(Shout-out to my friend Steve King, who wrote the protest song Ive nicked the post title from.)
So last week, our beloved leaders signed up to the TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement). They were always going to, of course. Since this National Government was first elected in 2008 there have been three clear, consistent patterns to their behaviour. One is dismissing objections to their decisions, as with child poverty, charter school outcomes, river pollution from intensive dairy farming, and the revelations that the GCSB has spied on New Zealanders. Another is favouring business in any way they can, as in asset sales, tax cuts, 90-day trial period no-fault firings, and the various formerly protected parcels of land and seabed now opened to mining. And the third is undermining democracy, as with Environment Canterbury, students associations, tertiary education governing bodies, and the number of times theyve used Parliamentary urgency i.e. skipping the pesky public submission part of the legislative process for controversial but non-urgent Bills.
All three of these patterns are perfectly embodied in the TPPA. Dismissing objections: the text of the TPPA has been kept strictly secret, which means nobody can object to anything specific (but Trade Minister Tim Groser gets to call us all ignorant and fools for not knowing what we have been expressly prevented from knowing). Favouring business: what we do know about the TPPA is that its about removing tariffs and price controls imposed by governments, while extending intellectual property rights. Undermining democracy: the TPPA will allow corporations to sue governments for imposing laws or regulations that hurt their profits.
It turns out that, despite all Grosers prior reassurances, New Zealand actually gets a pretty crap deal out of the TPPA. The best we get is a small tariff reduction on dairy dairy being the one great super-product that two successive governments have bet New Zealands future on, the thing were destroying our rivers and lying to the world about it for. All the rest is what Idiot/Savant over at No Right Turn calls margin of error stuff. Danyl McLauchlan at The DimPost notes that the TPP will deliver the equivalent of a couple of months of growth in ten years time. And yet we went ahead and signed it anyway, because its better than not being in a secretive trade partnership that could sue the crap out of us, right guys? Right, guys? What this tells me is that the cynical view of Nationals motives is wrong. Theyre not amoral manipulators just out to score cash for their CEO cronies; if they were, they would have turned this down. Its much worse than that. Theyre true believers with an ideology. No matter the evidence, no matter what actually happens, the way forward is always to boost business and remove impediments to it. No other option is on the table.
This week, TPPA supporters have been chaffing its opponents about the absence of baby-killing clauses in the agreement. Thats a pretty low bar to clear, really. Im given to understand that some kind of exception was drawn so that tobacco companies cant sue governments for anti-smoking campaigns which is well and good, but why cant we see what the agreement actually says? This is a partnership between nations, not a one-off transaction between two private individuals or even two private corporations. What everybodys worried about is the Investor/State Dispute clauses, the prospect of our government being sued because its laws hold back some corporations profits. Its not just that that makes a nonsense of having regulations in the first place, since you only need to stop people from doing stuff if theres some kind of profit motive tempting them to do it. Its that, to enforce the lawsuits, the TPPA must somehow bind governments into obeying it.
That would mean that even if an undisputed majority of New Zealanders voted for some environmental or human rights protection, our elected representatives would have to clear it with their corporate masters first. Now its not quite as hopeless as it sounds. New Zealand has what is called Parliamentary sovereignty, which means that no overseas governing body can overrule Parliament. Even if we do lock ourselves into this agreement, a new, braver Parliament can always vote to overturn it and default on any lawsuits. The problem of course is that we would then face trade sanctions from other TPPA signatories. Whether that would be worse than what the TPPA imposes on us anyway is an open question. But first we need the brave Parliament. Looking at the two biggest political parties in this country right now, Im not hopeful.
How did we get into this mess? Its no mystery whats motivating the corporates, but I thought Barack Obama and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark were both relatively enlightened people, as heads of states go, and theyre not just assenting to the TPPA but pushing it. For that matter, what is the ideology behind Nationals come-what-may support of it? Tim Groser and John Key are both Members of Parliament. What are they doing tying their own hands? Actually, Ive got a pretty good idea. The Western world nowadays works on the tacit assumption that businesses get done what needs to be done, whereas government (especially democratic government) is mostly only good for getting in the way except when you need police to get those people, with their drugs and their single mothers, off your lawn. This assumption has filtered down from economists.
