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Column: The Trade Deal Isn’t a Good Deal for Us

Sunday, April 26, 2015
The arcane details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are probably boring . . . but we don’t know since the negotiations and complex details have been shrouded in secrecy. TPP is a pending trade agreement among a dozen countries. President Obama and Congress intend to put TPP approval on a “fast track,” thus preventing any risk of amendments that might address issues of workers rights, income inequality, environmental standards or other areas of concern. In addition to the unwarranted secrecy, any issue on which Republicans support the Kenyan, socialist, community-organizing president should be viewed with deep suspicion.

President Obama and others on the inside act as though national security is at stake.

“National security” is the gift that never stops giving. Since 9/11, everything from illegal government surveillance to horrible economic policy to immoral wars has been justified in the name of “national security.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not feeling particularly secure and this trade deal isn’t boosting my confidence in our corporate-funded government. But “trust us,” the president and Congress say. No thanks. The folks, and their predecessors, who brought us NAFTA, who lost millions of jobs to China and Mexico, who eviscerated corporate and environmental regulation, who brought the economy to the brink, and who created the greatest wealth gap in modern history, don’t exactly inspire deep trust.

Regardless of the benefits or liabilities of this particular trade agreement, a society based on maximizing economic growth and increasing consumption is doomed. Perhaps not in my diminishing lifetime, but doomed nonetheless.

It reminds me of professional cycling.

Performance-enhancing drugs are enjoying unprecedented attention in recent years due to the exploits of Lance Armstrong. Armstrong won seven Tour de France races and the admiration of the world. He is, inarguably, one of the greatest athletes of his generation and his story gained power and poignancy because of his successful battle with cancer. Then his drug use was exposed, he was stripped of his titles, and the vast fortune he earned is rapidly shrinking. He claims, correctly, that his greatest sins were being caught and being famous. Any follower of cycling knows that nearly all his competitors were as thoroughly juiced as he. Armstrong’s disproportionate penalties are consequences of his arrogance and hubris, not because he soiled an otherwise clean sport.

Any professional cyclist competing in his era or at any time in the past 30 or 40 years knew that standing on principle meant less chance of standing on the podium.

Armstrong was greedy, but also realistic. Victory, fame and fortune are not for the virtuous. Virtue more often accompanies anonymity, humility and modest means.

Like Armstrong, we Americans want to be exceptional more than we wish to be virtuous. We measure success by our level of conspicuous consumption and our Gross Domestic Product. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is our primary barometer of national well-being. And, like Armstrong, we are more than willing to trade away virtue for our prominent position on the world’s economic podium.

Like Armstrong, we are playing in a dirty business. Economic dominance, either domestically or internationally, isn’t for sissies. If we were to compete “clean” — paying fair wages, refusing to do business with those who abuse human rights, protecting the environment even when it is decidedly unprofitable — we just couldn’t win. For decades we’ve heard the same tired arguments: “If we raise the minimum wage, we will lose jobs.” “If we adhere to stringent environmental standards, the Chinese will eat our lunch.” “Obamacare will bankrupt our businesses.”

While this is nothing new, the tables have turned during my lifetime. During and after the great capitalist expansion of the late 19th century and early 20th century, society wrestled the great industrialists to a standstill. The National Labor Relations Act protected workers’ rights. The Sherman Antitrust Act, the Clayton Antitrust act and other legislation sought to restrain corporate malfeasance and greed. The growth of the labor union movement protected the health and welfare of millions of previously exploited workers. For a few decades we lived in a society that exercised some level of control over economic activity.

Now we live in an economy that exercises increasing control over society. The influence of money in politics has always been toxic but was made even more poisonous by the Citizens United decision that granted personhood to corporations.

Given the unsustainable, often corrupt, nature of the global economy, maintaining our pre-eminent position requires us to surrender our principles. As in professional cycling, it may be impossible to compete while playing fair — insisting on economic and social justice, seeking to reverse the destructive effects of climate change and reducing our exploitation of Earth’s natural resources. We are a society on steroids and the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a just one more collusion of “users” that will sustain our advantages and feed our rapacious appetite.

But perhaps we don’t have to win the race. Unlike Armstrong, we might move to reduce our consumption, shrink our carbon footprint, find a different way to measure “standard of living,” and pedal gently through the scenery rather than continuing a testosterone-fueled charge to the summit of the global economy. Write your representatives and tell them to vote “No” on TPP.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school. He can be reached at

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