points to convince their progressive friends that the TPP is progressive. (If you call runaway unregulated capitalism progressive, then I guess that would be a correct characterization.) The TPP would, for instance, make it easier for those struggling to get by in the New Economy to sell their crap on Ebay and Etsy. Those tariffs are apparently real killers when you're trying to unload a shitload of knockoff Beanie Babies on some rube in Vietnam.
I took copious notes on the conference call, and what follows is a rough and truncated, but essentially accurate, transcript. The moderator identified herself as Sara El-Amine of OFA. I've saved the debunking of the many White House claims promising TPP Nirvana for the end of this post. Meanwhile, I have marked the outright lies with an asterisk; the veiled threats are in bold; the many boilerplate bromides should simply speak for themselves.
Sara: There are hundreds of activists calling in tonight to listen to some of the most incredible minds and senior advisers named David Simas!
David Simas: The TPP is the pillar of what the president wants to do. In 2008, he said he'd renegotiate NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement.) He will enforce labor and environmental standards. He won't sign anything that doesn't have American workers at its heart. TPP at its heart is a renegotiation of NAFTA.
David: The Asian economy is the fastest growing in the world. Two billion Asian people will join the middle class economy. China has no labor and environmental standards. Will the world economy be ruled by Chinese values or progressive values? We have high trade surpluses*. We have to break through high tariff barriers to level the playing field. Ninety-eight percent of our exports are from small businesses. We will renegotiate NAFTA. We will protect intellectual property.
In 2014, President Obama brought nine trade enforcement actions against China. We got China to stop with hoarding the rare earth minerals. We sued Guatemala on their labor abuses.*
I don't like it when people say Fast Track authority. I want you to call it Trade Promotion Authority instead, because it's not fast. We need
Sarah: Wow. We received almost 6,000 questions and we have time for five. Next question: Is the TPP really NAFTA on Steroids?
David: NO,NO,NO. It will renegotiate NAFTA. It will put teeth in NAFTA. We will accept no imports from forced labor. There are good dispute resolution provisions.* This is an opportunity to fix NAFTA. Tell your friends! China. Level playing field. Compete.
Sara: How do we get other countries to play by the rules?
David: Enforcement! We filed a Guatemala action. Progressives must seize the Progressive Moment. Because China. We included 150 new environmental regulations in DR-CAFTA (Dominican-Central American Free Trade Agreement) alone.
Sarah: Beautiful! The next question is, why is the TPP so secretive?
David: So, this
Sarah: Incredible! But, some progressives are against it.
David: President Obama is a Progressive! If not
Sarah: Wonderful! One last question. What are some basic ways to talk about this? How do we go about it?
David: Begin with the status quo. If you're against the status quo of NAFTA, then the TPP is for you. This is an opportunity to compare the values that we hold dear to China's values. EBayers are exporters. Etsy could have its trade barriers lowered. Right now it's too competitive to sell our poultry to Vietnam. Exporters pay 18% higher wages. We have to out-compete and outsell everyone else. Thanks to OFA, wages are up* and incarceration is down. It's all about We. Thank you.
Sara: We will be sending out more information on how you can
That's the bullshit. Now for some reality.
Before I get started on last night's vapid propaganda, I'd like to point you to an investigative piece by Gaius Publius, about a related pro-TPP astroturf group co-opting the "progressive" mantle for fascist purposes. Called 270 Strategies, it's also run by former Obama campaign and White House staffers whose job is to plant friendly corporate coup stories in the mainstream media and gin up some drama. Writes GP:
Selling TPP as “progressive” is a stretch, but it’s an interesting move. It creates and leverages confusion on the left, and by dividing the left, attempts to finesse support for Fast Track, to sneak it past the finish line. Say “job killer” and the left is united against. Say “progressive” and “groundbreaking” and some on the left may be intrigued, may even be interested, may even be flattered enough to be tempted to agree.
This strategy may not work, but regardless, that’s the plan. 270 Strategies was hired to execute it — to put the confusion-sowing message bolded above, that TPP is a progressive treaty, into the mainstream press, to get that message mainsteam-blessed and make it part of “what everyone already knows.” As I said, a stretch, but that’s the job.
And just like magic, we suddenly see this in Politico.....
“Progressives Split on TPP”
Nice — and excellent message placement by the newly formed “Coalition” and their helpmates, 270 Strategies. Was this Politico paragraph the result of a nice “catch” by Politico, whose writers naturally read the same Daily Kos non-front-page diaries we do? Or did someone at the media-connected “270 Strategies” whisper into Politico’s ear on behalf of the “Coalition” and get them to put their — as I said, confusion-sowing — frame and message in the headline and then to bury the criticism (“astroturf” operation) behind a link that few will click? If I had to put money on it, I’d say the latter.Just to make sure they succeed, OFA is enlisting "hundreds" of the same unpaid stalwarts who walked door to door selling Obamacare insurance policies to now go door to door in order to propagandize for a corporate coup. The White House is openly encouraging people to lie and say it's a whole dismantling of NAFTA. Smells pretty desperate to me.
Notice that the “Coalition”-friendly framing is threaded throughout the paragraph. And notice that the only goal of this piece — of this whole operation, in fact — is to brand TPP as “progressive” and the disagreement as a disagreement “among progressives.” They don’t care, at this point, if the disagreement is covered, so long as it’s framed as a left-on-left discussion.
