Matt Stoller: The Hippie Peaceniks Behind Corporate Global Trade Agreements

Yves here. Among other things, this post shows what passes for analysis among elite technocrats.

By Matt Stoller, who writes for Salon and has contributed to Politico, Alternet, Salon, The Nation and Reuters. You can reach him at stoller (at) or follow him on Twitter at @matthewstoller. Originally published at Observations on Credit and Surveillance


People don’t naturally enjoy doing bad things to each other. But people do end up doing lots of bad things to each other. How does this happen?

It comes from something my friend Jonathan Schwartz calls “an inner lawyer.” Everybody, even and especially bad people, have “an inner lawyer”. This is that voice inside you that always argues that what you are doing is morally acceptable, the voice that says that your anger is justified, that it’s someone else’s fault, that not saying you got extra change is fine, that stealing a cookie is ok because the other person doesn’t really want it, and so forth. No one is just greedy and cynical, a la Frank Underwood, even and especially the uber-greedy and uber-cynical need a justification to themselves for doing the terrible things they do. That’s why maniac political leaders argue, to themselves, that doing a terrible thing is necessary for some greater national purpose, instead of just saying “We should do this terrible thing because I’m a maniac!” This need for an inner lawyer is universal.

It’s not just true of people, it’s true of institutions, and countries. It’s true for global, ie. US trade policy post-World War II. It’s true for anything that people get together and do. So when looking at US trade policy, which at first helped create prosperity for most Americans from the 1930s to the early 1960s, and then turned increasingly into destroying prosperity for most Americans after that, it’s useful to find the inner lawyer for the people who knowingly organized a schema that would do this.

Well, here we are. Above is are just released notes from an Oct, 1999 meeting between Clinton trade officials Lael Brainard and Rick Samans. The meeting was organized to prepare for the upcoming Seattle round of the World Trade Organization negotiations, the expansion of the trading regime of NAFTA and the WTO that had already begun eviscerating the American middle class (temporarily masked by the Greenspan-induced dot com boom). Now you’d think that these two would be discussing some aggressive economic rationale here, or corporate consolidation or soft power or any number of other McKinsey-consultant derived master of the universe rhetorical concepts. But these two actually sound like… hippie peaceniks. Their argument for expanding trade boils down to give peace a chance, man.

Here’s the basis of the meeting, transcribed:

Peace and security

– since GATT (post-war), haven’t had destabilizing tariffs (smoot) that spiral, —> war

– so, more and more countries —> less conflict —> stabiliz.

– USTR doc: these rds —> dom. stability + peace”

– US leadership in each rd —> driving force propelling forward

The note says Brainard and Samans talked “peace and security”. Then they discussed GATT and the Smoot-Hawley tariff. GATT was the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade, established in the 1960s in the first round of trade talks that actually involved meddling within domestic lawmaking. This was the round that George Ball, who believed in a world government by glorious multi-national corporations, organized. I wrote about that here. Smoot-Hawley was a high tariff implemented in 1930, and economists sometimes like to pretend that it was the single most important factor in causing the Great Depression and then World War II. For people crafting the global trade agenda, GATT and Smoot-Hawley are the touchstones. For them, GATT means peace and prosperity, and Smoot-Hawley means world war and depression.

“Since GATT, haven’t had destablizing tariffs that spiral” is how Brainard and Samans characterize it. “So more and more countries – so, more and more countries —> less conflict —> stabiliz.” There you have it – Brainard and Samans had a simple thesis. More countries in more agreements meant more peace, and fewer countries in fewer agreements meant spirals into world war. And only US leadership, the “driving force propelling forward” each round, could ensure peace.

So that’s what the inner lawyer of multi-millionaires who seek global trade agreements to ensure corporate hegemony sounds like! Cool.

Incidentally, in terms of trade and peace, this meeting took place in October, 1999. That was 23 months before 9/11 and the whole endless war on terror, which US trade agreements did not prevent.

* And what happened to these two souls? Well, Brainard became the chief diplomat for the US Treasury Department under the Obama administration during the bailouts, and will shortly be confirmed to the Board of the Federal Reserve. Rick Samans went on to run the Davos convention for many years before joining the United Nations. Brainard is also married to Kurt Campbell, who was the driving force behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the State Department until February, 2013.

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  1. OMF

    The philosopher Edmund Burke referred to a concept he called “Levelling reason”; taking a conclusion and then ploughing away from, around, and possibly over all over facts ad reality until that conclusion is reached. Observation: nothing; Conclusion; dinosaurs . It’s easy to spot the fallacy when it comes to swamps on Venus, less so when it comes to international public policy, but the same process is at work here.

