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Friday, May 29, 2015

Opposition to the FTA is Not About Secrecy: It's About History and Broken Promises

The Senate passed Trade Promotion Authority, TPA, last week on Friday night, with 48 Republicans and 14 Democrats handing President Obama a victory for fast track authority to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership, TPP. If the fast track authority is approved in Congress, TPP will be brought to a vote later this year with Congress only allowed a straight up and down vote, with no amendments allowed. It will only require a simple majority vote. No danger of a fillibuster to block it. Both Virginia's senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, voted for it. Both were always for it. They did not require any last minute arm twisting.

The TPA legislation now heads to the House where it will face an even tougher battle. Support for the bill is weaker among House Democrats there, and it has robust opposition from some conservative Republicans too. House majority leader, John Boehner, may not have the votes from his Republican caucus to pass the TPA without Democratic support, and he could fall short. Two Northern Virginia Democratic representatives support the legislation, Don Beyer and Gerry Connolly. Right now, it appears that Bobby Scott opposes it.

I think the Virginia senators and congressmen who support this are wrong. So are the media defenders of it such as the Washington Post, which has always favored all free trade agreements going back to the original 1993 NAFTA legislation. But one of the silliest Washington Post defenses of TPA and TPP came from columnist Ruth Marcus.

In her Washington Post column on May 19,  she claimed that opponents of the TPP objected mainly to its secrecy and she called that objection a bogus argument. The Post's editorial board then doubled down on opponents' objection to bill's secrecy in this full-throated defense of free trade authority.

The Washington Post and its columnist, Ruth Marcus might have a small point. At least they would if secrecy was the main objection. But it isn't. The real objection at the heart of the opposition is history. I will get back to that point in a minute, but it certainly doesn't help the free traders' case to drape an opaque and clandestine cloak around the deal. Secrecy does, after all, limit the discussion and prevent a full and fair airing of the problems with this trade deal. And that's where history comes in.

The most important reason for opposition to the TPA is that many of President Obama's and other proponents' promises for the TPP and Fast Track Authority sound suspiciously familiar. Everybody heard exactly the same assurances about NAFTA and CAFTA years ago.  Here is what we were told back in the 90s and early 2000s about those trade deals and then what really happened.

In 1993, the Clinton administration promised that NAFTA would create 200,000 new export-related jobs by 1995, according to this 2004 Economic Policy Institute report. According to Public Citizen, the administration also promised farmers they would export their way to wealth. The Bush administration similarly promised CAFTA would deliver 170,000 new jobs in  the early 2000s.

Instead, we lost 700,000 jobs due to NAFTA alone, according the Economic Policy Institute.

Promised new markets never materialized for either farmers or domestically manufactured goods. In fact, only one new market was ever created: a robust labor market overseas as jobs fled from the U.S. in search of low wage workers and less regulation. 

Meanwhile, the only thing that has increased is the U.S. trade deficit. Before NAFTA in 1993, we actually had a modest trade surplus of $1.6  billion with Mexico, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Now as of 2012, our trade deficit with them has reached $181 million, according to Public Citizen. And that trade deficit is expected to grow even if we do not enact new trade legislation. That's because of our strong dollar. Due to international monetary conditions, including the weak Euro, our dollar has strengthened, making our exports more expensive. That is not good for our economy and makes any trade deal now dangerous.

So instead of trade surpluses, new markets and good jobs, what we have seen for U.S workers is a race to the bottom. Displaced factory workers lost jobs that are never coming back. The export of so many U.S. jobs has wiped out whole industries and devastated the lives of the displaced workers. And it has destroyed their towns, as this article from the Washington Post shows in heartbreaking detail.

Some of the more honest supporters of free trade have acknowledged that NAFTA and other trade deals have not lived up to their promises for America's economy or its workers. So they drag out a different argument: even though free trade agreements have not met their original expectations in the U.S., at least they have improved the lives of impoverished workers from developing nations. Based on the experience in Mexico, though, NAFTA certainly has not even done that.

In fact, the NAFTA years saw a wave of illegal immigration as Mexicans preferred to risk their lives to come to the U.S. in search of our minimum wage jobs because they were more profitable and had better working conditions than the Mexican maquiladoras, which paid low wages, flouted health and safety rule, suppressed the right to organize a union, and generally provided abysmal working conditions. Immigrants are still coming here, despite recession and wage stagnation, because the jobs pay more, and they can both live in the U.S. and send money home. That should tell you something about how NAFTA’s promise has not even materialized to help those overseas.

But one unintended consequence of the trade deals is that American workers who fell into the low paying service sector must now compete for those jobs with illegal immigrants who often work off the books and are ineligible for benefits. No wonder there is still so much slack in our labor force and wages have stagnated for the average American.

Previous trade agreements did not deliver on their promises. They did not usher in prosperity for American workers. They did nothing to improve the lives of foreign workers, and they did not open markets for U.S. exports. Indeed, NAFTA and CAFTA contributed to the growing wage inequality and soft labor market at home without improving the wages of overseas workers And to add insult to injury, they substantially increased our trade deficit, which is never a good thing for any country’s economy.

Opposition to still another trade deal has nothing to do with its secrecy. It has everything to do with its history. The secrecy objection is a red herring. All it does is highlight the fact that those who support TPP have tired arguments, failed policy, and no credible response to the very legitimate question: how will this trade agreement be different this time? Without an answer to that and transparency, this trade deal should not be enacted. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

True Justice for Natasha McKenna and Fairfax County

Yesterday on Facebook, some of my friends and I were discussing the tragic death of Natasha McKenna while she was in custody at the Fairfax County jail. The Fairfax jail guards had placed the mentally ill McKenna in restraints and tasered her numerous times while trying to extract her from her jail cell and transfer her to Alexandria. Subsequently, McKenna died at Fairfax Hospital after she stopped breathing and her heart stopped.

