The Greatest Corporate Power Grab In US History
CHRIS HEDGES, HOST, DAYS OF REVOLT: Hi. I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt.
Today we’re going to be discussing trade agreements such as the TPP, which Ralph Nader calls “the most brazen corporate power grab in American history”. We’ll be talking with attorney Kevin Zeese, a former Green Party candidate in Maryland for the Senate, and one of the leaders of Popular Resistance.
ZEESE: Thanks for having me on.
HEDGES: So let’s begin with this quote from Ralph. I think you were Ralph’s spokesperson in 2004, was it?
ZEESE: Spokesperson. His most popular year after 2000.
HEDGES: Right. There you go.
ZEESE: It was a pleasure to work with Ralph that year, actually.
HEDGES: Well, I think we’re both huge admirers of Ralph Nader.
And so this is Ralph’s response when I called him up after the–
HEDGES: –the TPP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership was made public. “The TPP, along with the WTO and NAFTA, is the most brazen corporate power grab in American history.” “It allows corporations to bypass our three branches of government to impose enforceable sanctions by secret tribunals. These tribunals can declare our labor, consumer and environmental protections [to be] unlawful, non-tariff barriers subject to fines for noncompliance. The TPP establishes a transnational, autocratic system of enforceable governance in defiance of our domestic laws.”
And let’s begin by talking or clarifying that this is part of a triad of agreements.
ZEESE: That’s right.
HEDGES: And then maybe you can respond to Ralph’s–.
ZEESE: Sure. Yeah. President Obama has been pursuing, in secret, negotiations, three major trade deals that will create a complete global network of laws that favor corporations. These laws have been written of, by, and for the corporations. We’ve gotten to see one of them, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and it’s not as bad as we thought–it’s worse. And that’s the TPP. That covers the Asian countries. About 12 countries are involved in that.
HEDGES: And it’s 40 percent of–.
ZEESE: Of the GDP.
ZEESE: And then they have another agreement, the TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which was with Europe. And then the third one, which is the biggest one that’s got the least attention and maybe have the most impact, is TiSA, the Trade in Services Agreement. And that covers services, which is 80 percent of U.S. economy.
HEDGES: Yeah, we’re talking about postal,–
ZEESE: The postal services, educational services,–
ZEESE: –health services, accounting, legal services, 80 percent of the U.S. economy. And so that’s a massive deal.
So these are three deals–TiSA has 50 countries involved.
What’s not in any of these deals, by the way, is the BRICS countries–Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The BRICS countries are kept out. Pretty interesting. I think that’s because what we’re looking at here is really a next stage of the global capitalist empire dominated by the United States and Western corporations. That’s what this is part of. And so I think it’s important to put in that context. It is not a coincidence that while we’re negotiating TPP, we’re also doing–Obama is also doing a Asian pivot, surrounding China with the military, it’s not that we’re doing TTIP with Europe at the same time that Obama is ringing Russia with NATO military troops, because this is part of a global empire that the U.S. runs pretty much on behalf of global transnational corporations.
HEDGES: And now we should be clear: in the second set of agreements that you mentioned, we haven’t seen those yet.
ZEESE: We haven’t seen it. The only reason we’re seeing TPP is because we had the intense fight in Congress over the issue of fast track. Fast track is trade authority for Obama, where he can sign the agreement before Congress considers it–limits Congress’s power greatly to an up or down vote.
HEDGES: This was something created or dreamt up by the Nixon–.
ZEESE: Nixon was the first president to have fast track.
HEDGES: And essentially it eradicates the possibility of public debate.
ZEESE: Exactly. Congress holds no hearings, hears no testimony, no witnesses.
HEDGES: And they’re not allowed to make any amendments, no changes, nothing.
ZEESE: No amendments. Up or down vote. That’s it. And in the Senate, there’s no filibuster, so it’s only 50 percent. You can’t force them to 60 votes. It’s only 51 they need. And so it’s a very restricted Congress.
And all these agreements, by the way, as Ralph mentions in that quote, greatly restrict each branch of government, and Congress [crosstalk]
HEDGES: Well, let’s talk a little bit about how they do that, this kind of–part of this kind of creeping coup d’état, corporate coup d’état that’s taking place.
ZEESE: And I just want to say one more thing about this coup d’état. This is just one aspect of it. We’re seeing the corporate power grow in the United States with Citizens United and the buying of elections and all that corruption. But we’re also–out of places like the World Economic Forum, they’ve come out with a working group called the–that’s redesigning, the Global Redesign Initiative that’s redesigning the way governance works to minimize the nationstate and maximize transnational–. They want the UN to become a hybrid government and corporate body. So that’s what the World Economic Forum is working on as this is all going on, too. So this is a big, big fight about where we go. This is the epic struggle of our times, corporate power versus people power.
