A former US Trade Ambassador for the Obama administration touted the Trans-Pacific Partnership to a Little Rock audience on Tuesday. Ron Kirk, who served on the President’s cabinet from 2009 to 2013, told those gathered at a luncheon event at Philander Smith College that the trade agreement between 12 Pacific-rim nations will be an economic boon for the state and the nation.
He called the breaking down of tariffs with countries such as Vietnam tantamount to a reduction in taxes for the American consumer.
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and Port Authority Chair Chris Mathews also gave remarks in support of TPP. Mathews said the city’s port accounts for $5.1 billion in economic activity from 2007-2015 and generated 1,749 jobs. Both he and Stodola said much of that is tied to exports such as agriculture that could be granted easier market access abroad under the deal.
Kirk acknowledged that many organized labor and environmental groups are critical of the proposed trade deal which has yet to go before Congress. In colorful terms the former trade negotiator said TPP is the “most progressive” deal to date.
“I’m not Santa Claus, this isn’t a mall and I’m not wearing a red suit but I’m going to bring you a trade agreement that tries to meet as many of those objections as you’ve raised,” he said. “Now the onus is going to be on you to say are you really in favor of fair trade or are you just against all trade?”
The inclusion of labor through an advisory council is something Kirk said he did to try to mend a historic divide over trade that has grown since deals like NAFTA.
“The previous four years before President Obama came into office the labor advisory committee met not once because the previous labor secretary under President Bush didn’t like labor,” Kirk said. “The first thing I did was call every major labor leader in America and I said I want you to come back.”
But most organize labor groups aren't happy with the Trans-Pacific Partnership viewing it as worse than the Clinton administration's North American Free Trade Agreement.
“I’d rather have labor have somebody to mad at. I’d rather have them in my office screaming at me than standing outside throwing rocks and circling the capitol,” said Kirk.
It’s not just environmental and workers groups that find TPP lacking in conditions for trade. Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump oppose the deal. Republican John Kasich of Ohio supports it. Kirk mentioned Sanders and Trump repeatedly but did not mention Clinton or the rest of the Republican field.
Critics argue the proposed trade deal could lead to the off-shoring of hundreds of thousands of jobs, less access to generic drugs, and more power for multi-national companies to sue the U.S. government in new tribunals.
In a question and answer session following his remarks, Kirk said there is a shift in the economy that this trade deal reflects.
“If you’re making some entry level goods where it’s not that complex, a lot of them are going to be made in China, Malaysia, or India but where we want to play is that higher end because that’s where wages get better.”
Earlier in his speech Kirk joked that he knew this aspect isn’t something all are happy about.
“I married a girl from Cleveland, who was raised in Detroit. I don’t give this speech in Detroit that often. I understand their anger about our trade policy. They do believe that all our jobs have gone elsewhere but we can’t bury our heads in the sand.”