Part 1: What Is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, And Why Don’t I Care?

January 20, 2014


By Ian Hansen

This first part of a five part series introduces the Trans Pacific Partnership “trade deal” scam, identifies its potential dangers, as well as the dangers of allowing it to be “fast-tracked” through Congress. I also pose the question: why have activists been so ineffective at raising the mass awareness and mass outrage that the TPP threat warrants?


This is the first part of a five-part series: Sleeping Through the TPP Coup: Why a Trans-National Corporate Power Grab That Hurts Almost Everyone Is Arousing So Little Outcry

Part 1: What is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, And Why Don’t I Care?

Part 2: A Social Psychology of Anti-TPP Coordination Failure

Part 3: The Puzzle of “Liberal” Obama’s Support for the TPP

Part 4: Pitting Fear of Our Complicity Against the Fear to Resist the TPP

Part 5: Battling the TPP with Enlightenment, Love and a Thirst For Meaning in the Face of Death

If you are like most people you probably have not heard of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a secrecy-shrouded disaster deceptively marketed as a “trade agreement.” Corporations are hoping to ” fast track ” this generally unknown but massively significant piece of legislation through Congress, and the bill to do this was introduced on January 9. Fast-tracking a piece of legislation means that Congress is obliged to vote yea or nay on that legislation without amendment or debate within 90 days of its introduction. Due to the secrecy around the TPP and the practical constraints on digesting such a massive bill within 90 days or less, most Congressional representatives might find themselves forced to vote on the TPP largely without knowing what’s really in it. To ease their discomfort with this arrangement there will probably be a lot of earmarked pork for the districts and states of wavering representatives. That was the case with NAFTA–another so-called “trade agreement”–twenty years ago.

Occupy image of TPP by

So what is in the TPP and why should you care? The first question has to be answered a little speculatively because the contents of emerging TPP proposals and negotiations have been classified as a state secret. That secrecy has been punctured only by some negotiation documents leaked to TPP-watching groups (including two main chapters of the draft text released by Wikileaks). The secrecy even affects members of Congress. Were it not for the insistence of some brave representativesCongress would be kept entirely in the dark until the behemoth of a bill is officially introduced. Even now, Congressional access to draft texts is highly limited, though about 600 multi-national corporations have free access to these texts.

What the rest of us can do is cobble together a list of plausible suspicions based on portions of the negotiations that have been leaked and on the records of similar trade-deals-that-aren’t-really-about-trade (NAFTA, CAFTA, WTO, etc). Based on these sources of information, the TPP is likely to present a grave threat to the following human needs, in no particular order:

— access to medicine for the poor

— internet freedom

— the climate balance

— the environment generally

— labor rights

— buy local incentives (including “Buy American”)

— economy-stabalizing financial regulation

— public health care systems in countries that have them

— public services generally

— the rights of indigenous people

— national sovereignty

— government transparency

— democracy

— human rights

— manageable immigration and immigrant rights

— institutional resistance to human trafficking

More details on these provocative claims can be found within the links above–or if you like, you can scan other online resources like Public Citizen and Expose the TPP. In the interests of balance you can also read an article in Forbes criticizing Obama for not being a sufficiently enthusiastic booster of fast-tracking the TPP, and an article by New York Times economist Paul Krugman pondering what the big deal is 1 .

It is important to understand why some (though clearly not all) people are alarmed by the prospect of a classified 12-nation TPP trade-deal-that’s-not-a-trade-deal affecting 40% of the world’s GDP. This alarm make more sense when reviewing some of the standout outrages of other existing “trade deals.” These include the story of how Philip Morris sued Australia under an “investment treaty” with Hong Kong for being too solicitous of its citizens’ health. There’s also the story of how Infinito Gold sued Costa Rica for one billion dollars–one BILLION dollars–under its “trade agreements” with Canada for being too solicitous of its fresh water sources. Since Costa Rica’s annual GDP is only 45 billion , this is not chump change. And last but not least there’s the story of how the 1992 NAFTA “trade deal”–the one Americans are most familiar with–is responsible for a number of corporate attacks on the living standards, cultural fabric and national sovereignty of Mexicans, Americans and Canadians over the last 20 years. Clicking the links of this paragraph will allow you to familiarize yourself with these stories. They’re just the tip of a very large iceberg.