Now, the way that they–what Ralph was talking about in that quote was one aspect of this, which is the trade tribunal system, which already exists, but this is expanded. For the first time, for example, financial services can use the trade tribunals to overrule legislation to regulate the big banks.
HEDGES: Now, these trade tribunals, they’re three-person tribunals. They’re made up of corporate lawyers. One of the things I think I was speaking with you that you told me is that if you’re a citizen or advocacy group, you’re excluded from even going to these.
ZEESE: Yeah. You know, in our federal court system, which is the third branch of government that–Ralph’s favorite branch, I think. He just opened the museum in his–
HEDGES: Right, a tort museum.
ZEESE: –in his hometown, [incompr.] tort museum, which is a great museum. People should go to Winsted to see it, by the way.
But, anyway, in our federal court system, an individual can sue a corporation. They can find a lawyer who takes it on retainer, only get paid if they win. You get a jury of your peers to decide it. That’s a real court system. It has lots of weaknesses that need to be improved on. They’ve been cutting back on it is much as they could with so-called tort reform–as Ralph calls tort deform. And so it’s getting weaker. But it’s still an important branch of government.
This overrules that. Our courts cannot review what a trade tribunal does. The trade tribunal judges are three corporate lawyers who can also represent corporations in other cases. So there’s a real conflict of interest here, because if you’re a lawyer who’s filing suits on behalf of corporations at these trade tribunals, you want to broaden the power of the trade tribunal and the corporation. So as a judge, you can decide things that, say, corporations have this power, corporations have that power, no, that the security issue doesn’t matter, the corporation still wins. They can create legal fictions.
HEDGES: So give me some examples of how this trumps domestic law, how it would, potentially.
ZEESE: Well, in fact, what’s really interesting about it, as we saw during the fast track debate when President Obama was saying this does not affect legislation, during the fast track debate, the World Trade Organization was ruling on a case from Mexico and Canada against the United States on labeling of meats and country-of-origin labeling so we knew where our meat came from at every stage of the process. And the World Trade Organization says, you’re going to lose that, you’ve got to repeal that law, or you’re going to face fines. During the fast track debate, they repealed COOL, and Obama signed it while he’s saying it doesn’t affect legislation. You know? Right–happening at the same time. It’s just, like, mind-boggling that they could say one thing and be doing the exact opposite. So that means that the trade tribunal decided U.S. law, a very popular U.S. law. People want to know where their food comes from. And that law was repealed during the fast track debate.
HEDGES: Talk about how this is going to affect workers, wages, unions, all of those mechanisms by which we are protected from the abuses of corporate power.
ZEESE: Well, one thing that’s very lucky about the fast track fight we had: we actually get to see the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They actually planned to keep it secret for four years after it passed.
HEDGES: After was implemented.
ZEESE: After–yeah, a four-year–.
HEDGES: A five thousand four hundred and–
ZEESE: Almost 6,000 page document of intricate changes of all aspects of our law, really.
So, because we fought so hard on fast track, they had to compromise and agree to release it for 90 days before Congress considered it. So we’re in that process now of reviewing it, and people are starting to see what’s in it. So I can answer your question, actually, based on what’s in the document, and also based on reactions by economists and others.
You asked about wages and labor. Well, the research shows that 90 percent of Americans will have their wages go down. Only the top percent will see an increase in wages.
HEDGES: And explain why.
ZEESE: Because we’re in a race to the bottom. One of the provisions of the TPP that we didn’t really know about until we saw the published document was an immigration provision: unlimited immigration for businesses. In other words, we can’t–have phone companies that a certain number of–we can’t–let’s say only five phone companies are allowed. Mexico can come with a phone company and compete. There’s no restriction. And they can bring their employees with them and pay them Mexican wages. How does a U.S. phone company compete with that?
ZEESE: And that’s just not for phone companies. That’s just one example. And if the United States doesn’t allow companies to come in like that, they can take them to the trade tribunal and force them to.
ZEESE: We’re losing control of our sovereignty. We’re losing control of our economy. We’re losing control of our democracy.
On the environmental–.
HEDGES: Well, let’s go back to wages, because you had made a point in this interview that I did with you: wages in Vietnam are, what, $0.35, $0.65 an hour, and that in essence this trade agreement forces the American workforce to become, quote-unquote, competitive in a global market.
