Column: No big deal

Written by New York Times | Updated: Mar 2 2014, 04:47am hrs
Everyone knows that the Obama administrations domestic economic agenda is stalled in the face of scorched-earth opposition from Republicans. And thats a bad thing: The US economy would be in much better shape if Obama administration proposals like the American Jobs Act had become law.

Its less well-known that the administrations international economic agenda is also stalled, for very different reasons. In particular, the centrepiece of that agendathe proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPPdoesnt seem to be making much progress, thanks to a combination of negotiating difficulties abroad and bipartisan scepticism at home.

And you know what Thats OK. Its far from clear that the TPP is a good idea. Its even less clear that its something on which President Obama should be spending political capital. I am in general a free trader, but Ill be undismayed and even a bit relieved if the TPP just fades away.

The first thing you need to know about trade deals in general is that they arent what they used to be. The glory days of trade negotiationsthe days of deals like the Kennedy Round of the 1960s, which sharply reduced tariffs around the worldare long behind us.

Why Basically, old-fashioned trade deals are a victim of their own success: there just isnt much more protectionism to eliminate. Average US tariff rates have fallen by two-thirds since 1960. The most recent report on American import restraints by the International Trade Commission puts their total cost at less than 0.01% of the GDP.

Implicit protection of servicesrules and regulations that have the effect of, say, blocking foreign competition in insurancesurely impose additional costs. But the fact remains that, these days, trade agreements are mainly about other things. What theyre really about, in particular, is property rightsthings like the ability to enforce patents on drugs and copyrights on movies. And so it is with TPP.

Theres a lot of hype about TPP, from both supporters and opponents. Supporters like to talk about the fact that the countries at the negotiating table comprise around 40% of the world economy, which they imply means that the agreement would be hugely significant. But trade among these players is already fairly free, so the TPP wouldnt make that much difference.

Meanwhile, opponents portray the TPP as a huge plot, suggesting that it would destroy national sovereignty and transfer all the power to corporations. This, too, is hugely overblown. Corporate interests would get somewhat more ability to seek legal recourse against government actions, but, no, the Obama administration isnt secretly bargaining away democracy.

What the TPP would do, however, is increase the ability of certain corporations to assert control over intellectual property. Again, think drug patents and movie rights.

Is this a good thing from a global point of view Doubtful. The kind of property rights were talking about here can alternatively be described as legal monopolies. True, temporary monopolies are, in fact, how we reward new ideas; but arguing that we need even more monopolisation is very dubiousand has nothing at all to do with classical arguments for free trade.

Now, the corporations benefiting from enhanced control over intellectual property would often be American. But this doesnt mean that the TPP is in our national interest. Whats good for Big Pharma is by no means always good for America.

In short, there isnt a compelling case for this deal, from either a global or a national point of view. Nor does there seem to be anything like a political consensus in favour, abroad or at home.

Abroad, the news from the latest meeting of negotiators sounds like what you usually hear when trade talks are going nowhere: assertions of forward movement but nothing substantive. At home, both Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, have come out against giving the president crucial fast-track authority, meaning that any agreement can receive a clean, up-or-down vote.

So what I wonder is why the president is pushing the TPP at all. The economic case is weak, at best, and his own party doesnt like it. Why waste time and political capital on this project

My guess is that were looking at a combination of Beltway conventional wisdomVery Serious People always support entitlement cuts and trade dealsand officials caught in a 1990s time warp, still living in the days when New Democrats tried to prove that they werent old-style liberals by going all in for globalisation. Whatever the motivations, however, the push for TPP seems almost weirdly out of touch with both economic and political reality.

So dont cry for TPP If the big trade deal comes to nothing, as seems likely, it will be, well, no big deal.

Paul Krugman