How to act if you’re ready to act

If you have checked out some of the info in the links, are now brimming with passion and want to take action immediately before reading the rest of this long series of articles, call 877-852-4710. You will be connected to your representative based on the zip code you give them. You can tell your rep that you are opposed to the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014 which will fast-track the secretive Trans Pacific Partnership.

There are also a number of anti-TPP petitions online, but one of the more efficient and innovative petition sites is Peace Team’s . It allows you to send faxes (which carry more weight) to your representatives and also a letter to the editor of your local paper.

Then grab your calendar and free up January 31, because that’s the Inter-Continental Day of Action against the TPP. Public Citizen and Expose the TPP each have a page devoted to activist options also. Or look in a search engine for “Trans Pacific Partnership” and “petition”, for “Trans Pacific Partnership” and “protest”, and for “Trans Pacific Partnership” and “action.” Search through facebook and twitter also.

If all that’s too much of a commitment right now, and you have more curiosity then passion, then just keep reading. Just because the general time frame is urgent, that doesn’t mean that your own individual decision is.

For now, please indulge me and just assume for the sake of argument that I am right about the TPP–that it’s a real disaster, a trans-Pacific quadruple NAFTA–or ” NAFTA on steroids ” as many are calling it. Then the question becomes, for most of us, “Why haven’t I heard about the TPP until now?” Or perhaps, “Why have I heard only a little about it–enough to know that various stripes of activists have a problem with it–but not enough to know why, or to care that much either?”

And then, for a smaller but still significant minority, there’s this question: “I’ve done some research on the TPP and on the consequences of other existing trade deals, but even after understanding why the TPP’s lack of transparency is ominous and why fast-tracking it is likely to catastrophically savage democracy, freedom, the environment and public health, why am I still having such a hard time working up the focused outrage to do anything about it?” This question is the most vexing, and answering it is key to answering the other two.

The puzzle of our passivity

Let’s start with the last group of puzzled questioners, the “Since I know it’s bad, why can’t I bring myself to action?” group. The existence of the last group isn’t troubling as long as the percentage of knowledgeable people burdened with being in this group is relatively small. “Relatively small” in this case means no bigger than for any other galvanizing issue, like the Stop Online Piracy Act ( SOPA), or theKeystone XL pipeline, or the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Unfortunately, I think that the percentage of TPP-knowledgeable people who fall into the inactive category is actually quite large relative to these other outrages–though the momentum seems to finally be building now.

I get this impression (that people who know about the TPP haven’t been as galvanized as they should be) from the fact that I haven’t seen a lot of anti-TPP posters, flyers or rallies out there, and the one anti-TPP protest I’ve managed to get to was relatively small. I also haven’t heard of many anti-TPP protests or attention-getting actions being reported in the media–even in the progressive-friendly left-alternative media–though here are a couple of happy exceptions: (1) (2) . I have even had the frustrating experience of joining a proposed anti-TPP rally on facebook and then showing up to find not a single person there (apparently it was “organized” by someone out of state). I’m crossing my fingers that the January 31 Inter-Continental Day of Action will get a little closer to the scale of the anti-WTO protests in 1999 (though hopefully without police violence or media misrepresentations).

The media, obviously, has not helped to raise awareness about the TPP. It’s not surprising, though, that the six major media corporations –all of whose CEOs would likely benefit under the bill–are participating in a de facto blackout on the story. Media blackouts are pretty common for any major progressive issue anyway, so that can only be part of the explanation for why so few people know what’s going on.

Outrage from an active minority of informed people can create events so impressive and popular (like those of the Occupy movement) that the media can’t ignore them. When this happens, the blackout gets punctured and the media moves on to mocking, lecturing and maligning the popular resistance movement instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. Even with the Wikileaks bombshell in November of last year, anti-TPP activism hasn’t gotten past first base yet, and now the bill to fast-track it has already been introduced to Congress. What’s been going on?

The lack of on-the-street action can only be partially attributed to lack of coverage. It’s not hard to find organizational statements and petitions (e.g. by Doctors Without Borders The Sierra Club , , P ublic Citizen Friends Committee on National Legislation , and the AFL-CIO ) speaking out against the secretiveness and likely harmfulness of the TPP. And Wikileaks , which released a subset of secret TPP draft texts on intellectual property (and, more recently, on the environment ), has a big enough public profile that its leaks should have been a bigger turning point than they have been. Other TPP-reporting progressive outlets like The Nation Democracy Now! Bill Moyers The Guardian , and The Huffington Post have a wide audience in the left-progressive political constituency too.