ZEESE: Yeah. How is that possible? How can American workers, when 51 percent of Americans right now are earning under $30,000 a year, near the poverty level, near the government’s poverty–which is already–in reality, poverty’s much higher than that. But even with that artificial poverty level, most workers are earning that now. How can we compete with $0.60 an hour in Vietnam, with $0.90 in Peru?
HEDGES: Right, which is essentially what these agreements are forcing us to do.
ZEESE: What they’re doing is they’re giving corporate power the ability to force down wages, to go where the wages are lowest, to go where they can get the cheapest resources, to where there are the most lax laws on taking resources out of the ground. On all these issues, it is a race to the bottom.
And so people have to rise up now, because this race to the bottom will affect every aspect–our foods will be less safe. The provisions now allow for a corporation–when food’s being inspected at the border, corporations stop the inspection if it’s going to take too long, if we have to send it in for testing to see what kind of poisons are in it. The corporations can sue to stop that.
HEDGES: So the ISDS, they can sue if there’s any interference by government for projected profits.
ZEESE: Exactly. And that’s another thing about this. In addition to having these corporate lawyers (who also serve as corporate lawyers, corporate lawyer judges and corporate lawyers) deciding, they can decide the penalty, and the expected profits is one of the penalties that [crosstalk]
HEDGES: So give me an example of how that might work.
ZEESE: A fracking company decides to frack in an area. The government then decides that fracking’s illegal–it’s too risky for the environment in that area, it’s too close to the waters, the underground water supply–and they ban it, or they even just regulate it. A fracking company can–foreign fracking company, ’cause domestic companies don’t have this power; just the foreign companies can sue. So, actually our domestic companies are put at a disadvantage.
ZEESE: The foreign company can sue, not just for what they invested in starting the process of figuring out fracking and testing wells and stuff, but also for their expected profits, what they thought they were going to make before the government acted in the public interest. So it just eviscerates the potential of public interests.
I mean, in the United States we’ll have problems with that too, but can you imagine a poorer country, like Vietnam, where there’s desperation? Are they going to pass a law that raises wages, are they going to pass a law that protects the environment, are they going to pass a law that requires worker safety or consumer standards, when they know they can be sued by Goldman Sachs or by Monsanto?
HEDGES: Well, and we also know that those laws, even when they’re passed, are almost never enforced. I mean, we see that in places like Vietnam or China.
ZEESE: That’s right, that–you have lots of unions in China, but they’re unions that are friendly–.
HEDGES: They’re government-run.
ZEESE: They’re government unions. And that’s what Obama was talking about, you know, how great it is that Vietnam’s going to have unions. Well, yeah, they’ll be unions in name only. They will be unions that work–.
HEDGES: Well, Obama has said that the TPP reverses the more egregious acts by previous trade agreements like NAFTA.
ZEESE: It’s the exact opposite. In 2007, because of public pressure, the Bush administration put in, agreed to a number of environmental standards, for example. That doesn’t exist any longer. Labor standards weakened. There’s no enforcement of labor or environmental standards. And the environmental standards are written in such a way that they’re unenforceable.
HEDGES: Well, and we should also throw in that you can have the climate change conference in Paris.
ZEESE: Exactly. Exactly.
HEDGES: They can pass nonbinding agreements,–
HEDGES: and essentially these trade agreements obliterate them.
ZEESE: Exactly. If this trade agreement, for example, puts any block on extreme energy extraction and the Paris conference says, you have to stop extracting tar sands and fracked gas because of the climate effects, guess who wins? The TPP wins, the TTIP, TiSA wins. The trade agreements have become law, and they become, essentially, treaty-like law, which surpasses every other law.
HEDGES: So I’m going to talk about TiSA, but first let’s talk about pharmaceuticals, because that’s a big issue.
ZEESE: Oh, yeah. That’s a very interesting issue. It’s interesting in two ways. One, we think pharmaceuticals have got a great deal here. They’re going to be rising prices. U.S.–.
HEDGES: Explain why.
ZEESE: There’ll be U.S. rising prices of rents exported to the world, because we’ve created this system of patents that gives great protection to monopoly pharmaceuticals.
HEDGES: And we’ve also thwarted the possibility of generic drugs.
ZEESE: And part of that: the one way you can force the patent is you don’t allow the generic drugs to use the research done for the pharmaceutical drug when they get a generic for a certain number of years. And so that makes it almost impossible for a generic to come down on the market. They can’t afford to do the research. They’re blocked from getting on the market for many years.
But it’s interesting. The pharmaceutical companies actually opposed this agreement because they didn’t get enough on [crosstalk] drugs.
HEDGES: Didn’t get enough. Yeah, right.