Mission accomplished. If 270 Strategies tried to be successful, they succeeded. If they didn’t try to succeed, they got very very lucky. Your call on which way this went down.
As well it should. What David Simas didn't see fit to mention on his conference call is that the trade deficit is actually worse since the passage of free trade deals. Government data released last week show that the trade deficit with Korea has skyrocketed by more than 80% since the passage three years ago of Obama's North America-Korea Free Trade Agreement. His promise that the pact would expand exports and create American jobs turned out to be the exact opposite of the reality. The equivalent of 85,000 American jobs have been lost because of that ill-conceived pact. And meanwhile, exports from Korea to the US have gone up by 18%.
Simas should be worried about auto exports. While the administration will try to spin the statistics, showing that American auto dealers sent an additional 23,000 passenger vehicles to Korea, South Korea exported an additional 450,000 of its own cars during the same time frame. That is real progress.
And then there was Simas's repetitive talking point about Obama's DR-CAFTA lawsuit against Guatemala over unfair labor practices. That trade pact, too, has had paradoxical consequences, to say the least:
Contrary to the promises of U.S. officials—who claimed the agreement would improve Central American economies and thereby reduce undocumented immigration—large numbers of Central Americans have migrated to the United States, as dramatized most recently by the influx of children from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras crossing the U.S.-Mexican border last summer. Although most are urgently fleeing violence in their countries, there are important economic roots to the migration—many of which are related to DR-CAFTA.As for Obama's promise that he will also insist on environmental protections in any TPP deal he signs, the history gives lie to his claim. Central American countries have been devastated and workers' lives destroyed,by predatory multinational mining industries laying waste to the landscape. His recent suit against Guatemala over its labor practices came conveniently just as Guatemalan children began crossing the border in the hundreds. Many of them were deported and others remain incarcerated in private Texas holding pens pending adjudication of their refugee status. The crackdown is also widely seen as a fig leaf for the TPP, a political ploy for the president to show that he's "serious" about protecting workers in trade partner countries.
One of the most pernicious features of the agreement is a provision called the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism. This allows private corporations to sue governments over alleged violations of a long list of so-called “investor protections.”
Now, let's get to Simas's boast that the TPP will protect intellectual property. This is the part that neoliberal economist Paul Krugman mildly dislikes the most about the TPP:
Um, maybe because Hollywood is one of Obama's biggest donors? In case any studio bigwigs were listening in to last night's conference call, David Simas wanted to send the message to them loud and clear that the politicians they've bought are still on board with copyright protections.So why do some parties want this deal so much? Because as with many “trade” deals in recent years, the intellectual property aspects are more important than the trade aspects. Leaked documents suggest that the US is trying to get radically enhanced protection for patents and copyrights; this is largely about Hollywood and pharma rather than conventional exporters. What do we think about that (slide 7)?Well, we should never forget that in a direct sense, protecting intellectual property means creating a monopoly – letting the holders of a patent or copyright charge a price for something (the use of knowledge) that has a zero social marginal cost. In that direct sense this introduces a distortion that makes the world a bit poorer.There is, of course, an offset in the form of an increased incentive to create knowledge, which is why we have patents and copyright in the first place. But do we really think that inadequate incentive to create new drugs or new movies is a major problem right now?You might try to argue that there is a US interest in enhancing IP protection even if it’s not good for the world, because in many cases it’s US corporations with the property rights. But are they really US firms in any meaningful sense? If pharma gets to charge more for drugs in developing countries, do the benefits flow back to US workers? Probably not so much.Which brings me to my last point: Why, exactly, should the Obama administration spend any political capital – alienating labor, disillusioning progressive activists – over such a deal?
Oh, and about that whole "TPP is NAFTA reform" malarkey. When Obama made renegotiating NAFTA a campaign promise in 2008, he was only kidding. Black Agenda Report has the long, sordid history of the president's serial NAFTA mendacity here. He was caught assuring the Canadians that it was just political posturing, that he had no intention of standing in the way of job-destroying hypercapitalism.
And as he'd told a group of banksters in 2006, at the launch of the conservative Hamilton Project, he is a hardcore free trader, fully aware that neoliberalism destroys jobs and is harmful to the middle class. "It's not," he blandly said,"a bloodless process."
And he wants volunteers to go out there and lie for him. This is how he always rolls. It's an m.o. that keeps on working.
Meanwhile, there's plenty of healthy skepticism out there. Congress critters are at least posturing their animus. Despite the transparency boasts of David Simas, House Democrats are upset that a White House meeting on the TPP set for tomorrow has been declared "classified."
Members will be allowed to attend the briefing on the proposed trade pact with 12 Latin American and Asian countries with one staff member who possesses an “active Secret-level or high clearance” compliant with House security rules. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) told The Hill that the administration is being “needlessly secretive.”One more debunk and I'm done, but please feel free to let me know if I've missed any other lies. To be fair to David Simas, though, when he said that wages are up, he probably meant to say that income is up, drastically... for the already hyper-rich plutocrats negotiating the TPP. High rollers gotta roll, right along with the nonstop propaganda.
“Even now, when they are finally beginning to share details of the proposed deal with members of Congress, they are denying us the ability to consult with our staff or discuss details of the agreement with experts,” DeLauro told The Hill.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) condemned the classified briefing. “Making it classified further ensures that, even if we accidentally learn something, we cannot share it. What is USTR working so hard to hide? What is the specific legal basis for all this senseless secrecy?” Doggett said to The Hill.