Let me start this post off by saying that I know that Paul Krugman seems to inspire... a certain kind of extreme reaction from some people, whether they support him or not. I don't fully know why this is. I think he's got some interesting insights some of the time, and I think he gets some stuff right and some stuff woefully wrong. But that's kind of true of a lot of people. Either way, I'm hoping that the discussion following this post can focus on the specifics of his discussion about the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) agreement, rather than tossing around ad hominems directed at Krugman and/or the reverse of that.
Anyway, it appears that Krugman has decided to discuss the TPP agreement
after many of his readers asked him to weigh in. And his response is basically to dismiss the entire agreement as not really being a big deal one way or the other. The entire crux of his analysis can be summed up as: trade between most of the countries in the negotiations are already quite liberalized, so removing a few more trade barriers is unlikely to have much of a consequence. Therefore, the agreement is no big deal and he doesn't get why people are so up in arms over it.
On his 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.
Instead, the TPP has always been a trade liberalization agreement in name only. Sure, there's some of that in there, but it's always been about pushing for regulatory change in other countries around the globe, using trade as the club to get countries to pass laws that US companies like. That's why there's an "IP chapter" that is entirely about building up barriers to trade in a so-called "free trade" agreement. It's why a key component of the bill is the corporate sovereignty
provisions, frequently called "investor state dispute settlement" (in order to lull you to sleep, rather than get you angry), which allow companies to sue countries if they pass laws that those companies feel undermine their profits (e.g., if they improve patent laws to reject obvious patents -- leading angry pharmaceutical companies to demand half a billion dollars
in lost "expected profits.")
Krugman judging the TPP solely on its net impact on trade is exactly what TPP supporters are hoping will happen, so it's disappointing that he would fall into that trap. Thankfully, economist Dean Baker, who does
understand what's really in TPP, was quick to write up a powerful and detailed response
to Krugman that is worth reading.
However 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.
To take a couple of examples, our drug patent policy (that's patent protection, as in protectionism) is a seething cesspool of corruption. It increases the amount that we pay for drugs by an order of magnitude and leads to endless tales of corruption. Economic theory predicts that when you raise the price of a product 1000 percent or more above the free market price you will get all forms of illegal and unethical activity from companies pursuing patent rents.
Anyhow, the U.S. and European drug companies face a serious threat in the developing world. If these countries don't enforce patents in the same way as we do, then the drugs that sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars per prescription in the U.S. may sell for $5 or $10 per prescription in the developing world. With drug prices going ever higher, it will be hard to maintain this sort of segmented market. Either people in the U.S. will go to the cheap drugs or the cheap drugs will come here.
For this reason, trade deals like the TPP, in which they hope to eventually incorporate India and other major suppliers of low cost generics, can be very important. The drug companies would like to bring these producers into line and impose high prices everywhere. (Yes, we need to pay for research. And yes, there are far more efficient mechanisms for financing research than government granted patent monopolies.)
Hopefully Krugman can be convinced to rethink his initial analysis after investigating more of what's actually going on with the TPP agreement, and will no longer be fooled into thinking it's actually about trade. Of course, this is part of why the USTR is so secretive. The more they can get people thinking it's about trade, the less they'll realize it's actually about exporting bad regulations to favor a few crony-connected industries.