The economic theory taught in most universities today is classical economics, which uses simple maths to prove that free trade is nearly always the quickest way to the best outcome. Unfortunately as well as the maths the theory depends on some dodgy assumptions about what makes people tick and what constitutes the best outcome. Economists generally are bad at designing empirical tests for their ideas. As a science, economics is about where medical research was two hundred years ago:
Conventional medicine in [the late eighteenth century] was obsessed with theory, and was hugely proud of basing its practice on a rational understanding of anatomy and the workings of the body. Medical doctors in the eighteenth century sneeringly accused homeopaths of mere empiricism, an over-reliance on observations of people getting better. Now the tables are turned: today the medical profession is frequently happy to accept ignorance of the details of mechanism, as long as data shows that treatments are effective (we aim to abandon the ones that arent), whereas homeopaths rely exclusively on their exotic theories...
Even then, doctors werent completely oblivious to what happens inside human bodies, and I wouldnt say economists are clueless as to the workings of wealth in society. I freely concede that trade is what they call positive-sum, which is to say that the trading partners total combined wealth is greater after the trade than before it. To think of it as zero-sum, where one partners gain is anothers loss, would be ignorant, and thats why economists (and politicians like Tim Groser with them) tend to smirk at leftists and ignore us. They assume we just dont get the maths. In some cases this is true, and the Lefts tendency to dismiss these criticisms rather than answer them is, I think, one major reason why weve lacked traction since the Reagan-Thatcher ascendancy.
So heres a partial answer to that criticism: its not enough to be positive-sum. Suppose three partners broker a trade deal which ends up with two of them gaining $1 each and the third one gaining $100. Thats positive-sum the net gain is $102 but thats small comfort for the first two partners. An economist might dismiss their concerns as irrational resentment, since they have after all made a gain, if a small one; but the third person now has a great deal more market power than they do, and that doesnt bode well. The third person might, for instance, pay much more for certain goods or services than the other two can afford, thus pushing the price up out of the latters reach. This economic powerlessness is the position of an ordinary worker in a capitalist society, and its pretty much New Zealands position in an international trade partnership.
Economic inequality has been shown to have worse effects on public health than poverty as such, and it occurs to me that this might help explain why. If everyones poor, pharmaceutical companies and similar providers have to sell their products cheap or theyll get no custom. If theres a rich elite, and if the goods are expensive to produce, you can see how it might prove more profitable to sell lower quantities for a higher price. That has the unavoidable side-effect of removing the treatment from most peoples reach. (Now Im just a blogger and this paragraph is speculative, and I would hope people would do some rigorous empirical studies before accepting it as fact; but its about as much justification for ones conclusions as you ever hear in an economics lecture.)
Im not against trade per se and as such. Analyses of the statistics of war have found evidence that countries who trade with each other are less likely to fight. If you can buy somebodys stuff off them, you dont need to try to kill them for it. International organizations, of any kind, also reduce the chances of war between their members. (You know what else does? Democracy.) And I dont endorse the words or actions of those who oppose the TPPA for racist or xenophobic reasons. I have spent much more of the last week than I would have liked trying to argue down Jewish world domination conspiracy theories in an anti-TPPA Facebook group. I think the idea of a partnership between the nations of the Pacific is an excellent one if, and only if, it is democratically run by the people of those nations.
Democracy doesnt even have to mean governments. It means decisions should be made by the people most affected by them. Another part of the Lefts problem, speaking as someone who was six years old when the neoliberals took over in 1984, is that when you say We think this and this and this should be held in trust by the State, people under the age of forty or so look at how trustworthy the State has been all our lives and go Um, how about no. How about democratically-run businesses, where the executives are elected by the workers? How about local communities putting environmental assets in trust, so companies have to pay to exploit them? How about free content-sharing on the internet, and internet service providers pay content creators by popularity? Yes, youd need the State somewhere in the background clearing its throat loudly when people break rules, but the State itself wouldnt have to run things. Of course the key point, as youll have gathered from the above, is that these are ideas to try out and see if they work, not things to push ahead with as ideologically necessary.
Sadly, as New Zealand hasnt got a Bernie Sanders or a Jeremy Corbyn, I guess these ideas will remain just ideas. Perhaps America and the UK will swing left again in the next few years and a select group of New Zealand politicians will suddenly realize they were social democrats all along. Thats how it usually seems to go. Were followers, not leaders. And right now were following the Pied Piper down a very deep hole.