Give Us Better Reasons To Believe

The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement is reawakening old foreign policy ghosts, while domestically splintering both classic Republican and Democratic Party consensus, and forging virtual alliances of very strange bedfellows.

On one side, neo-isolationists and libertarians against more egregious government activism make common cause with the labor and environmental conscience of progressives who rail against ongoing industrial relocation, dislocation and destructive disruption plainly visible throughout America’s “Rust-Beltia.”

Those in favor include neo-conservatives with an expansionist view of unchecked U.S. military and economic power, globalists, multilateralists, and corporatists unbound who genuflect in front of international trade summits and pacts as fervent practitioners of the “best and brightest” Davos religion that believes nation states exist to facilitate open markets and not the reverse.

In the middle, pragmatic geopolitical practitioners argue that it is either TPP or a China-dominated world trade regime that if allowed to roam and reign unchecked, will accelerate a standards race to the bottom that will decimate American interests abroad. This argument holds that the world is better off when the USA, for all its flaws, sets the table than when it does not, and that the current political-economic situation in Asia is a vacuum waiting to be filled.

In more ways than one, Vietnam and its heavily-caveated support for TPP is a good geopolitical case in point. The infamous Domino Theory rationale used to justify the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s and now TPP in 2015 has been thoroughly discredited.  In the end, the world did not turn communist when South Vietnam inevitably fell. But sixty-thousand Americans died, and Southeast Asian refugees had to choose open, hostile seas rather than stay home.  American voters and veterans still remember this episode and the misleading, bipartisan-policy sales job that came with it.

Vietnam’s current economic challenge to grow its economy to meet the demands of an increasing and very young population bumps up against an obvious need to attract necessary foreign capital, but without giving up control of its own destiny. Freed from illusions and delusions, Vietnam’s leaders clearly understand that transnational corporations do not have Vietnam’s sustaining interests at heart.

On the one hand, Vietnam’s leaders fully grasp that market entry and progressively-former white collar jobs are a zero-sum global function – the jobs we lose in America, Vietnam gets. Consequently, Vietnam is very nervous about U.S. Administration demands to be able to define appropriate wage scales and working conditions. This is because “the China Way” of low manufacturing wages and lax regulatory conditions has transitioned to Vietnam, and this is the current Vietnamese “competitive edge” to compete and export products into premier world consumption markets. The feeling is that after Vietnam, perhaps Bangladesh and soon Africa will be positioned to take their turn rowing in the inevitable race to the societal bottom produced by global labor arbitraging. Some argue that is already the case.

But Vietnam is also complex and not one-dimensional in its approach to TPP. Omnipresent in Vietnam’s sense of itself is the fact that, between the military wars with both France and the United States and then the economic war with the United States, the Vietnamese spent 40 years getting out from under foreign domination at a great price. This sacrifice can only be repaid by not allowing tomorrow’s trade to substitute for yesterday’s hegemony.

In this context, China is the elephant in the room both for Vietnam as well as for the U.S. While Vietnam sees the TPP as helping to open up desirable U.S. markets, TPP’s more important function is the necessity to strengthen ASEAN economies working with the U.S. to counter Chinese influence in the region. This necessity has been intensified by recent aggressive and well-documented regional Chinese military incursions on sea, land and air. While China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner, the relationship is almost biblical in its historical complexity – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” When asked to comment on this inconsistency, a very high ranking Vietnamese official remarked to a visiting U.S. delegation that, “We may be able to change our trading partners; we cannot change our neighbors.”

While it is logical from a power-projection perspective to not want China to set the rules, it is also true that almost everywhere China goes, local governments end up wanting the money but not the culture and the attached strings, especially the mandated-employment of Chinese nationals in developing economies that come with the full package. The Chinese are proving to be heavy-handed and culture-centric expansionists – what works for them domestically as “the China Way” (historically through a coercive state presence) does not export well at all. Essentially, China is a “mercantile mercenary” presence.

President Obama and TPP supporters claim that this time will be different. But given the track record of recent trade deals and current U.S. structural inequality metrics, there is no surprise that a lot of smart, loyal and caring people who have built their reputations on sticking up for domestic workers are not rushing to sign up. The problem for America is that the long era of public policy “bait and switch” chickens have come home to roost, and TPP may end up being the loser without a chair when the music stops. Examples abound.

