As debate heats up on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, journalists should keep a few key points in mind. First, the deal is in essence deregulatory, shifting enormous power to multinational corporations to challenge basic legal protections of consumers and citizens. Second, the US has a history of using its power in the global trading system to promote fundamentally unsafe products and services to other nations. Consider this snippet from a story on lead paint:
By the 1920s, it was known that one common cause of childhood lead poisoning was the consumption of lead paint chips. . . . In 1922, the League of Nations proposed a worldwide lead paint ban, but at the time, the US was the largest lead producer in the world, and consumed 170,000 tons of white lead paint each year. The Lead Industries Association had grown into a powerful political force, and the pro-business, America-first Harding administration vetoed the ban. Products containing lead continued to be marketed to American families well into the 1970s, and by midcentury lead was everywhere: in plumbing and lighting fixtures, painted toys and cribs, the foil on candy wrappers, and even cake decorations. . . .
Lead paint was the most insidious danger of all because it can cause brain damage even if it isn’t peeling. Lead dust drifts off walls, year after year, even if you paint over it. It’s also almost impossible to get rid of. Removal of lead paint with electric sanders and torches creates clouds of dust that may rain down on the floor for months afterward, and many children have been poisoned during the process of lead paint removal itself. Even cleaning lead-painted walls with a rag can create enough dust to poison a child.
Of course, at this stage in the development of globalization, toxic financial products are a greater concern than toxic chemicals. We’ve also advanced toward more subtle ways of assuring their proliferation. But the core mission of “free trade” law in this, as in so many areas, is relatively clear: to open yet another venue where corporations, far from being held accountable for their actions, can instead undermine crumbling extant legal protections for consumers.