The Fairfax County Police Department has been investigating this death. In numerous editorials (and here), the Washington Post urged the Fairfax Sheriff, Stacey Kincaid, to provide a full explanation of what happened without stalling or brushing any facts under the rug. I certainly agree with that.

Some of my Facebook friends, however, took that to mean that Sheriff Kincaid should immediately go before the public to answer all questions and clear everything up yesterday. Indeed, some were muttering about primaries and getting rid of her. The undercurrent is that the Sheriff’s Department clearly did wrong, and heads should roll, including hers.

The problem is that is unfair and is a rush to judgment by people who do not know all the facts but are buying into a sometimes all too true narrative about police abuse of authority and police brutality. And we need to admit how often that is the case.

But “all too often” and “too frequently” are not the same as “always”.  So, I argued back that before jumping to conclusions, people ought to take a deep breath and wait for the investigation to be completed. Of course, given the track record of the Fairfax County Police Department, and their own history of stonewalling cases, I can well understand the impatience and frustration. However, it is not fair to conflate this case with that of John Geer, who was shot by a Fairfax police officer. It took 18 months before Fairfax County released any information, including the name of the officer who fired the shot. Plus, the county police department only released that information after a judge ordered it.

In contrast, the McKenna investigation has been going on for under three months, aPost, other media, and those of us following this case have begun raising legitimate questions about how this was handled. There is nothing unreasonable about the questions. But what is unreasonable is the rush to judgment before the investigation is finished. Again, we are not talking about the 18 month long stonewall that occurred with John Geer. We are talking less than three months -- the medical examiner just released the autopsy results today.
nd the medical examiner’s office just released the autopsy results. According to the Washington Post, the cause of death was “excited delirium". As the Post editorial points out, none of the medical literature, nor various medical societies, list excited delirium as an actual medical diagnosis. Only medical examiners use the terms, usually for those in police custody who have died due to stun gun use.

I don’t expect Sheriff Kincaid to go before the public until after the completed investigation gives her a fuller picture of the situation, Nevertheless, the Washington 
Before I go further, I want to address the big gorilla in the room: we need to have a serious discussion about how we treat the mentally ill. There are deeper, more serious questions about why this woman, who we know suffered from schizophrenia, was even in police custody rather than under treatment in a secure medical facility. That, however, is a different topic, for a different day.  It is one I will return to in the future.

But for now, we need to deal with how any prisoner is treated while in custody. Right now, Baltimore is being torn apart by riots over that very issue. And while Fairfax is a long way from Baltimore’s mean streets, the issue is no less important here. You measure a society’s decency by how it treats its most powerless members. Likewise, you judge an institution by how well it handles its most difficult situations.

And the situation here was that a severely mentally ill woman, who was already shackled to a special chair, was stunned four times to control her agitation. Tasering is a technique that works by inflicting electric shock and pain. So, the very first question is why were they in effect punishing a severely mentally ill person to bring her into compliance?  Another very troubling element is the following stated policy: “once we begin an extraction, we do not stop it.”

Infliction of pain and refusal to back down are all elements of a mindset that is about controlling an unruly prisoner by showing that person who is boss. It is about maintaining discipline and asserting control. And in the case of an unruly prisoner who is not mentally ill, but just rowdy, it might be perfectly appropriate to assert such authority (though I have my doubts about use of a Taser ever). But it is anything but proper treatment of somebody who is severely mentally impaired and not in their sound mind. Indeed, absent the threat of harm to the guard or self-harm to the prisoner, withdrawing and giving her a timeout to calm down might have been exactly the right course to take. Without a compelling reason, there is no excuse to continue an extraction is such a case. Treating her like a patient, not a prisoner, might have been exactly what was needed.

Further, if you know you have an impossible to control inmate, why was there no attempt to medicate her? If an inmate had an infection or other physical illness, would a doctor not have prescribed an antibiotic, a painkiller? Why wasn’t a doctor available to provide sedatives, anti-psychotics, or other medication to control her mental symptoms?

We should be asking the following questions: what is the policy for handling extractions of unruly inmates; was that policy followed in this case; how, if at all, did guards deviate from that policy; and was the policy, itself, flawed? Does the Sheriff’s Office need to revise its policies? Do the guards need better training and more oversight? Use of stun guns was temporarily suspended, but will their use resume? Why? What disciplinary action will the six guard face and why? What exactly needs to change to make sure this does not happen again?

These questions can’t be answered without knowing the all the facts. Investigators now have some of the facts, including the actual cause of death. Now they have to put all that together and present the total picture to the Sheriff, who must then review it against policy and decide what needs to change, what improvement in training and oversight of her staff needs to be implemented, what disciplinary action needs to be taken, and what needs to be done to keep this from happening again. Sheriff Kincaid needs time to review all the facts and provide a satisfactory statement going forward.

It is not unreasonable for the investigation to take time. And three or four months is not an unreasonable time frame for that to happen. That is not stonewalling, that is being thorough. But it should not take 18 months, or even six months. The old adage, “justice delayed is justice denied,” is just as true in this case as in any other. And justice should not be denied to Natasha McKenna’s family. But real justice needs real answers and that does take time to do right.