Service: Americans laud military service, but just not for the families of upper middle class and wealthy citizens. Those who do serve and bleed return home to insufficient medical care and few career prospects, making the social protocol praise seem hollow and often hypocritical. Already, the five-thousand-plus American lives lost in the Bush-Cheney Iraq war are being consigned to the policy detritus of deliberate false intelligence, corrupt machismo, and a President’s “sins of my father”… a hollow, morally-impoverished aggregate that insults and dishonors the lives, limbs and family members our country never will get back.

Trade: When corporate leadership tells U.S. factory workers to build the podiums on which the overseas acquirers of their livelihood will announce job lay-offs, plant closings, machinery and markets shipped overseas – and when this searing experience is repeated over and over again in “fly-over” country and replayed on YouTube, then TPP bumps up against an unwilling suspension of disbelief.

Civic trust: When double-standards and destructive economic inequalities become the rule, then sucker-punched Americans become like the broken-hearts-club faithful who never can recover from failed romances with the American Dream. Starting with underwater mortgages from which middle and working class homeowners lost over a trillion dollars of equity as fall-out from the 2008 Great Recession, those evicted from any sense of place and belonging struggle to let hope trump experience and find “another reason to believe”.

When America’s institutions that previous generations fought to protect, like the nation’s financial-credit trustworthiness and manufacturing base, are sold down the partisan river in a Congressional heartbeat, just to make some ideological, political process point with brinksmanship substituting for statesmanship, TPP and its legislative ilk take on the sheen of another brick-in–the-wall-separating Americans from their leaders.

It is not that President Obama and TPP advocates need a better sales pitch; it is that a lot of America’s voting consumers do not feel the need to buy or even show up at the store. What is happening with TPP represents a toxic byproduct of embedded inequalities that spill over into race relations with inner city police, and “fight for fifteen” restaurant workers protesting for living wages.

Domestically, many heartland neighborhoods changed drastically in the U.S., starting with the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations who co-signed NAFTA in 1992, the previous trade agreement now serving as the TPP benchmark. Deploying a massive and supremely-sold communications barrage on who would win and lose, NAFTA results have turned out to be bitterly unfair to the generational detriment of America’s manufacturing paycheck classes.  Those who did well were passive income moguls, importers and purveyors of capital. Those who did not do well continue to suffer through factory closings, outsourced jobs, and pervasive and deepening structural inequalities.

If timing is everything, then TPP has fallen on the bad rhythm of compounded generational discontent. Americans are not an envious people and balance their admiration of success and risk-taking with a sense of fair play. Opposition to TPP is more than people just hating the cool kids; it is about not wanting to show up at their events anymore, walking away from the private schools, planes, clubs, airports, justice, life-expectancy and gated-community mind-sets where passive-income socialite VIPs enroll, invest and prevail.

Opposition to TPP is about Americans turning their backs on a domestically-rigged economic and political playing field (as Elizabeth Warren calls it out), that ensures favored legacy policies for one-percent offspring. In the big, emblematic businesses of our time, including politics, technology, entertainment, finance, and media, nepotism of all kinds is alive and well. Instead of a hand-me-up, hand-me-down, inherited merit puts social mobility basically out of reach for most everyone else except certain bubble economies centered in coastal enclaves and “dark pool” venture trading funds.

The United States is experiencing a self-fracked, earthquake-deepening chasm between haves and have-nots, between paycheck dependents and passive income beneficiaries.  The have-nots are focused on today, on making bad ends meet, on what happens locally in Baltimore, in Ferguson, in Raleigh, in Jacksonville, in Staten Island and in so many other hurting places. The one-percenters stomp and stump for TPP.

Where the American Dream merry-go-round has stopped, and where younger generations know they will not equal their parent’s lifestyles for the first time in our collective history, opposition or agnosticism to TPP becomes a class thing, a policy muddle with bad memories of Vietnam and now Iraq, mixed in with lost jobs for steel and auto workers in the American heartland.

When there is no common equity in the American system but only shared risks without shared rewards, voters stay home. When a home is rented and no longer owned, civic ethics sometimes evaporate and neighborhoods lose value.

TPP’s domestic political crisis can be laid at the feet of shareholders trumping stakeholders in almost every single match-up, in a country where a corporation is now a more empowered person, because each dollar equals a vote. TPP is foundering on “gone equity gone,” in a country founded on the pursuit of individual ownership as a major component of the inalienable right of every American in the pursuit of happiness.