Monday, 15 June 2015

Another TPP crisis that isn’t a crisis, and even less about the apocalypse

The idea that the US government is frustratingly glacial isn’t exactly news. Almost every week the Washington DC system provides yet another example of pathetic internecine warfare and partisan politics freezing any chance of useful compromise.

United States citizens (and everybody else) are often angry over the inability of American politicians to decide swiftly even when a choice is blatantly obvious. Often an impasse hurts only the US, but in a globalised world, decisions made by the world’s pre-eminent economy affect billions of people.

This week’s example is the US House of Representatives split over whether to pass the so-called fast-track authority needed to complete the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). If US President Barack Obama can’t get this authority, the TPP deal may pass eventually but not before drawn-out power battles as Congress fights over who gets what and how much.

New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser says if the authority isn’t passed soon, the TPP will have to wait for 2017 before the negotiations can restart. But even in 2017, with a new president on deck, there’s no guarantee the TPP will be that person’s priority.

The media machine wants to portray speed and drama in this trade issue, which probably requires the exact opposite. I’m not saying the US government’s refusal to allow fast-track authority isn’t a real problem. But it is entirely true that if the important news were still released in weekly format then the US government’s failure to compromise wouldn’t have happened.

Let me put this another way: if there was a lack of compromise over a national imperative by the time Friday’s paper came out, it would mean the US was getting a new flag. But that’s not going to happen, which means the inescapable logic suggests this “crisis” isn’t a crisis at all.

What to make of all this? Mr Groser says the US is putting itself in a “very strange position.” Essentially, his argument is the Americans are forfeiting their role in deciding how trade will be conducted in the future. A refusal to make an affirmative decision on the TPP will leave the US “high and dry on the beach,” which would be an “unbelievable situation”, the minister says.

Now the authority will go through another round of voting in the coming days and weeks. The members of the House of Representatives aren’t stupid. They are all career Machiavellians and won’t let a good crisis go to waste. The TPP is a prestigious deal for the Obama presidency. They know that for Mr Obama to get what he wants will require reciprocity. And they all have special interests.

So we’re playing the blame-game: it’s the greedy, selfish politicians who are at fault. But that’s the easy analysis, although it doesn’t answer why this kind of thing keeps happening in the land of the free and the home of the brave. If anything, analysing the fast-track collapse by isolating a single cog in the machinery of US society doesn’t explain much at all.

How the [West] was won
The first place to start is, well, at the beginning.

The US was built by people who were deeply respectful of French revolutionary thought, especially Montesquieu. They made a real effort to create a governing process that couldn’t be hijacked by the powerful few.

The US Constitution separates government powers into three branches: the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. In case of an administrative misstep, this structure will default to the legislative, because the US considers the rule of law as more important than the whims of the president of the day.

The president does have significant power to act to control American foreign policy but, unlike in old Europe, the US president does not have full control over the domestic sphere and must rely on hundreds of representatives in Congress.

The idea that someone might become absolute ruler, running roughshod over the republic concerned the Founding Fathers greatly. They created a president with heavily constrained powers, and built a country of multiple competing states which they called “these” United States – not “the” United States.

The Founding Fathers knew this structure would slow the process of government. But they had seen what too much power can do to a country, and realised limiting power was necessary evil if the ethics of constitutional democracy was to be upheld.

In other words, the common refrain about how the US government is slow, inefficient, argumentative and indecisive is precisely how the Founding Fathers wanted the country to operate.

Also, just like every country, the US has its own interests and national imperatives. A country’s interests and national imperatives do not always overlap – interests change depending on historical circumstances. One of America’s imperatives involves securing greater trade access to larger numbers of countries, so Mr Groser is rightly astonished the TPP is being held up now.

That the US would stubbornly opt out of the TPP doesn’t seem to fit with the realities of this interconnected world and makes the weekend’s decision very confusing. So there’s something else going on here.

The overarching thread in this globalised world is the choice between inclusion and exclusion. Countries must choose between the status quo rules, or be isolated by either no rules or someone else’s rules. For instance, Russia is ripping up the rule book and China is attempting to write its own.

TPP member states align want inclusion. The world of inclusion is one in which many democratic and liberal countries wish to form a mutually beneficial trading system. The TPP is one aspect of this.

Surely US politicians understand what’s happening with new trading rules around the world. Other TPP members certainly do want the US included but they won’t wait forever. And if it’s not the US, then it might be China they all turn to for the rules. What would the US government think then?

So, taken together: if the default US government system is sluggishness; the country has imperatives beyond the personal interests of representatives; and the world system demands either inclusion or exclusion, then the current TPP infighting suggests what we’re hearing isn’t the full story.

Yet this is the narrative we’re all seeing, which means there must be some other details to connect before we can see what’s really going on.

