Failure of NAFTA could be good for our creativity

It’s a toss-up on whether the North America Free Trade Agreement will survive. The fifth round of discussions has concluded in Mexico and Foreign Affairs Minister Christie Freeland is not optimistic. “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst and Canada is prepared for every eventuality,” she said.


Failure of NAFTA will have only a slight negative economic impact. If the U.S. terminates NAFTA, as the unpredictable President Trump has threatened to do, trade would revert back to rules of the World Trade Organization. Under those rules, the added tariffs would only add 1.5 per cent of the cost of goods exported to the U.S. according to a study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

With “trade” in the title, you could think that’s what NAFTA about. And since Canada is a trading nation, you could conclude that NAFTA is vital to our economy. While NAFTA offers some advantages, it has a number of disadvantages such as the investor-state dispute settlement provisions that allows foreign firms to sue governments. And exports of Canadian softwood aren’t even covered.

However, trade deals like NAFTA are not primarily about trade. Trade takes place without them. These trade deals are actually about protection of corporate interests such as “intellectual property” which is not property in the usual sense. It’s a means of commodifying artistic and technological creations such as brands, music, movies, patents, and software.

America normally supports trade deals because they benefit most. The deals enforce corporate interests, and in the U.S. corporate interests = government interests. The reason that the U.S. is so interested in intellectual property is because it’s one of their biggest exports. Culture, what the U.S. calls entertainment, makes up one-third of American exports. American movies are seen in theatres around the world. U.S. pop songs are heard in the streets. Kids play American-made video games. American inventions such as the iPhone are ubiquitous.

An indication of how poorly President Trump understands the American economy is his rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It was a license for U.S. corporate giants to impose protection of intellectual property. I celebrated its demise after Trump cancelled the TPP but I had to wonder what (if) the president was thinking.

The demise of NAFTA would lift a weight off of Canadian creativity and allow it to flourish.

Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, was asked to advise a Senate Open Caucus meeting on modernizing NAFTA.

“To my surprise, the shift in focus to a post-NAFTA world was liberating, opening the door to considering Canadian policies that have previously been viewed as unattainable given intense U.S. pressure on intellectual property policy that favours ‘Americanization’ of global rules,” he said (Globe and Mail, October 20, 2017).

By loosening the grip of the U.S. on creativity, Canadians can market their innovations globally; innovations such as software developed by Blackberry for self-driving cars and recently sold to the Chinese firm Baidu.

Of course, our intellectual property needs protection. With the U.S. out of the way, international agreements can be struck that encourage innovation while protecting creators without one player holding a big stick.


Don’t call the TPP a free trade agreement

Canada is a trading nation. Trade agreements are good for Canada. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is not one of those.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23:  Demonstrators protest against the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement outside the Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important proceedural vote on the trade bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major Pacific trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

With a few exceptions, Canada’s trade barriers are already low and the TPP will have little effect on trade. Professor Blayne Haggart from Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, says it’s all about increasing corporate power. Sections that are supposed to be incidental riders are the real essence:

“Instead, agreements such as the TPP are about implementing policies that have nothing to do with comparative advantage, policies that are often designed to lead to higher consumer costs and concentrated corporate power. Treated as marginal issues, these policies are ‘free-trade free-riders,’ coasting along on an unearned legitimacy.”

By “comparative advantage” he means trade between partners that benefits both. “Costs are lowered, production is maximized and people can buy imports at prices lower than would have prevailed had they produced everything themselves,” explains Haggart in the Globe and Mail.

The TPP is not a free trade agreement; it’s a consolidation of U.S. interests globally. The details have to be carefully dissected but here are a few things that we know.

One of the “free-trade free-riders” is intellectual property. The U.S. wants to extend the patent protection for drugs to prevent generic manufacturers from providing cheaper medicines. Groups such as Doctors Without Borders warn that greater drug-patent protection would “limit competition from generic drug manufacturers that reduce drug prices and improve access to treatment, and would accelerate already soaring medicine and vaccine prices.”

Another is extended copyright length. The TPP would extend the life of copyrights from 50 years to 70 years beyond the life of the author. This would benefit U.S. media companies and provide little benefit for artists or the public. Copyright holders are often corporate media giants like Disney.

If the negotiators of the TPP were honest, they would admit that this is not a “partnership,” it’s an imposition of U.S. interests on trading partners. One of the biggest U.S. exports is American culture, what they like to call the entertainment industry. Another is health care. These are the money-makers that the U.S. wants to protect.

One more free-trade free-rider is the infamous “investor-state dispute settlement.” It places corporations on the same level of states, allowing foreign firms to sue countries, not only for breach of contract but for public policies such as environmental protection and access to drinking water.

As I explained in my column of October 15, Canada is already on the receiving end of the most dispute claims under NAFTA. We can expect more under the TPP as corporations try to bring our public policies in line with their private interests.

Yet another provision would allow car manufacturers to hide operating codes that allow them to cheat on emission regulations the way Volkswagen did under the guise of intellectual property. These codes should be examined by regulators the way that slot machines are.

Just how bad the TPP is for Canada has yet to be determined. The 6,000 pages of the secretly negotiated agreement have only been recently released. One thing that should make us suspicious is when supporters call it a free trade agreement.