    The only problem is that, unlike dinosaurs on Venus, the random brain effluents of former hippies can actually have real and significant impacts on the lives of every human on this planet. It would be nice if human beings could develop a rhetorical/scientific/memetic method for counteracting this kind of destructive thinking before it is allowed to take root. Maybe that’s what all those liberal arts courses did?

  2. j gibbs

    This post confirms one of my favorite maxims: when you sit in on a meeting where nonsense is talked, don’t take notes.

    Colleges do not educate students; they credential students. Many of the most well credentialed students are sociopaths, because sociopaths tend to be highly motivated. These credentialed highly motivated sociopaths stream into major law and accounting and consulting and banking firms, and from there into high level government offices, where they fit right in with the resident sociopaths already running things in the interest of those who matter most.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Worse than credentialing, instead of enlightening, it 1) is self-credentialing, without independent outside verification, and 2) is unencumbered with any credential- product liability consideration or the need for credential-product recall.

  3. Lambert Strether

    Fucking brilliant. My inner lawyer told me not to say that, but I went ahead and said it anyhow.

    * * *

    Good to see that Brainerd and Samans landed on their feet, too, after the brown acid.

    UPDATE Adding, the real hippie peaceniks moved to places like Maine in the early 70s, bought land, and figured how to farm without petroleum and open-source the germ plasm through heirloom seeds, along with building the civil society institutions to accomplish those tasks. So if things go as pear-shaped as some think they will, the hippies will have saved the country’s bacon, or what’s left of it.

    1. Bruno Marr

      Thanks for the “Update:”, Lambert.

      As a California college freshman during the “Summer of Love” I too chuckled at the “hippie peacenik” reference. The era was actually more complicated than that, as you note in the “Update:” The real lesson of the Post is that if ANYONE spouts what appears to be “stoner” speech, then it should be regarded as stoner speech, and NOT become National Policy.


  4. Jessica

    I would take this a step farther. All unkindness requires some unconsciousness. One can not be fully conscious and do evil or withhold good.
    We are at an interesting point in the evolution of the species. Until now, for many individuals, survival required us to inflict suffering on others or at least stand by and let it happen. This is the meaning of scarcity. But we now have the technology to eliminate most of this competition. However, we still have the individual (lower level of) consciousness and the social organization fit for the last roughly 10 millennia of scarcity*. On the other hand, our technology is also so powerful, that we must realize our potential for a more open consciousness, both individually and as societies, in order to wield that technology safely and happily.
    This is not a state we fell from. It is something we have good reason to evolve up to for the first time. Doing so will be a major accomplishment to rank with the creation of stars from dust or of life from random molecules.
    *Scarcity only arises when it is possible for some people to have no food while others have plenty.

    1. Harold


      I agree with your premise, as it sits well with a conclusion I’ve held for some time – namely, that a majority of people seem to only use their powers of reason to justify reactive behavior stemming from instinctual response, instead of thinking critically about their actions and their environment.

      This theory as applied to the 1% seems to indicate that the people who claw their way to the top over “the bodies of the fallen,” so to speak, are doing so out of an acutely overactive survival instinct. This doesn’t excuse their sociopathic behavior, but does seem to explain it.

      1. Jessica

        I agree with you that most of us do not use our capacity for rational thought to the fullest. I think it is important to see that that fact itself is a social product: there is much about how society is organized that encourages people to be manipulable and tries to isolate or weed out those who are not. Going one step further, I think that society being this way reflects our level of development as a species. We have much more potential as individuals and as a species.
        That we have not fully tapped this potential so far is only a matter of immaturity. We can do it.

    2. susan the other

      Agree. Technology and science have reached a point of no return to the bad old days. We now have the know-how and the means to make a better world – not having to rely on age old tricks of trade. Matt’s little truth about how GATT greatness didn’t even begin to prevent the “War on Terror” and all the other acts of war we commit on the QT was amusing. Anything people want to justify can be rationalized with a smile. So let’s rationalize this: Put an end to trade because it is nothing more than means to enrich middlemen and big corporations. Instead of insisting on all this useless trade, let us do only a minimum trade for commodities that are essential. And provide all countries with the technology they need to make the products they want and need. Let’s give away technology instead of extending our patent protections like scrooge, and allow everyone to produce their own stuff with the caveat that production must not pollute the environment and all environmental protection must be the responsibility of those doing the production at the site. And enforce this rule. There. Peace is achieved much cheaper than going to war to achieve it (the war-peace oxymoron is slain), the environment is protected in a doable manner going forward, and people’s lives are improved to the extent they wish to be improved Each country can then focus on what is best socially for them.

