Latest Trade Agreements Are Re-defining Cultural Choices As 'Non-Tariff Barriers' That Need To Be Eliminated

from the insensitive-much? dept

It’s something of a misnomer to call TPP, TTIP and TISA trade agreements: they go far beyond traditional discussions about things like tariff removal, and are encroaching on domains that are as much cultural as economic. That is, many of things that the US dubs “trade barriers” are in fact long-standing expressions of national priorities, preferences and beliefs. That’s evident in an interesting post from Public Citizen’s Eyes on Trade blog, which explores the 2014 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers (pdf). Public Citizen points out:

The policies of other TPP nations criticized by the 384-page USTR report include New Zealand’s popular health programs to control medicine costs, an Australian law to prevent the offshoring of consumers’ private health data, Japan’s pricing system that reduces the cost of medical devices, Vietnam’s post-crisis regulations requiring banks to hold adequate capital, Peru’s policies favoring generic versions of expensive biologic medicines, Canada’s patent standards requiring that a medicine’s utility should be demonstrated to obtain monopoly patent rights, and Mexico’s “sugary beverage tax” and “junk food tax.”

None of those is a real trade “barrier”, but rather a policy choice seeking to bring about certain results that presumably correspond to the wishes of the local electorate. The cultural aspects of these so-called “barriers” are even clearer in the case of Malaysia:

The report takes issue with Malaysia’s “extremely high effective tariff rates” on alcohol and its strict licensing policy for the importation of pork — strange “barriers” to highlight in a country where three out of every five people are Muslim. Malaysia’s halal standards for meat have also been targeted as a “barrier” in a companion USTR report on Technical Barriers to Trade (published in 2013, the most recent edition available). USTR is concerned that Malaysia requires “slaughter plants to maintain dedicated halal production facilities and ensure segregated storage and transportation facilities for halal and non-halal products.”

Again, it’s quite evident neither of those has anything to do with “market distortions”, and everything to do with the fact that Islam is an important cultural element of Malaysian society. It is only natural that its laws and regulations should reflect that. Similarly, the following is likely to be an expression of Japanese society itself, not some evil plan to shut out foreign companies:

The report critiques Japan’s laws protecting the privacy of citizens’ personal data, calling them “unnecessarily burdensome.” The U.S. government, according to the report, “has urged the Japanese government to reexamine the provisions and application of the Privacy Act, so as to foster appropriate sharing of data…”

Presumably those laws were passed because the Japanese value their privacy, and specifically wish to limit the sharing of personal data. But the USTR seems to think it is reasonable to demand that Japanese society change its attitudes in order to make the laws less “burdensome” to US companies operating there. The Japanese section also contains the following:

The report calls for “timely and accurate disclosure” of key texts related to Japan’s postal reform, and “public release of meeting agendas, meeting minutes, and other relevant documents.” In contrast, leaks have revealed that the United States and other TPP countries have agreed to keep TPP texts classified until four years after the agreement enters into force or talks collapse.

The lack of transparency for TPP is no simple matter of hypocrisy: it is an assault on local democracy. That’s because the TPP negotiations are not haggling over a few tariffs, they are imposing a wide range of economic and social norms for an entire region. Conducted in secret, without any meaningful input from the people who will be most affected, these new-style agreements undermine the usual legislative process. This shift is yet another reason why TPP, TTIP and TISA must be opened up to allow greater public participation and input. If they are not, they are likely to be perceived as something imposed from above, and lacking in legitimacy. That’s precisely what happened with ACTA; it led to tens of thousands of people taking to the streets, and ultimately rejection by the European Parliament.

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Comments on “Latest Trade Agreements Are Re-defining Cultural Choices As 'Non-Tariff Barriers' That Need To Be Eliminated”

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32 Comments
PaulT (profile) says:

“The policies of other TPP nations criticized by the 384-page USTR report include…”

…a bunch of things guaranteeing fair pricing and privacy regarding personal healthcare. Can’t have any of that.

“USTR is concerned that Malaysia requires “slaughter plants to maintain dedicated halal production facilities and ensure segregated storage and transportation facilities for halal and non-halal products.””

Because why should consumers need to know what they’re actually eating? Next thing they’ll be telling us that you can’t label a product as vegan if it was fried in lard!

David says:

Re: Re:

“USTR is concerned that Malaysia requires “slaughter plants to maintain dedicated halal production facilities and ensure segregated storage and transportation facilities for halal and non-halal products.””

Because why should consumers need to know what they’re actually eating?

It’s not a matter of “what” but rather “how”. I’m not Muslim but I find the notion that Malaysians are not supposed to know whether or not their meat has been prepared according to their religious beliefs obscene.

Indeed, it is violation of the separation of state and religion if the state prohibits the dissemination of information required to practice religion according to one’s beliefs and prohibits businesses from catering to religions and being allowed to inform about that.

Big business wants to treat their consumers like their cattle: under their control from birth to death, kept stupid and powerless to make any decision. You’ll not see them threaten an organized stampede unless food quality improves.

