I was struck by this story in the NZ Herald:
A leading American critic of the Trans Pacific Partnership, Lori Wallach, said New Zealand should not rush into the TPP because there were not the numbers to pass it in the United States Congress*.
"A leading American critic, eh? ", I thought. I've spent a fair bit of time in the so-called Acela corridor between New York and Washington DC over the past seven years, and have a decent enough memory for names, especially in my favoured arena of politics. I have never heard of Lori Wallach or the Public Citizen Global Trade Watch organisation from whence she came.
Now, that alone doesn't add up to much – I don't claim to know everyone. But, when you factor in the tendency of the NZ press to exaggerate the importance and stature of overseas experts, I was skeptical. I did some digging.
I'm in New York at the moment, surrounded as it happens by exactly the sort of people who would know "a leading American critic of the Trans Pacific Partnership". My queries about Wallach drew blank stares. Next stop, Google. Wallach's online footprint is a feather-light one, and it places her clearly on the fringe of the U.S. political spectrum. She has appeared on DemocracyNow, an online "alternative news" platform pretending be a television channel, popular among Ralph Nader voters and 9/11 truthers, as well as a couple of mentions in The Nation, a decent enough lefty mag but hardly The New York Times or The Atlantic. Oh, and the obligatory hits from the ubiquitous Huffington Post, an outlet known for publishing anyone on anything as long as they don't expect to get paid for it (to be fair, they're hardly Robinson Crusoe on the latter point).
All in all, not much on the Interwebs on "leading expert" Wallach.
How about Twitter, inarguably the most influential social media platform when it comes to public policy advocacy in the United States?
Lori Wallach (@WallachLori) has, as of writing, 1,447 followers. In New Zealand, perhaps that seems like a decent number – but in the U.S. context, it is hard to overstate how miniscule it is.
By way of comparison, the National Waste and Recyclying Association, not a renowned D.C. powerhouse, has 4,194 followers. The Cigar rights lobby has more than 14,000. Lori Wallach has one hundred fewer followers than the spokeswoman for the National Onion Association. To her credit, though, Ms. Wallach manages to exceed by ninety the follower number of the California Cling Peaches lobby.
Does that mean Ms. Wallach has nothing useful to contribute to the debate over the TPPA? Of course not. She may, for all I know, be an underappreciated genius. And I have more respect for TPPA opponents like Wallach and her NZ sponsor, Jane Kelsey, who appear sincere and principled, than those who from both sides of their mouth on the issue.
But, come on, Lori Wallach is not a "leading critic". She is an extremely minor player, if she qualifies as a player at all. In truth, her appearance in the NZ Herald article is almost certainly the pinnacle of her lobbying career.
By all means, let's have a robust debate. But, for god's sake, just because a person takes the effort to fly from the Northern Hemisphere to New Zealand doesn't endow them with instant gravitas. Nor do we need foreign accents to grant us validation. It's colonial cringeworthy.
(For what it's worth – AND, FULL DISCLOSURE, I AM ANYTHING BUT A LEADING EXPERT – here's my view on the subject: the ups and downsides of these mulilateral deals are invariably exaggerated on all sides – and the TPPA, undoubtedly flawed in many respects, is no exception. But the sovereignty argument is massively overcooked, and the notion that New Zealand can afford to opt out of – or selectively ignore – the TPPA is demonstrably ludicrous).
*Wallach is right to the extent that the US Congress might reject the TPPA, but it has little to do with the merits of the deal. It will be because the GOP majority in both houses place their unwillingness to hand Obama any kind of victory ahead their philosophical support for free trade. Wallach may have been clear on that point for all I know. But it didn't take flying her to New Zealand to find that out. A simple Google News search meshed with a bit of common sense would suffice.