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Could we have a people-friendly globalisation?

With the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) in its death throes, it is time to think about what a good alternative – and what people-friendly globalisation – would look like.

At the heart of public concerns, whether it is about the impact of these agreements on medicine prices, public health, labour rights, the environment, privacy, the power of overseas investors, migration (less so in New Zealand), food standards, or inequality, is the same debate we constantly have at a national level over different objectives and priorities.

Yet the international agreements are products of the neoliberal framework which is now widely accepted to have failed economically, socially and environmentally. The agreements have extended hugely in scope beyond trade, and their objectives have changed from an arguable basis of maximising economic welfare to a much more extensive one that maximises the most powerful player’s commercial advantage. Their central principles make economic activity primary, rather than wellbeing such as improving living standards, health, human rights, fairness and a clean environment. Aspects of wellbeing (and only some) are recognised only as ‘exceptions’ to the rules that prioritise increased economic activity.

The normal political debate over priorities is turned on its head in a way that serves corporate interests rather than social, environmental and broader economic interests. This form of globalisation – called “hyperglobalisation” by Harvard economist Dani Rodrik because it is so extreme – is incompatible with a sovereign nation state and democracy, and makes it very difficult for social democracy to flourish. Other forms of globalisation are possible.

I suggest that what we should seek as far as possible is consistency between our aims at home and our international aims. Wellbeing should be primary. Agreements should recognise as primary the right of each nation to make rules in its citizens’ interests in certain essential areas. An example is in areas fundamental to their wellbeing including health, education, safety, environment, conservation, culture, human (including labour) rights, and actions it considers necessary to address disadvantage of social groups, inequalities of income and wealth, and inequalities of outcomes.

Within those limits, intentional trade barriers can then be reduced. The process of developing these agreements should be as similar as possible to the development of domestic legislation, with much greater openness and public consultation.

Download the full bulletin: ctu-monthly-economic-bulletin-186-february-2017