ZEESE: You know how capitalism is. It’s never enough, right? We want more. You know? I know we’re gluttonously fat, but we need more.
ZEESE: You know? And so they’re actually fighting this.
And as Orrin–one of the interesting things is the corporate divide on this. Pharmaceuticals want a better deal. Orrin Hatch, who’s the most important–other than Mitch McConnell, most important member of the Senate–he’s the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, who is very into the pharmaceutical pockets–he is saying this is a bad deal, we should probably wait till 2017 before we consider it, we can get a better deal with a new administration. And the tobacco companies are angry as well, because they’ve been cut out of the ISDS process to some degree. And so Mitch McConnell’s a big tobacco guy, so he’s not too happy with it. So there are some interesting divides there.
HEDGES: But even if the TPP goes through, I had read the price of pharmaceuticals are going to rise.
ZEESE: No question. I think the pharmaceuticals got a great deal.
HEDGES: And why will they rise?
ZEESE: They will rise because it’s an enforced monopoly. It’s an enforced monopoly through patents.
HEDGES: Was it for eight years or something?
ZEESE: And then they can be renewed if they change the formula or they–now it’s not just for headaches but for stomachaches, if they go from a pill to a drink. So there’s all sorts of ways they can extend the patent.
HEDGES: Right. Well, let’s talk about unions. What’s this going to do to labor unions–legitimately labor unions, not government-run?
ZEESE: Well, it’s going to mean that if a country puts in place a law that allows for collective bargaining for unions to be formed, it’ll allow that to go to a trade tribunal to be challenged. And there’s some talk about labor standards, but there’s no enforcement.
The only way you can have enforcement of these tribunals is if people are given the right go to court.
HEDGES: And they don’t have those.
ZEESE: And they don’t have that right.
HEDGES: If you’re not a corporation, you can’t use those.
ZEESE: These courts are–unlike the federal courts, these courts are only for one party, corporations–well, and government too. So corporations and government are the only ones that use these tribunals. If you have a community that’s polluted by a foreign corporation, no lawsuit. If you have a union that’s destroyed, no lawsuit. If you have consumers who are injured by poisoned products, no lawsuits. People have no way to sue. And if the trade tribunal reaches an opinion that’s absurd, our federal courts can’t review it. There’s no appellate process.
HEDGES: Right. Okay. Let’s talk about TiSA, because it’s extremely important, as you have pointed out.
ZEESE: Yes, it is.
HEDGES: It has the capacity to destroy–
ZEESE: The Postal Service,–
HEDGES: –the Postal Service,–
ZEESE: –public education.
HEDGES: –public education. And explain that process, how TiSA, the mechanisms within TiSA, will do that.
ZEESE: The Trade in Services Agreement, TiSA, is focused on–its basic thrust is privatization and commodification of public services. That’s its basic thrust, as well as some private services like accounting and others. But the Postal Service–all three of these agreements really have a distaste for state-supported or state-owned enterprises. Something like the Postal Service is a state-owned enterprise. And it’s a one-way street with TiSA: it’s move toward privatization, move only in that direction. Once something is privatized, it cannot be made public again. And so that’s the exact process.
HEDGES: But they’ve built into TiSA ways that virtually undercut the possibility of public services to maintain themselves.
ZEESE: They insist that any public service, a state-owned enterprise, that all the special privileges a state-owned enterprise gets as far as taxes and investment and such need to also go to the private–.
HEDGES: I mean, they call it leveling the playing field.
ZEESE: Leveling the playing field, except for when it comes to monopolies. Then we’ll unlevel the playing field in favor of the monopolists. But when it comes to things like public services–.
And that’s just, I think–that’s why I say this is the epic battle of our times, because this is really about corporate power versus people power. It’s about democracy versus corporate rule.
HEDGES: What’s left of democracy. I mean, they have gone–.
ZEESE: What’s left of–we have a very managed democracy in this country that’s–it’s hard to call it–I call it a mirage democracy with managed elections, because that’s what we’ve really come down to.
HEDGES: Well, and we have figures like Hillary Clinton, who has been utterly obsequious to corporate power throughout her entire career.
ZEESE: Well, you can make a long list of the obsequious to corporate power, but Hillary is very clear.
HEDGES: Sure, but, I mean, she’s out there opposing the TPP.
ZEESE: Former Walmart board member who’s now opposed the TPP because it’s so unpopular. And when she’s in office, we don’t expect much.
HEDGES: No. Well, we get that with Obama.
So you, through Popular Resistance, have been organizing a series of events and announced these events after the TPP was made public. Perhaps you can talk about what you’ve been doing. You have actions coming up tomorrow, Tuesday, as well as Wednesday, in Washington, and perhaps you can tell us what those are.
