TPP

I hope your collective Monday is going well! The weather out here in Massachusetts is just fantastic. Summer! Archives here.

NEWS

The Senate is going to vote this week on whether to give President Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and there’s a lot of red-meat demagoguery at play. One of the main pro-deal tactics, for example, has been to paint TPP opponents as economics illiterates who don’t understand the value of free trade. This is actually true in some cases: you can see Richard Trumka every day in front of the cameras claiming NAFTA destroyed American manufacturing. (Which, no. Economists agree that NAFTA was on the whole a good thing, that actually globalization and the rise of China drove out big chunks of American manufacturing, and that NAFTA diverted some of those lost jobs into Mexico, where they are now part of an integrated and growing North American industrial cluster.) But these straw-man arguments detract from the far more important points that serious critics, including Senator Elizabeth Warren (or just Elizabeth, apparently), are making.

I support free trade agreements. As I indicated above, I think the evidence for their success in improving production efficiency and raising living standards is incontrovertible. However, the Trans-Pacific Partnership isn’t really a “free-trade” agreement the way we typically think about it. The big work of tariff reduction is already done: as Paul Krugman writes, “… there just isn’t much more protectionism to eliminate. Average U.S. tariff rates have fallen by two-thirds since 1960. The most recent report on American import restraints by the International Trade Commission puts their total cost at less than 0.01 percent of G.D.P.” Accordingly, the Peterson Institute estimates that the value of the TPP’s trade provisions will amount to $77 billion dollars in 2025, which sounds like a lot but is less than a half a percent increase in incomes.

So what’s in the deal, then?

And that’s kind of the big question. Because we don’t really know what’s in the deal. It’s being negotiated in complete secrecy by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (captured, naturally), along with a legion of corporate lobbyists and a couple token union reps. The drafts are kept under lock and key and classified as state secrets. The elected representatives of the people of the United States, Senators and House members, get to see them, but only within the Office of the Trade Representative. They may not bring advisers or staffers and they may not take notes. Prior to viewing the draft, they must relinquish their cell phones. They may not bring any documents out to submit to experts for analysis. Seem weird? It is. This is extremely unusual. As the New York Times writes, “The level of secrecy employed by the Office of the United States Trade Representative is not typical of how most international agreements are negotiated. It’s not even how our negotiating partners say they want to operate.”

What does this process typically look like? Well, for comparison, the European Union is also negotiating a trade agreement with the US, the TTIP. To be as transparent as possible, it publishes its drafts on the internet, along with summaries and negotiating texts. Right here.

To say this is problematic is an understatement. I believe the lack of transparency alone is reason enough to oppose fast-track authorization. But why the secrecy? As it turns out, there are other issues. There have been a few high-profile leaks of TPP sections. They are disturbing. To be clear, not end-of-the-world, democracy-now-over disturbing, but disturbing nonetheless.

Take the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clauses, leaked by WikiLeaks in March. Under an ISDS regime, “companies and investors would be empowered to challenge regulations, rules, government actions and court rulings — federal, state or local — before tribunals organized under the World Bank or the United Nations” (NYT). Or in other words, “ISDS clauses enable foreign corporations to sue a host country for laws or policies, or even court decisions, they find inconvenient and objectionable.” How does this work? Check out Australia, where Phillip Morris is suing the government (under a similar ISDS agreement) for “damages” after the introduction of a law forcing cigarettes to be sold in plain green packaging.

TPP supporters say the U.S. has already signed on to dozens of accords with ISDS clauses, including NAFTA. But TPP is new ground; it’s an agreement with wealthy countries like Japan and Australia with massive, sophisticated corporations. There will be many new challenges, and the US will lose some of them. Not to mention the tiny countries like Brunei that will suddenly be open to suits by companies that exceed them in GDP. Laws passed by democratic means by duly elected representatives will be struck down by extrajudicial tribunals from unelected international bodies to serve corporate interests. That is troublesome.

