Some Insights on Trade Politics According to Todd Tucker

Todd Tucker, a writer and researcher on global governance issues, offers some insights on trade politics as he transitions from working at Public Citizen to doing research at...

Todd Tucker, a writer and researcher on global governance issues, offers some insights on trade politics as he transitions from working at Public Citizen to doing research at Cambridge University. From 2004 through mid-July 2012, Tucker directed research on trade issues for Public Citizen. In 2012, he was named a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge, where he will be writing on international investment arbitration from a social science perspective.

After 5.5 years focused on trade issues, he offers these personal insights, quoted from his recent blog:

“You wouldn’t know it from opening up a major newspaper or listening to our top politicians, but trade issues matter deeply to many Americans. I think there’s a few reasons you don’t see this bubble up to policy change.

First, the power of corporations in our political process is massive. The recent Citizens United decision has only made this worse, such that members of Congress that once pushed aggressively populist fair trade policy now are afraid to speak out. Unions and other progressive groups apparently have difficulty demanding and getting much from politicians in this context, even ones they helped elect.

Second, general newspapers have downsized to the point where they cannot effectively cover trade issues any more. If you want to read about trade issues, you better be subscribed to specialized journals or wire services, many of which are fair in their coverage, but which service a business clientele base. The information gap is a huge reason why politicians can get away with not changing our trade policy.

Third, the decline of union membership and other civil engagement has created a weak social basis for pushing for change. When I started working on globalization issues in a professional capacity in 2000, there were dozens if not hundreds of staff at various U.S. organizations following trade matters. Thanks to funding changes, membership decline and organizational shifts, you’d be lucky to fill a room with 10 people who dedicate the bulk of their work to these issues. Public Citizen, thankfully, has been an exception to that overall trend, but the work is harder than ever.

Fourth, the trade debate is dominated by trade lawyers. One of neoliberals’ most brilliant accomplishments was to give trade and investment policy a legal character through institutions like the WTO, while legislatures are still national. This plays out in a few ways:

  • Domestic courts wisely defer largely to the political process to resolve most questions – the presence of the domestic political scene all around probably helps reinforce the constitutional restraints. State and local lawmakers are out there making law every day, and stand ready to overturn judicial precedents or impeach justices if they get too far out of hand. In contrast, the closest thing that the WTO has to a “legislature” is its trade negotiators, who manage to actually only make new “law” every generation or so. In the gap, we see the dispute settlement process actually setting most of the contours of what ends up being law.
  • “Legalization” also entails a threat of litigation. So, on the rare occasion when a country or advocacy organization manages to get a debate going about changing a WTO provision, the logic of litigation takes over. No country wants to say that a rule might need to change, because doing so could be seen as an admission that the country is breaking the rules, and thus needs the policy space. Because the conversation never bubbles up, change never happens. The kind folks at our trade agencies in the U.S. and around the world can then continue to say that there is “no problem”!
  • Legalization also creates a cadre of specialized academics that live mostly in law schools. The social science world I come from has very little understanding of how trade laws actually work. This creates a problem: the academics who know this stuff the best are focused on positive law analysis (what does the law say?), while the academics that are better positioned to ask more systemic questions on the political economy of globalization have little ability to engage. This does not stop the economics profession from cheerleading for trade agreements, but this is because they are not able or willing to see trade deals for what they really are: compacts about regulation that go far beyond the despised tariffs. Needless to say, economists provide sufficient intellectual cover to the fundamentally corporate dominated agenda that it tends to roll right through.”

More at Public Citizen trade blog post

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