David Ignatius Is Wrong: Trade Agreements are Not About Free Trade

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Friday, 04 April 2014 04:16

David Ignatius' column in the Washington Post touting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP) is badly mistaken in connecting these deals with free trade. The agreements have very little to do with free trade, rather they are about imposing a business-friendly regulatory structure that would almost certainly not be approved through the normal democratic process in the countries that are parties to the deal.

The reality is that formal trade barriers between the countries in these pacts are already very low. This means the potential gains from further reducing the barriers are quite limited. While Ignatius wants readers to be impressed that one forecast projects the TPP would add $223 billion to world GDP by 2025, this is less than one quarter of one percent of projected GDP in that year. That makes it roughly equal to how much the economy grows in a month. Furthermore, this projection takes no account of aspects of the TTP that would almost certainly slow growth, such as the increase in drug prices that would result from stronger patent related protections.

Ignatius also tells readers that the forecast shows the deal will "boost U.S. exports by $124 billion. That means jobs, here and abroad." This is not true. Many of the exports that will likely result from this sort of deal take the form of exporting components of products to be assembled outside of the country to take advantage of lower cost labor elsewhere. For example, engines and other car parts that may previously have been assembled in Ohio will instead be exported to Mexico to be assembled there into a car. The car will then be brought back to the United States as an import.

In this case the exports created no new jobs, since all of the products exported were already being produced in the United States. This is why economists always talk about net exports (exports minus imports) when discussing the job impact of trade. Currently the United States imports roughly $500 billion a year (@ 3 percent of GDP) more than it exports. Assuming a multiplier of 1.5, this trade deficit implies a loss of more than 6 million jobs.

In addition to increasing protection for prescription drugs, the deal is also likely to lead to longer copyright protection, more government control over the Internet and could sharply restrict environmental and safety standards in many areas. In addition, these agreements will create a legal structure, investor-state dispute settlement, that over-rides domestic legal systems. There is an arguable case for such extra-judicial entities in countries without well-established judicial systems. It is far more difficult to argue for the need such a system in the European Union, Canada, and the United States, where businesses can generally count on their interests being treated fairly in the courts.