There are other things. Significant escalations in IP law that “would have extensive negative ramifications for users’ freedom of speech, right to privacy and due process, and hinder peoples’ abilities to innovate” (Electronic Frontier Foundation). Massive mandatory copyright extensions (70 years after death of author!) for Hollywood. Brutal restrictions on the development of generic drugs that will put medicine out of financial reach for the developing world. (Is that good for the United States? Or anyone besides Big Pharma?) TPP supporters will argue that there are sections for labor protections, too. But unlike the other chapters, those sections are toothless. There was similar language in 2005’s CAFTA agreement, and in 2008 the AFL-CIO filed suit that trade unionists were being murdered in Guatemala. The Guardian writes that “seven years later, a dispute settlement panel has not yet heard that case.”

And that’s just stuff that’s leaked. I imagine there’s plenty more, but again, we can’t see the drafts.

Free trade is a good thing. But, as Paul Krugman writes, “this is not a trade agreement. It’s about intellectual property and dispute settlement; the big beneficiaries are likely to be pharma companies and firms that want to sue governments.” I want a deal that will lower remaining tariff barriers and reduce key non-tariff barriers that currently impede the exportation of services, but I also want a deal that will prevent the massacres of union organizers in developing countries. And provide for environmental protections. And not allow tobacco companies to sue my government for passing a law. And I want a deal to pass before China swoops in with a competing one.

But all that is politics. Above everything else, I want a deal negotiated in the open, with input from the men and women I elect. That’s how democracy works. If you agree, I encourage you to go to this website and tell your representatives. I did, and it took me thirty seconds.

In other news, Jeb Bush wishes he could invade Iraq all over again, George Zimmerman continues to make friends and influence people, the only way to get Texas kids to read is for teachers to eat live worms, the bee crisis deepens, Louisiana suffers ‘neath the cold grip of the Great Pox, oh, weird, the homicidal dictator didn’t gift us all his chemical weapons, and hey, maybe the NSA will stop reading our emails!

INTERESTING STUFF

  1. Seymour Hersh, “The Killing of Osama Bin Laden”in the London Review of Books.

Holy-shit story completely contradicting the Obama administrations’s account of the OBL raid. Pakistan was keeping him prisoner and a walk-in source, not years of CIA intelligence work, led to the discovery. Relies on a single unnamed source so difficult to confirm, but the NYT and a Pakistani journalist partially corroborate. Also read this interview in Slate with the clearly asshole Hersh. Lots of hit-jobs on this piece and Hersh coming, but the broader story seems plausible to me.

  1. Harrison Scott Key, “My Dad Tried to Kill Me with an Alligator” for Outside Magazine.

Reminiscences from a childhood in the Mississippi swamps. Lovely in the way that true stories are, messy and confused and kind of distantly sad.

  1. David Simon, “Zero tolerance is exactly what it sounds like” on his blog.

Simon responds to the legion of lefty trolls attacking him for telling people not to riot with a huge missive crossing through history, political analysis, sociology, media criticism, and the big question, What Happens Next. This is angry and brilliant and fascinating.

  1. Tariq Panja, Andrew Martin, and Vernon Silver, “A League of His Own” for Bloomberg.

Engaging attack piece on FIFA chairman/supervillain Sepp Blatter.

  1. Ronen Bergman, “Operation Red Falcon” for Atavist.

OK, so I know you guys have jobs and Significant Others and other things to keep you occupied, and this is 10,000 words long, but it is 10,000 words of one of the wildest true spy stories I’ve ever read. One of the best and best-connected journalists in Israel writes about the rise and fall of a legendary Mossad spy, and his recruitment and handling of Israel’s most valuable intelligence source in the Arab world.

MUSIC

1. Doc Watson picks “Black Mountain Rag” with Jack Lawrence back in 1992.

Totally blind, 75 years old, and absolutely burning through this song. RIP.

2. Courtesy of Mr. Mark Kosieradzki of Minneapolis, Minnesota, St. Paul and the Broken Bones busting ass with “Call Me”on Letterman.

3. The War on Drugs, “Burning” for Pitchfork live at Primavera Sound in Barcelona.

4. Megafaun sings “Volunteers” live in studio for HearYa.com. which I guess is a thing.

Great lazy summer song.