      1. susan the other

        Funny how trade treaties, the mafia, and trick-or-treaters all have the same business plan.

        1. Chauncey Gardiner

          Great comment, Susan. Also reminded of a statement I recall reading back in autumn 2008 that unless TARP was approved by Congress, there would be tanks in the streets by morning.

          1. Nathanael

            I say that bluff should have been called.

            Tanks in the streets would not have gone down well. Left-wingers remembered that Bush had taken power in an illegitimate coup; many right-wingers were still opposed to giving big bankers piles of free money (this was before the waves of propaganda made it out to re-educate them). The soldiers, who are 99%ers, would have refused orders to fire on Americans,… and we’d see a fall-of-the-Soviet-Union scenario play out.

            Of course, Congress has proven to be really damn easy to bluff.

            1. hunkerdown

              I’m not as sanguine about that (forgive the pun). it is customary that large or credible insurrections against incumbent power are put down by forces sharing as little solidarity as possible with the insurgents (e.g. Bahrain by Saudi Arabia) more often than by their own, and protecting allegiance to power from the “dangers” of allegiance to community is one reason for it.

              Elitism protects itself first, then its own. Everyone and everything else is expendable.

  5. allcoppedout

    One of the first things I noticed when I started social research was how difficult it was to get people to tell me what they were really thinking, the protocols of their decision-making. I’d generally found it easier to get crooks to tell me what they had been up to.

    Classrooms barely encourage personal expression and what people will say varies from situation to context (Goffman). Years ago I watched a postgrad class I was in endlessly discuss what they wanted on a timetable having been told the decision was theirs to do as they wished. None of them seemed to get round to any discussion of what anyone wanted, though they did organise a timetable much as staff might with all the traditional HRM stuff in it as lectures. Eventually, I said lectures were largely useless and we might start by teaching ourselves what we knew and invite staff along to take part in our learning.

    I don’t suppose a bunch of trade negotiators could get round to discussing anything as radical as agreements on raising living standards to a common high and allowing competition after that? Like something people might actually want instead of the chronic self-interest in already designed context the clones manage. We know about public choice theory (Yes, Minister). A few stoners could barely do a worse job. “Trade agreements”? Half-a-million women were traded from Eastern Europe within months of the fall of the wall. Was that in a detailed appendix I missed? Did we remember to leave the smallpox blankets behind as a gesture of goodwill?

  6. James Levy

    I was watching a documentary on Henry VIII last night and realized that at the root, Tudor tyranny was the construct of lawyers. Then I thought of Yoo and Bybee from the Bush days, and wondered, who has been the font of more authoritarianism over the years, soldiers or lawyers?

    1. weinerdog43

      Nonsense. Lawyers operate at the behest of their clients. If everyone operated honestly and with utmost good faith toward others, I’d wager serious money 9/10ths of the legal profession would disappear. Obviously, that’s not going to happen because one party has to have faith that the other party will act honestly and with utmost good faith. You’d still need estate and tax specialists if the tax code was not reformed, but I’ll assert that taxation is one of the most egregious areas where someone, (I’m looking at you 1%ers) is screwing over someone else for monetary advantage. Stoller’s point is (un)ethical rationalizing regardless of what he calls it. No real lawyers need be involved.

      1. James Levy

        Nonsense on you. If Henry VIII or Dubya had simply started braying to the moon that their word was law, that they could do as they pleased, and everyone’s conception up to that time of what was normal and legal no longer applied, they’d have been gotten rid of like Richard II, Richard III, or Richard Nixon. What they needed was an edifice of confusing, erudite and reasonable-sounding bullshit as ideological cover. Lawyers provided that cover, as they did writing the Nuremberg Laws and at the Wansee Conference (read the transcript). Lawyers are not just pawns in the hands of their clients–they have volition and a will of their own. They have been critical enablers of tyranny time and time again (see Roger Tawney).

      2. hunkerdown

        Alright, then as self-aware Anglophones who understand that Anglophones tend to be highly individualistic and therefore very prone to committing the fundamental attribution error, let’s de-emphasize personal character and instead critique the situation and structure in which they operate.

        That is, maybe the adversarial legal system, being founded on the ridiculous principle that pairwise balancing of interests, iterated repeatedly at those interests’ expense, and adjudicated by a referee whose selection was influenced in some measure by status quo power, is intrinsically constrained to producing justice, never mind the just application of justice.

        Maybe it’s time to give up competition as a means of producing anything but waste.

  7. Banger

    That’s why maniac political leaders argue, to themselves, that doing a terrible thing is necessary for some greater national purpose, instead of just saying “We should do this terrible thing because I’m a maniac!” This need for an inner lawyer is universal.