And news of the TPP has even traveled outside of the progressive bubble to some extent. Alex Jones, the famous Austin, TX-based libertarian (and false flag-obsessed) talk show host, hosts the sites Prison Planetand InfoWars . These sites have many TPP-related reports which have likely reached a good number of libertarians, conspiracy-minded conservatives and others who occupy an ambiguous zone in the divides of ideology. The more mainstream pro-business Bloomberg News has reported on the dangers of the TPP also. This means that the information has gotten out in some form to the people who are most likely to be passionate about it. But still too many the would-be passionate are not as passionate as this multi-level threat warrants.

I’m not saying that no good progress has been made in raising the alarm. The work done by those who have been active has been quite effective against the odds, and the two mid-November letters opposing fast-track from 23 Republican and 151 Democratic Representatives are a sign that even greater victories are within reach with more participation, imagination and determination.

I’m also not saying that every progressive person (or “crabgrass” conservative or whatever) is obliged to shift all their spare time and energy into fighting the TPP. Not everyone capable of passion is obliged to be passionate about any one issue. People should follow their own callings and not diminish the callings of others. It is generally unattractive to indulge one’s narcissistic hunger for validation by demanding the enthusiastic approval and committed participation of everyone else on earth at all times in one’s idiosyncratic passions and callings. There are lots of troubles in the world, and lots of good things you can do that do not require taking a stand on the TPP right now one way or the other.

Still, the degree of passionlessness over the TPP is objectively mysterious, mysterious enough to register as an intriguing social scientific question. The generally numb progressive response (and, as one bloggercomplains , Tea Party response) is not well-matched to the TPP’s outrageousness, the underhandedness of the process by which boosters are trying to ram it through, or to the number of movements, groups, public goods and democratic institutions that the TPP threatens.

The more values threatened, the less resistance?

In fact, the anemic resistance to the TPP by the most otherwise activism-ready individuals suggests the following disturbing rule: the more people, movements and categories of rights and freedoms that are likely to be curtailed by a piece of legislation, the less resistance that legislation is likely to elicit in the general population. That’s perhaps the opposite of what one would expect from a rational species (and it’s just a hypothesis, so it might be falsified by more systematically-gathered evidence). But human beings are only piecemeal rational, and there are a lot of cracks in human rationality that are easily exploited.

Consider these facts. SOPA elicited enough outrage among net heads to kill that terrible bill (which would have substantially curtailed internet freedom under the pretense of protecting intellectual property online). The Keystone XL pipeline elicited enough steady public outrage to delay the construction of that fossil-fuel monstrosity–steady activism has kept it at bay for more than five years now. And the vileness of fracking has elicited enough outrage to make certain politicians impose temporary moratoriums and even bans on that climate-warming, chemical-spewing, flammable faucet-making practice.

One might expect, then, that a bill like the TPP–which, among many other things, re-introduces some of the worst features of SOPA (and adds some more ) AND makes it easier for frackers to sue governments for passing anti-fracking legislation–would elicit at least twice as much outrage as either one of those evils elicited on its own. If anything, though, the opposite now appears to be the case.

Social psychology to the rescue?

A puzzle like this is one that the field of social psychology is supposed to be uniquely poised to solve, and since I’m a social psychologist, I’ll take a stab at it in the subsequent articles in this series.

Go on to Part 2: A Social Psychology of Anti-TPP Coordination Failure

1 A brief review of the linked evidence above will demonstrate, I think, that I am being only slightly hyperbolic in my estimate of the TPP’s likely carnage. Forbes, as might be expected, seems to be mindful only of its readers’ stock options and not of general human welfare. As for Paul Krugman’s article, it reads like a willful refusal to acknowledge that post-NAFTA “trade deals” aren’t really about lowering tariffs and import quotas–they’re about empowering large corporations to sue governments when governments don’t obey their commands. Krugman, in response to reader push back, has taken this criticism under consideration and is pondering the issue further. Yet he still seems mysteriously undisturbed by the secrecy of the negotiations and by the attempt to fast-track the finished product through Congress–contrast Nobel-Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz , who pretty much gets it.

Submitters Bio:

Ian Hansen is a social psychology professor specializing in cultural and political psychology and a part time activist on behalf of the good things in life.

Categories TPP

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