The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) may have a bland name, but its potential impact is exploding into a debate that's anything but tame.
The Obama administration is pushing the trade agreement, backed by corporate supporters and some Republican allies. But detractors are calling the deal "NAFTA on steroids," referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a 1994 pact that is often blamed for encouraging companies to move millions of jobs from the U.S. to low-wage nations.
The TPP, which has been in the works for years, covers America and 11 Pacific Rim countries -- but excluding, at least for now, China -- accounting for 40 percent of the global economy. Proponents say it will expand trade and investment between member states; boost U.S. exports to some of the world's fastest-growing economies; provide a forum for promulgating labor standards and resolving disputes; and even help small businesses benefit from trade.
While that sounds positive, critics say it will push more jobs out of the U.S. and squeeze people's wages, effectively putting American workers in direct competition with much lower-paid workers overseas. On top of that, the White House and Congress are pushing to "fast-track" the TTP in ways that limit debate and restrict lawmakers from shaping the agreement in ways that address concerns regarding its impact.
"A lot of people think the only people who have to be concerned about the downsides are those who will be directly replaced by imports," Josh Bivens, research and policy director at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, told CBS MoneyWatch. "People say, 'Well, it's not that many -- the manufacturing sector bears the brunt,' and that's actually wrong. Landscapers and waitresses might not be displaced by imports, but their wages suffer because they are competing with those who were displaced."
Those on the losing end of the deal will likely be workers without college degrees, who represent 70 percent of the U.S. workforce, EPI said. In a research paper about the TPP, Bivens calculated that expanded trade overall has lowered wages for a non-college-educated worker by about $1,800 annually.
Aside from potentially hurting wages for millions of American workers, critics argue that the trade agreement carries other risks, as well. Read on to learn about five issues that are creating controversy with the proposed deal.
The details are mostly secret. The agreement hasn't been created openly, with the public largely unable to access its contents, other than a leaked chapter of the proposed deal that was published by WikiLeaks. That section shows that the document is considered classified, which The New York Times notes means that the draft chapter will be considered classified for four years as national security information. That's stirred up debate about the ethics of creating a largely secretive agreement that will nevertheless impact millions of Americans. "There is very little ability for the public to see what's in the agreement," EPI's Bivens noted. "It should send up red flags."
Corporations would gain the right to challenge government rules over profits. The deal will give companies the right to challenge participating countries' regulations if they believe the rules unfairly diminish their profits. That could allow corporations to challenge "laws that protect American consumers from unsafe products or unhealthy foods," according to former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. Corporations would challenge U.S. laws before private tribunals, bypassing American courts through a provision called "Investor-State Dispute Settlement."
The agreement omits any rules governing currencies. This represents a major drawback for America, according to some economists, who point out that without such provisions, other TPP member states could manipulate their currencies against the dollar and achieve a price advantage. "This is a really big deal, which everyone thinking about the merits of the TPP should understand," Dean Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, wrote in The Guardian. For instance, if another country's currency is undervalued by 20 percent against the dollar, that will have the same impact as providing a 20 percent subsidy to that country's imports, as well as a 20 percent tariff on U.S. exports to that country. Managing currencies "is so much more a determinant of competitiveness than tariffs," EPI's Bivens said. "There might not be much gain" to American businesses without such provisions, he added.
Americans may gain only 43 cents per person. Research on the benefits of multilateral trade liberalization have found that Americans see a benefit of about 43 cents per person per month, according to a new paper from the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The TPP would have a similarly small impact, according to the think tank. "I don't think most Americans would choose to sacrifice so much in the name of lowered trade barriers just for 43 cents a month more in their pockets," author David Rosnick said in a statement.
The supporters are an unlikely crew. The TPP has brought together an unlikely alliance, with supporters including President Obama, Republican leaders and large corporations such as Apple (AAPL) and Pfizer (PFE). They're opposed by labor groups and unions such as the AFL-CIO, as well as many of Obama's fellow Democrats. With the trade pact heading for a vote on fast-tracking, the debate is to likely grow fiercer in coming days.