Three weeks ago, as I was boarding a plane home from France, I bought Le Monde diplomatique, a weekly digest of extensive commentaries on world events put out by France's leading newspaper. Most of the issue, as it turned out, was devoted to something I had never heard of called the Great Transatlantic Market. I read nearly all of it. I was stunned, not only by what I read, but by how little I knew about it--essentially, nothing. According to Uncle Google, the New York Times has run only one story about it, and that was a year ago.
The Great Transatlantic Market is a sweeping trade agreement being negotiated among the European Union, the United States, and Canada. It represents another step forward for neoliberalism, apparently, designed to remove existing barriers to the flow of both goods and capital across the North Atlantic. Like NAFTA and other similar agreements, it will be embodied in a treaty. Although many people do not realize it, treaties, duly signed and ratified, trump laws passed by national legislatures. That presumably is why the Founding Fathers demanded that they be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate. This one, if it comes to fruition, will have an impact comparable to the New Deal--but in a reverse direction.
Essentially, it seems, the projected treaty would take away most governmental power to regulate wages, hours, and the operation of financial institutions. It would make it difficult to ban the importation of products deemed hazardous, or even to impose new environmental regulations. And indeed, Le Monde informed me, treaties already exist among various countries that allow corporations to claim hundreds of millions of dollars or euros in damages if national regulations can be shown to have cut into their profits. These claims are settled by arbitrators, not by ordinary courts. In short, the GTM threatens to impose something like the regime that the US Supreme Court established 120 years ago in the United States, a paradise for free enterprise which no one has any standing to challenge. It has been endorsed by President Obama, but no one in the United States seems to be paying the slightest attention. Among other things, it would in effect roll back most of the regulation of the big banks that has been passed since the 2008 crisis. (An English version of one of the key articles can be read here.)
Let's return for a moment to Strauss and Howe, who argued that every eighty years, a generational shift leads to a fundamental change in national and world order. In our current case, the shift was from the GI Hero generation (Presidents Kennedy through Bush I, although Carter is arguably a *Silent), to Boomers (Bill Clinton, who gave neoliberal international economic policies their first big push, and George W. Bush.) The creation of our new order has accelerated since 2000, when Bush managed to prevent a recount in Florida and steal the election. He continued the deregulation of our economy, destroyed the tax base of the federal government, vastly increased our defense and intelligence establishment, and involved us in endless wars in farflung nations. Barack Obama has done nothing to reverse any of this. Like the decline of the power of the federal government after 1876, it's a bipartisan project, with similar consequences.
This appears to be another huge step in the same direction. To be sure, in no major country on earth, that I know of, has the political system put up much of a struggle against increasing inequality and the increasing power of financial institutions. But this treaty, if consummated, will drastically limit the power of national governments for a long time to come and leave the peoples of the world quite defenseless against corporate power. France, at least, still has a leading newspaper that will devote eight full pages of fine print to these issues. The United States does not. The general decline of newspapers, the rise of cable news, and the popularity of opinion-based internet sites has reached a point where nearly all Americans are completely ignorant about major political and economic questions.
The American people, polls show, have grown astonishingly skeptical about foreign intervention. This is not a bad thing. Events in Iraq, upon which I shall eventually comment, illustrate how hard it is for us to use American power to do anything but harm. But powerful interests are very attuned to our relations with other economic powers, and how they can be used to shape our economic future. This began, at the latest, with NAFTA, and this is merely the next step. It will be interesting to see how it goes.