There is great consternation, as I write, in those precincts where business and politics collide, about the prospect of the U.S. Congress authorizing the President of the United States to conduct negotiations on an international trade agreement that, subsequently, would be presented to the Congress for approval (or rejection) without opportunity for amendment, revision, renegotiation, etc. That authorization is referred to as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA.) Of course it seems like a tedious point, but it’s controversial because of the absolute quality of the authority that would be granted, but also because such up-or-down voting seems foreign to the way our business and political systems are meant to work. Honing terms and swapping favors are the preeminent skills of both big business and big government.
Did I slip in describing the methodology of TPA as “foreign”? Well, maybe so, but among those opposing TPA there is a distinct animus against offshore businesses and workers seen to be threatening the viability of domestic employment for skilled workers. There is perhaps even greater hostility to the U.S. corporations that operate businesses offshore, and those businesses and affiliated investors are the most fervent supporters of granting TPA to the President.
And, as though all this were not already too tedious, note that the object of TPA is an actual trade agreement, still being finalized, and known as TPP – for Trans-Pacific Partnership. If enacted TPP would establish a free-trade zone among the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Chile, and Peru (on this side of the Pacific) and Australia, Brunei, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam. Note that China, the most likely instigator of a global trade war is not included, but that is a detail that takes nothing away from the high-level anxiety pitched by both opponents and proponents of both TPA and TPP. The desperation to pass or defeat the TPA/TPP is so thick it seems possible we are approaching a rupture in the neat alliance of business and government that has prevailed in domestic politics for decades now.
For individuals, U.S. politics is a binary equation: people line up for the side where they find the least objectionable allies, and they build coalitions against who or what they find most unacceptable. You may not be perfectly happy with your position, but you cannot stand the other guys’ position. But for business and financial interests there are no such personal attachments, and they cannot wait for a scheduled election to get their concerns addressed. And so, there is the permanent alignment of big business and big government, which from time to time must make its intentions explicit with initiatives like the TPA/TPP.
This has upended the standard political alliances built on broad opposition: the President’s reliable liberal allies will not go along with a procedure they identify as a threat to U.S. jobs and a favor to big business. The President’s conservative opposition will not go along, though they support “free trade” in concept, because they don’t trust him and they sense that U.S. sovereignty is being undermined.
The truth in all this is that everyone is right to be anxious, and the anxiety in the air has been developing for over two decades. Back then, when “globalization” described (positively or negatively) the growing influence of transnational business interests, conservatives preferred to believe that free trade and free markets would always promote virtuous results, and liberals preferred to believe that the regulatory power of the federal bureaucracy would make them invulnerable to predatory instincts of capitalism.
Two decades later, big business is much more global than national, and it’s made this much progress getting its big government partner to simplify its future global expansion. The alliance promoting TPA and TPP may or may not succeed, but a new understanding of what globalization means has been revealed, and the anxiety we see signals everyone’s confusion over what comes next.