Bears and Dragons

Hello! This one’s a Deluxe Newsletter™ to compensate for last week, and because there’s so much good stuff being written. Archives are here.

News

I saw this article in the Atlantic yesterday. China and Russia have just finalized 32 separate cooperation pacts. This after their nearly half-billion dollar natural gas deal last year and the two countries’ increasing solidarity against the West in UN Security Council. But perhaps most disturbing is the fact that next week, Russia and China will conduct their first-ever joint military training exercises. These two countries, the two most powerful authoritarian states in the world, are drawing closer and closer together and farther and farther from the international norms established by the West after World War II. And considering the state of the world today, that’s scary.

Russia took the Crimean Peninsula. Now it is fighting an undeclared war in Ukraine. It supplies arms, credit, and diplomatic cover to Syria, Iran, and Venezuela. There have been virtually no consequences. Sanctions? Putin doesn’t care about sanctions. He’s got an eighty-five percent approval rating with his economy in the tank and he’ll take as much from Eastern Europe and the world as he can get away with. To compound the issue, his government has whipped the populace into a state of ultra-nationalism and is going to find it politically difficult to return to a “normalized” peacetime footing. Who opposes him? So far, Europe, wracked with economic malaise and paralyzed by collective action issues, has been unwilling to remove its head from the sand. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, putative face of Western Europe against Russia, has finally admitted that Putin is up to no good, but will not commit to a powerful united front against Russian aggression.

China has noticed the West’s paralysis in Ukraine and Syria, and they have territorial ambitions of their own. There are vast oil and natural gas deposits around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Japan has them, China wants them. Same deal in the South China Sea, where China is illegally building outposts in an effort to seize the Spratly Islands. Either of these could erupt into a low-level regional war involving a U.S. ally, and China increasingly believes the West will not intervene. And then, of course, there’s Taiwan, the missing limb in the Chinese body politic. Cross-strait tensions are rising again, and given China’s modernizing military and recent trends in Chinese nationalism, odds of a two-China war in the coming years are not bad.

It’s also worth mentioning that the days of ten percent Chinese growth are over. The Middle Kingdom is transitioning to a modern consumer economy, and that change will require extremely careful economic management. For decades, journalists have written about the implicit agreement between the Chinese government and its people: growth in return for obedience. What’s going to happen if the economy slows down? If there are protests? Many scholars believe Putin has started wars to deflect domestic criticism. China has been taking notes.

For the first time since 1991, there is space for an authoritarian bloc on the global stage serving as a real alternative to Western liberal democracy, in terms of both political and economic clout. What created this space? The West is really on its heels, boy. The Iraq war, the 2008 financial crash, and the Greek debt crisis have done immeasurable damage to the West’s standing in the world. Right now the United States is mired in political dysfunction, which the Chinese press loves to point out, but at least it is stable, growing, and powerful. Europe, which for decades has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the States to promote democracy, discourage wars of conquest, and preserve a law-based international order, is in a myopic tailspin. The immense financial burden of funding welfare regimes has forced European leaders to gut their militaries. Even Britain, traumatized by the Iraq war and faced again with the prospect of an independent Scotland, is retreating from the world.

The old determinist myths about the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy are ringing a little hollow these days. The world is getting scarier, a multipolar power structure is becoming a reality, and there are going to be some real wars again pretty soon. This provokes a series of questions with no answers. Will the West defend liberal democracy at a time when historical trends seems to be favoring illiberalism? Or, as Europe seems to favor, will it turn inwards, content in a managed decline? From another perspective, will the United States overreact to China’s ascendance and incite a war? Interesting times, folks.

In other news, Britain chooses to continue beating its head against a wall for another five years, the next governor of California is running a secret Templar army, San Francisco ruins baseball, people are just stealing kangaroos left and right, that Bong Hits 4 Jesus guy is looking mighty prescient, and Texas prepares to finally sink into the ocean.

And an Uplifting News Story from Ms. Laura Hughes! Stephen Colbert is funding teacher’s grants (EVERY teacher’s grant!) in his home state of South Carolina.