The difference is that cattle produce dairy and meat as end product, and consumers produce money, or more tangible, power.

silverscarcat (profile) says:

Wait a sec...

Is this saying what I think it’s saying?

In contrast, leaks have revealed that the United States and other TPP countries have agreed to keep TPP texts classified until four years after the agreement enters into force or talks collapse.

…Is that seriously saying that “we can’t release what’s in TPP until four years after it’s ratified”?

Please tell me that it’s my sleep-addled brain that is reading that wrong and that’s not what they really mean.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Wait a sec...

Unless I’m misreading it as well, that is indeed exactly what they’re saying, that even if the thing gets passed, the exact text will be locked up for four years, likely to keep the public in the dark until any changes have already been in place for a while, at which point any challenges would be met with ‘Well the laws have been in place for a few years with no public outcry(ignoring the secrecy making it so people only know what’s in the ‘agreement’ once it’s been put into law), no need to change them now.’

Such a plan also sheds a little light on why they’re so desperate to get FTA for the thing, if the politicians were allowed to debate it piece by piece, keeping those pieces secret would be ridiculously difficult, but if it’s an all-or-nothing vote, no such debate is possible, so there’s no need to make the document public for them to look it over.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Wait a sec...

…Is that seriously saying that “we can’t release what’s in TPP until four years after it’s ratified”?

Not quite… The full text of the agreement will be released, but just that. Not any of the associated documentation or negotiating docs. We wrote about this a few years ago:

http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20111018/05561916398/out-acta-ing-acta-all-tpp-negotiating-documents-to-be-kept-secret-until-four-years-after-ratification.shtml

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Wait a sec...

This tired old trope needs to crawl back under the rock it came from. Clearly, most congressional legislation backed by either party was not written by any members congress, most do not even read the legislation before giving their approval. This is a problem. With this in mind, how does one keep these ignorant opinions?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Wait a sec...

It is funny that liberal love attacking conservatives, but when you use liberal leaderships own words against them they act like its just business as usual. So which is it, the fault of the party or the fault of the system over all? Wish you guys would make up your mind.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Wait a sec...

Not sure why that is aimed at me, it is the liberal mindset that likes big government. Conservatives want small government and less control. You see with the current administration what happens when the government takes control. They kill their own citizens with drones, they spy on the entire world including their own citizens, they spy on journalists, they send the IRS after the opposition, they cover up attacks on our embassies, they spend unbelievable amounts of money, they negotiate far reaching treaties in secret and so on. That is big government. I am not for big government.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Wait a sec...

Define “Liberal.”

“Not a Republican/right-wing party” member or supporter is the wrong definition. Don’t kid yourself, partisan theater is just that: theater. This is about corporatism, not liberalism, and anyone who says otherwise is helping to keep us divided so the megacorps can conquer.

Don’t fall for it.

broken says:

re: we've come a long way

Not quite. Have been ever thus… The empires of the past have done these sorts of things all the time in the name of fairness. Sadly the cry by the government trade negotiators, politicians, and heads of multinationals, “Democracy and freedom!” it simply means we want our cakes and eat them too and no one else should even think of eating crumbs until we say it’s okay. It’s all about our self-interests. And when the people in other countries complain about our shoddy cultural or material products, we decry about their corruptions, censorship, and non-democratic ways.

Anonymous Coward says:

I thought free trade was supposed to be about making sure foreign businesses are not treated unfairly by removing privileges given only to domestic businesses or removing restrictions placed only on foreign businesses. If a regulation applies both to foreign and domestic businesses, where is the discrimination?

John Thacker (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well, take the example of the US government’s restrictions on flavored cigarettes. They banned clove cigarettes (kreteks) but allowed menthol as the one flavor to continue to be sold.

Cloves are mostly made in Indonesia, menthols are made by US companies. Menthols were (and still are) more popular in the US, so you could call it simply a “cultural choice” by the American people to prefer menthols. Still, it is easy to see why the Indonesian government saw it as a discriminatory non-tariff barrier, not just as “cultural choice,” and sued.

Sure, Indonesian companies could just make menthols instead, and US cigarette companies are also banned from making cloves (or other flavors except menthol) so the US claims, making your argument here, that it’s not discrimination. The Indonesians view that “a flavor is a flavor,” and that menthol should be banned too or its discriminatory.

There are lots of similar situations. What makes this tricky is that some so-called “cultural choices” really are non-tariff barriers, designed to discriminate against what other countries are good at. There will inevitably be accusations that go too far, but the concept has some validity.

Jean Sievers says:

The TPP large multi nationals win and everybody else loses. The Treaties are secret because they and our political ‘leaders’ know they are pushing something down our throats that we would not approve of. It shows who the political ‘leaders’ think are more important. It exposes them as agents of foreign multi nationals. Abbott and Hockey in Australia commission a report for their Budget from the Business Council (top 100 companies in Australia).

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