ZEESE: Sure. We’ve been actually organizing on TPP for four years before most people knew what it was, and we’ve been organized for this event since July. And it got–picked up speed a lot when the TPP was made public. But we knew something needed to be going on now, so we started organizing in July. We knew this would be an important time. And it’s worked out to be really well timed.
And what we’re trying to do with these is to challenge all of the power structure that’s behind the TPP. So the first day focuses on the trade representative where the negotiation’s happening. The frame there is betray, betrayal. And then in the afternoon we focused on the Chamber of Commerce, which is the biggest funder, and the K Street lobbyists, which spent $500 million on lobbying for fast track in the last season.
HEDGES: In our system of legalized bribery.
ZEESE: Legalized bribery.
HEDGES: And they get what they want.
ZEESE: It is really legalized bribery.
And then on Tuesday we’re going to be focusing on the international aspect by going up Embassy Row, which is Massachusetts Avenue. We’ll start at Dupont Circle and go up Embassy Row, and stopping at each of the embassies of the countries that are involved in the TPP and giving a narrative of why it’s bad for that country.
And then, on the final day, Wednesday, we’ll be focused on Congress, and there’ll be both the traditional lobbying, which I don’t do, I don’t like, I don’t bother with, but other people like it, and so they can do that; there’ll also be protests and petitions delivered and all those kinds of things. In the afternoon, we’re going to go to Cove Point, which is a southern Maryland community that is being faced with a very dangerous export terminal for fracked gas. Exporting gas will be made much easier if the TPP becomes law.
HEDGES: I know you feel as I do, that writing letters, sending petitions, being involved at this point in electoral campaigns is certainly on the national level, on a state level, perhaps we could argue on a local level, like Kshama Sawant in Seattle, it’s worthwhile, but that the only mechanism we have left by which we can halt this corporate coup d’état is through direct action.
ZEESE: Well, that’s why we call ourselves Popular Resistance. We believe that resistance is essential, that you have to stop, and that means put your body on the line and stand up against this corporate power grab.
I do disagree with you a little bit on elections, because I think every movement in U.S. history has really had two parts to it. One part is the mass movement, resistance, etc. The other part is their own independent political vehicle, which is a political–. Even the women, when they were fighting for the right to vote in the teens of the last century, had their own political party. They couldn’t vote, but they had their own political party. And they shamed the Democrats. And they worked with others, socialists and others, who were able to vote and fight the Democrats. You saw it in the abolition era. There was both an abolition movement, and when the abolition parties got involved, that’s when they started to regain–make some progress. So I think it’s a combination of both recognizing that you’re not going to win and–.
HEDGES: Right. No, I agree with you in that sense, that you need a political expression.
HEDGES: And I should clarify that what I meant was this notion that somehow if we can–.
ZEESE: If we just do petitions and elections [crosstalk]
HEDGES: And we–exactly right.
ZEESE: Yeah, that’s not going to work. Yeah, I agree with you on that. The election system is a sham at this point. But we still need to use it to get our message out and show that it’s a sham. I think many Bernie Sanders fans will see that as the election progresses. The Democratic primary process is antidemocratic. It’s rigged.
HEDGES: Right. Of course.
ZEESE: And they stop the–they have several methods in place that they have successfully stopped at every insurgent. The superdelegates are already–former president Clinton, Bill Clinton, has been going around gathering superdelegates for Hillary. He’s got enough to equal ten states’ votes. So he’s–they’re doing fine on the superdelegates. And that gives someone like Sanders, an insurgent, an impossibility. He’s 20 percent behind even without the first vote happening. So it’s a real fake primary system, and Sanders was crazy to think he could actually win it.
HEDGES: Well, and the tragedy is that he lends credibility to it [crosstalk]
ZEESE: And that’s the big problem. This is all–movements have to challenge the power structure. Our goal is to weaken the power structure so we can move forward. And a key part of the power structure is the fake election system, is the corporate Democratic Party that’s funded by Wall Street. And rather than lending credence to the Democratic Party of Wall Street, it’s more important to challenge it. And you don’t do that from the inside.
ZEESE: Inside’s rigged. You do it from the outside. And, unfortunately, Sanders, who is a lifelong independent at a time when 50 percent of Americans say they’re independents, he chose to [crosstalk]
HEDGES: Well, he’s a lifelong Democrat.
ZEESE: Well, labeled independent, labeled independent, I should say.
HEDGES: Thank you very much, Kevin.
ZEESE: Thank you very much.
HEDGES: And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.
HEDGES: Thank you, Kevin.
And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.