To cook a good crisis, start with…
And since this is America we’re talking about, the media is having an enormous role in packaging the perception of an impasse in Washington DC.

Most people know about the TPP deal via a process of cradle-to-grave Pavlovian training called the mass media. Events and controversies can’t be true, or exist – let alone be bad or good – unless they are represented in the media. A perception of the US government as a broken machine is common, but few stop to ask who told them this.

If a machine starts smoking, the answer is to stop and check it, not continue until it melts down. The US government is that machine, and it might appear to be smoking but that’s only Photoshop effects. What’s actually happening with the TPP is the ordinary backroom realigning of interests and powers.

After reading a few headlines about the TPP, the question most people will think to ask is whether the US will pass the necessary authorities (hint: that’s never the real story). The question we should be asking is why the narrative is presented in this way.

After all, what exactly has changed with this present controversy? The structure of the US government is still partisan. And it’s hard to prove that today’s partisans are any more livid and antagonistic than those in decades past. The US population is also partisan. But again, this isn’t so strange either.

What is different is how the 24/7 news media has transmogrified politics into a stage show. Congress now knows it must bow to its constituents, and it knows America’s national imperatives must be respected. It’s the media’s job to frame this balance in a way that both makes it more money and allows the politicians to avoid provoking the public into participating in politics.

Today’s impasse on the TPP is the inevitable consequence of a government not permitted to compromise, drowned by a media which will kill itself and the country to get a juicy headline as it yells about the destructive effects of partisanship.

The problem with blaming everything on partisan politics is that the partisan politicians on either side know exactly what they want. And when there are specific things a person wants, compromise is usually possible. The public, meanwhile, don’t understand politics at all. Instead, their beliefs are knitted together one trending Twitter topic at a time.

No one’s given any context to complex stories and the only way the media interprets the facts is to stay as far away from them as possible. Compromise becomes impossible because the central argument for both sides boils down to asking someone else to give up something they want very much – in exchange for nothing. That way it’s always someone else’s fault when no one moves.

…and as it boils add a dash of ennui
In my opinion, the only time a 24/7 news network ever functioned as planned was during the week of September 11, 2001.

Yet 14 years later all-news-all-the-time channels still have to fill 24 hours with stories nowhere near as terrifying and unpredictable. Despite all those empty hours, the media never finds time to explain the interplay between complex issues, preferring instead to hype them to dramatic crises. Don’t blame the industry, that’s all it knows how to do – besides, we pay it to function exactly like this.

The media doesn’t want politicians, it wants cage fighters. If a politician makes a concession, the media calls him a hypocrite and a coward. Since there is clearly no reward for compromise, the best idea is to present it as a controversy and discuss the real issues in private – note: this is entirely the fault of the voting public.

It is a truism that we “get what we vote for”. And if we’re going to be honest, we also “get what we click on”. What is happening in the US is largely true for New Zealand too. Almost nobody gets involved in politics unless its every three years and we can vote for our favourite colour again.

That’s the whole point of the media and, dare I say it, propaganda. There might be left and right partisans in the US and New Zealand but this isn’t the point. Propaganda doesn’t want you to believe something, it wants you to do something. And in the TPP case it’s to do nothing, which is also an action.

Propaganda doesn’t work because it is manipulative, it works because people want it, need it. With all these pseudo-crises and a vacuum of information, the awful result is a media with the power to control how a viewer thinks and a widening gap between those who can change things and those who can’t.

Propaganda gives people’s lives meaning and defends against change. No one actually wants to join in the complexities of politics, which is why it’s all fed to us as a series of crises. We think: “I don’t like this idea or deal because of how it represents me as a person. Besides, it’s way too important for me to get involved, best leave it to the experts”.

We all pretend this decision is made with free will, but it is nevertheless emotion leading to inaction. This isn’t the unfortunate consequence of modern democracy – it’s the desired outcome.

Will the US Congress get to a consensus on the TPP? Probably. Will it be the consensus you want? No, but who cares? TPP or no TPP, it doesn’t matter. All we’re waiting for is the next crisis so we can express the correct amount of emotion as a proxy for actually doing something useful with politics. And that is exactly the way we want it to be: frantic energy as a substitute for change.

In fact, it’s way better if the average voter doesn’t do anything other than express outrage. All that’s required is support for the assumption that the politicians and experts are acting in our interests.

Sure, the media doesn’t make it easy for politicians to compromise, at least publically. But compromise isn’t what they’re interested in. Politicians learned a long time ago how to frame an issue as a controversy, build it into a crisis, before coming to the rescue just in time to “do the right thing”.

That’s the whole gimmick of the media: it makes us feel so strongly about something that don’t do anything. The message is simple: leave the complex things to the experts. And the more dangerous things appear, the more this is true.

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