Interesting Stuff

1. Joe Kovacs, Jr., “Relentless: Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills chases a killer” for Atlanta Magazine.

Awesome detective story and profile of a Southern lawman. Choice quote: “‘My community is going hog-wild with rumors,’ Sills said later. ‘We are inundated with unnecessary foolishness.'”

2. Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Dangerous Myths About Charlie Hebdo” in the Atlantic.

I think this is important stuff, what with the protests against Charlie Hebdo‘s freedom of expression award and that shooting in Texas. If you like this, check out David Frum’s article “The Right to Blaspheme”, also in the Atlantic.

3. Hadley Freeman, “Chris Rock: ‘I’m doing OK, but some days I’m sad outta my mind’” for the Guardian.

Interview. I’ll listen to anything Chris Rock says. Good stuff about Hollywood, pop culture, and life. Also watch his Real Sports segment on black folks and baseball.

4. Terrence McCoy, “Meet the outsider who accidentally solved chronic homelessness” in the Washington Post.

Apparently they’ve solved chronic homelessness? This is a fascinating story.

5. Nick Kolenda, “The Psychology of Pricing: A Gigantic List of Strategies” on his blog.

This is a terrifying but very readable list of the ways marketers know how to manipulate us. Enjoy.

6. Ryan Devereaux, “Ghosts of Iguala” for the Intercept.

Powerful longform investigation into the disappearance of 43 students last September in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Great reporting of a shocking story.

Music

1. Lucero plays “Texas and Tennessee” at the Masquerade in Atlanta.

2. Roger Ridley sings Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home To Me” in Santa Monica.

Raw street performance. What a voice.

3. Jason Isbell kills Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim” for Skyville Live.

… with Kris in the front row, looking like a White Walker these days. Jason’s got a new single out in front of his new album. It kind of sinks down into you, like all his good music.

4. Tom Waits burning up “16 Shells from a 30-Ought-Six” on British TV in 1985.

Unsettling and awesome.

Baby Turtle

Hello everybody! Unfortunately, the editorial board was on vacation this weekend, so in lieu of an op-ed piece we will have a video of a baby turtle eating a raspberry. The archives are here.

News

This is a video of a baby turtle eating a raspberry.

In other news, Obama finally invades Texas, the ace investigative journalists at Slate dig into the Dad Bod, a domestic abuser punches a Philippine congressman, Martin O’Malley burns down half of Baltimore, we’re running out of non-edible herbivores, and local indigent Bill Clinton is just trying to put food on the table, man.

Interesting Stuff

1. Jon Bois, “Ten Years to Midnight” for SB Nation.

Jon Bois starts a franchise sim on NBA 2K15 and, year after year, introduces draft classes of physically and statistically perfect players: The Immortals. Typically well-written and very funny. Sam Epstein and Mike Mitchell, this one’s for you.

2. Tim Harford, “What a radical Conservative government could do” for the Financial Times.

Harford is generally interesting, but this is a genuinely fascinating look at what a conservative ‘party of ideas’ platform might look like. The Republicans in the US (and, to be fair, Britain’s Conservatives) are so far from this it’s incredible.

3. Minal Hajratwala, “A Brief Guide to Gender in India” in Granta.

Pained, vicious, shocking, ironic, gripping. Not for the faint of heart.

4. Jeremy Hsu, “Lenin’s Body Improves with Age” for Scientific American.

Russia has apparently been preserving Lenin’s body in the Kremlin since his death some ninety years ago. This is why, and how, and why.

5. Photos of the Week on the Atlantic.

Baltimore, Nepal, Cuba, Iraq, London, and more.

Music

1. Townes Van Zandt plays “I’ll See You in the Morning” at a private concert at the Houston Holiday Inn in 1988.

The videos of this concert are some of the rawest, most real pieces of music I’ve ever seen.

2. Spirit Family Reunion, “It Doesn’t Bother Me” for Radio Woodstock.

Let’s balance out Townes with some happy music.

3. Timber Timbre, “Demon Host” live for NPR Music.

This is awesome.