Sunday, 1 July 2012

Free Trade Is A Misnomer

You would think that saying no to dangerous treaties and laws, particularly when foreign lobbyists are the ones suggesting them and they're not going through the usual channels, is a no brainer. You'd be wrong. This is why.

Someone is going to have to say it: the US government has a distorted view of the world in which they are the greatest and everyone else is inferior. The trouble is, everyone else appears to accept this as fact. Why?

American imperialism in the digital age

In the year 2000, The Project for the New American Century, a right wing think tank, produced a report that promoted American hegemony via

  • increasing defense spending significantly;

  • strengthening ties to democratic allies and challenging regimes hostile to US interests and values;

  • promoting the cause of political and economic freedom abroad;

  • responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order

It's supposed to have folded at the end of 2006, but its ideas are apparently being implemented in the worst possible way. Its main thrust was about war, preparing for war, and fighting wars. The idea appears to have been appropriated by the world's biggest corporations, most of which are American. They use trade agreements and litigation, and the damage is about as bad. One idea they ought to have kept very firmly in mind appears to have been abandoned:

Any nation which cannot assure the free and secure access of its citizens to [the internet] will sacrifice an element of its sovereignty and its power.

I suppose it depends on whose sovereignty we're talking about. I'm based in the UK and can see our sovereignty and that of other nations being traded away for buttons and beads. If we let this continue, we'll all be under surveillance in order to gratify the noisiest lobbyists and prop up their failing business models.

Cultural dominance

USTR, the United States Trade Representative, has apparently taken a leaf from the PNAC book and has been merrily asserting US dominance via trade rather than war. It works because of the perception the rest of us have about the US as the hub of science and technology and because of the global dominance of US culture. We've bought into the myth because it's everywhere. You can't escape it, wherever you are. Walk down a road in a foreign country to get away from Western civilization. You will certainly come across villages where some of the natives wear baseball hats.

If you haven't got the time or the money to go abroad, and you're not American, switch on the television to see what's on. Most of the programmes and films are American. Go outside. If you live in a town or a city, you will come across a McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, or Pizza Hut sooner or later. Go into a shop; Coke, Kelloggs, and other American brands fill the shelves. Oreos have recently arrived and I expect to see Twinkies any day now. That's what is behind this; it's everywhere. Has anyone wondered why? Probably not.

The power of perception

America rules because America's cool. Even though I'm annoyed with their government I can't help remembering, as I type this, that I'm friendly with that icon of geeky goodness, an astronaut. His name is Ron Garan, if you're interested. Many of my favourite television programmes are American. I like Coke, damn it! And KFC. Even the slang I use and the open source programs, the websites I frequent, and the people I correspond with the most on G+ are American. Even the music I like... actually, most of the Eighties bands and artists I like are Anglo/Irish. But the slang terms and words I use are often, would you Adam and Eve it, mate, American. I "hang out" and "chill" with people. When they are agitated I say, "Be cool," and "It's all good." And let's be honest about this, the internet is pretty much an American invention. All the CMS I use are American. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.  But that's the problem.

America dominates and permeates everything we do whether we're aware of it or not, and even though other nations have taken over in terms of industry and commerce, the memory of America's greatness continues to distort our perception of it. Think of America. Which came to mind first; the Statue of Liberty, cowboys, or astronauts?


We think of democracy as American. They used to own space, but China is taking over. They used to be the hub of innovation, but much of that is being outsourced. Attempts by the Bible Belt brigade to control the population by opposing the teaching of critical thinking has resulted in a decline in STEM teaching. It's not a shortage of jobs that's hurting Americans — it's a shortage of the necessary skills to do the jobs that are available. It doesn't help that they're closing down public schools and replacing them with Charter Schools. Add to that the cost of maintaining a science program as well as the wars and one of the results is America's massive trade deficit. The other is that, because the dominant people are more interested in controlling their populations than serving them, they've resorted to restricting innovation by finding new ways to licence ideas, products, and services.

Critical thinking has been shifted to those on the liberal side of the political spectrum; even those allegedly average Americans I've corresponded with have, on occasion, displayed the most incredible stupidity and ignorance based on the political doctrines they have chosen to espouse. Debating with them is often difficult because they refuse to accept any facts that contradict their viewpoints. Libertarians decry "big government" and insist that the corporations and capitalism itself will save the country. One particularly insistent fellow told me that he didn't have the time to educate me but couldn't provide examples of his much-vaunted policies actually working. It's this my-way-or-the-highway approach that stops them learning or engaging with other people on an equal basis.

How this affects trade and treaties

They're still on top because they're convinced of their own superiority and we've bought so far into it that we don't usually question it. I didn't question it until SOPA. To be perfectly honest I used to be dismissive of efforts to rein in their overbearing foreign affairs activities because I didn't see it as being any of my business. SOPA changed that. Now I'm part of those efforts because I can't afford not to be.

As Oona A. Hathaway observes, the shift to executive agreements eviscerates democratic accountability, and serves the general national interest poorly. When the executive branch negotiates by itself and signs by itself, public participation is at its lowest. Thus, our trade policy ends up representing the interests of a few small groups who have access to the executive office’s ear, rather than the public at large. - Margot Kaminsky.

That's the problem. Somewhere along the line the USTR found it inconvenient to let Congress in on the trade agreements it was making in case they voted against them being signed into law, so they decided to enter into them as sole executive agreements. Therefore, democracy doesn't get in the way and only the special interest groups who got involved in the drafting and consultation of the agreements get to have a say in the wording, etc. Since intellectual property is Congress's purview, this is causing problems as American politicians wake up to the fact that they're being prevented from doing their job.

How this affects us

Basically, corporate interests are using compliant politicians and unelected state officials as puppets to push through legislation they want signed into law. The results are ridiculuous laws that enable trolling over patents, copyright, and brands. When they can, they get civil offences criminalised so they can use our law enforcement agencies as muscle in what amounts to a protection racket. Richard O'Dwyer and Anton Vickerman are examples of this. Wrongful website seizures are collateral damage. The innovations they purport to protect are basically ways of expanding vendor lock-in. This does not protect consumers, but enslave them.

It also means you can forget about national sovereignty when governments can be sued for diminishing their profits by implementing health and safety laws. It also creates a ridiculous situation whereby British courts grant American law enforcement jurisdiction over British use of British websites on British servers.

What you can do

It's not free trade, is it? It's a rather nasty, Darwinian game of winner takes all that will stifle innovation by making patents and the creation of intellectual property the be all and end all of international trade. Exporting licenses to make things instead of making things and exporting them. Trade deficit? What trade deficit? That doesn't matter to those people who aren't directly affected by the consequences of their actions. Corporations won't save us because they don't have to answer to us. That's why I favour democracy.

Targeted activism as part of an ongoing effort to bring about net neutrality has caused our governments to wake up. The result is that many of them are engaging in public consultations. I strongly advise taking part in these whether you think they'll be effective or not. This is an election year in the USA and where they lead our governments will follow. If we can pull down ACTA and TPP, and I believe we will, we can convince them to listen to us and give us more of a say in the laws and treaties they make. If we can do that, we can get net neutrality, and if we get that, we can relax and go back to being complacent. It's probably good to keep an eye on the corporations to make sure they don't get back up to their old tricks, though. They're in this for the long haul. The sooner they realise that we are, too, the better.

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