Meera Nair

it IS a big deal

In Posts on March 2, 2014 at 3:47 pm

On 27 February 2014, The NY Times published “No Big Deal”, by Paul Krugman on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and the apparent stalling of negotiations. He writes, “I am in general a free-trader, but I’ll be undismayed and even a bit relieved if the T.P.P. just fades away.” On that point, many people would likely share his relief. However, Krugman’s article is dangerous; he cloaks the TPP with an aura of blandness, arguing that the benign nature of the agreement is why it will not be missed. According to Krugman, the agreement does very little to enhance trade, instead:

… these days “trade agreements” are mainly about other things. What they’re really about, in particular, is property rights – things like the ability to enforce patents on drugs and copyrights on movies.  And so it is with T.P.P.

Krugman’s assessment of the TPP is framed by comparison to trade agreements of days gone by, when eliminating tariffs was a principle feature of negotiation. His remarks may be accurate in that regard, but by confining his assessment so narrowly, he avoids in-depth examination of the agreement as a whole. The TPP is not about trade. That word suggests a mutually beneficial exchange between two or more parties. The TPP is about domination and ensuring that countries do not oppose any actions taken by foreign corporations regardless of how those actions might affect health, environment, or even trade, within a host country.

Achieving such dominance includes imposing stringent measures upon intellectual property (more so than what is currently required by international agreement) and requiring that disputes arising are not adjudicated in either a court of law, or a seat of some impartiality like the WTO, but in private tribunals. (I have touched on the perils of investor-state dispute mechanisms, see here; Renée Loth writing for the Boston Globe on 22 December 2013 also covers this issue.)

Mr. Krugman could dismiss such remarks on the grounds that the actual agreement is yet to be seen. But that factor in itself ought to be a major reason for concern. Negotiations have been conducted in secret, with the public having to rely on a leaked document to discover what is being discussed. Granted, it is not possible, nor desirable, for any administration to govern by referendum. However, even U.S. elected representatives have not been privy to details. That combined with the desire of the Obama administration to fast-track the agreement, should have alerted Krugman: the TPP is a big deal.

But perhaps most startling of all is that Krugman’s article of the 27th is the second such article he has written. The first was published by The NY Times on 12 December 2013, titled “TPP”. Comparing the two articles, the tone is essentially the same; that judging by the former hallmarks of free trade, the TPP would not make much difference:

…  my starting point for things like this is that most conventional barriers to trade — tariffs, import quotas, and so on — are already quite low, so that it’s hard to get big effects out of lowering them still further.

That earlier article provoked some commentary. Dean Baker wrote a courteous dissent for the Center for Economic and Policy Research:

…it is a misunderstanding to see the TPP as being about trade. This is a deal that focuses on changes in regulatory structures to lock in pro-corporate rules. Using a “trade” agreement provides a mechanism to lock in rules that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get through the normal political process.

Mike Masnick of TechDirt went into greater detail than Baker on the measures included in the TPP. And Masnick puts his fingers immediately on the value of an op/ed such as Krugman’s:

On [Krugman’s] basic reasoning, he’s correct. There’s little trade benefit to be gained here. In fact, some countries have already realized this. But that’s why the TPP is so nefarious. It’s being pitched as a sort of “free trade deal,” and Krugman analyzes it solely on that basis. That’s exactly what the USTR would like people to think, and it’s part of the reason why they’ve refused to be even the slightest bit transparent about what’s actually in the agreement.

Both responses are worth reading in their entirety; they are as germane today as they were three months ago.

Which leads me to question why Krugman continues to limit his exploration of the subject? He acknowledges that the TPP would, “increase the ability of certain corporations to assert control over intellectual property.” But he makes no effort to explore the ramifications of the increase. For such an accomplished economist, who writes under the tagline of “The Conscience of a Liberal,” this neglect is unconscionable.

Further Reading: InfoJustice.org (of the Washington College of Law, American University) has compiled a list of analyses (some for the agreement, others against), see hereChristopher Ingram, writing for The Washington Post (28 February 2014) describes the current composition of trade-advisory committees as selected by the Obama administration: “Of the 566 committee members, 306 come from private industry and an additional 174 hail from trade associations. All told they represent 85% of the voices on the trade committees.”

Update – 18 March 2014 – And more reading: On the Wrong Side of Globalization by Joseph Stiglitz.

  1. I guess he’s either too concerned about his reputation or he doesn’t really believe what he says, I guess? Wrote my own summary of the TPP, in somewhat irreverent style here: http://politicoid.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/why-the-whole-world-should-fight-the-trans-pacific-partnership/

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