    I believe the above-quote is true chiefly of Americans and somewhat less for Europeans–it is much less true of people from non-western cultures or Western criminals who are proud of their larceny and cruelty. These people are not “monsters” they are simply not wasting their energy thinking they are doing some kind of ultimate good–they do what they do to help their friends and family and screw the rest of the world. Americans of the middle and upper classes, infected by the fatal disease of American Exceptionalism, always have to do “the right thing” in order to live with themselves. They do things just as bad as some Russian oligarch but have to pretend to others and themselves that they are actually “good.”

  8. Rick Flynn

    When their ill-fated Ponzi scheme(s) comes crashing down, what will they say then?

    And what will the rest of us say to them?

  9. Roquentin

    The “inner lawyer” has a much older name: the superego. The prevailing cultural ethos makes these actions ethically justifiable, so the portion of our psyche which is supposed to regulate which libidinal impulses are and aren’t okay to act on has adapted to that. There is also the concept of an “ego-ideal” which is the main driving force behind the superego (excepting perhaps parental influence). The superego doesn’t regulate right and wrong so much as trying to make one act in accordance with the way he or she would ideally like to be and be perceived. If this ideal is one of power and wealth, any and all actions can very easily become justified to maintain this.

    It appears the logic in this specific instance is “don’t let conflicts or even national sovereignty get in the way of making money.” It also tacitly means “peace and stability will be held up by force if necessary.” That isn’t peace at all, that’s order, which is a very different thing.

  10. human

    Perfect: “That was 23 months before 9/11 and the whole endless war on terror, which US trade agreements did not prevent.” ” And only US leadership, the “driving force propelling forward” each round, could ensure peace.”

    “Levelling reason” the sociological equivalent of a mathematical proof.

  11. steelhead23

    Nice piece Matt. However, I wonder a bit about the logic of these two. How is it that a global war on labor (that is what “free” trade is all about) leads to global peace? It is long past time for workers of the world to unite – our masters already have.

    1. hunkerdown

      Obviously, if they can get the proles to accept that they’ve lost (which is what war is all about, isn’t it?), they won’t be causing trouble for the global world anymore, just one another. See Federalist #10.

  12. PopeRatzo

    You are assuming, without evidence as far as I can tell, that these people were ever “hippies” or were ever motivated by anything other than patriarchal authoritarianism and the desire for global control of resources?

  13. McWatt

    Speaking of war, we don’t seem to have won one since 1945.
    If a few more years go by we could begin to approach Egyptian Army status i.e.
    four thousand years without a win.

    “Catch-22 says they can do anything we can’t stop them from doing.”

      1. skippy

        Multi branch training exercises don’t count.

        skippy… it was good of them to play Opforce tho, good sports and all.

  14. john c. halasz

    Correction: GATT did not originate in the 1960’s. It was first instituted in 1947. (See also 1948 Havanna Charter).

  15. indio007

    “It’s not just true of people, it’s true of institutions, and countries.”

    Uhm… NO.

    Institutions and countries do not exist. People exist.
    Legal personhood is just one more available justification for the “inner lawyer” .
    We collectively need to stop anthropomorphising legal structures.
    That is the root of the problem that allows the criminal power elite to exist.

    1. allcoppedout

      Right in spirit, though any criminal power elite would be an institution. But who cares about the ontological status stuff if we could bang up these individuals in an institution?

  16. rur42

    Then there’s the iron law of unintended consequences…..

    I didn’t mean to– (and the aluminium law of waffling)

  17. gonzomarx

    abit of zeitgeist watch that seems to relate, I saw Rob Newman’s new show the other week “New Theory of Evolution” very good n funny and all about “..theory of evolution is summed up in the phrase the “survival of the misfits”. Rob argues that all species originate from misfits pushed to the edges of ecological tolerance in tiny populations..” also co-operation is a central part of evolution, empathy is hardwired and that Dawkins is an arse.
    ‘The universe Richard Dawkins imagines couldn’t exist for five seconds’

    The Survival of The Misfits
    “New species originate only from tiny, isolated, unstable populations of struggling misfits at the ecological fringes. [Mayr, 1964; Eldredge, Gould, 1976]. The churning moshpit of the dynamic geosphere forever turns hopeless minority into millenial majority. The gene pools of tiny isolated populations are inherently unstable (Tattersall, 2003). When the going gets unstable, the unstable get going. All the odd little quirks that once confined misfits to the edgelands suddenly become the must-have adaptation in a radically new habitat. This is the survival of the misfits.”

    1. backwardsevolution

      The reporter ends off with, “We’ll see. History will be the judge.”

      History will be written by the elites. There will be no “we’ll see”.

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