We've been talking a lot about the various big "trade agreements" that are being worked on around the globe -- with a major focus on the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) and the TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact). These are frequently referred to as "free trade agreements." But an important point that gets lost in the various debates is that, generally speaking these are not
free trade agreements at all. In many ways, they're the opposite. Free trade is about removing barriers to trade -- which are, generally speaking
, a good thing. But the simple fact is that for the most part we already have
pretty low trade barriers with most of the countries involved in these negotiations. Instead, this is almost entirely about a combination of regulatory arbitrage, and the ability to better move money around by giant multinational companies. The economics comic artist Michael Goodwin did a nice job demonstrating all this in a comic about the TPP
a while back. Here's just two panels, though I highly recommend the whole thing:
Economist Dean Baker has a good article describing this in more detail as well
, showing that these agreements aren't about "free trade" at all. As he notes, basic free trade generally
makes sense. But, that's not what's really being discussed in these agreements:
In TPP and TTIP we are not talking about the textbook trade story. The actual trade barriers between the United States and the countries in these deals, with few exceptions, are already quite low. This means that there is little to be gained by lowering them still further.
Instead, he notes -- as we have in the past -- that these "trade agreements" are really just the opposite. They're about gifts for certain big businesses that they couldn't get through legislation:
TPP and TTIP are about getting special deals for businesses that they would have difficulty getting through the normal political process.
He lists out a bunch of examples, but here are a couple we've been focused on:
The pharmaceutical industry and entertainment industries will get longer and stronger patent and copyright protection.
Note how this is the opposite of true free trade. Longer and stronger copyrights and patents are actually barriers
to trade. They're putting up regulatory barriers to the free flow of information, protecting certain legacy businesses at the expense of innovative firms. And, it's all done in secret, with basically only input from businesses. The only time voters actually get to see what's in it is when it's a done deal, and fully negotiated. At that point, the parties are too committed to actually allow any fixes that protect consumers or innovation.
So, when you hear people talking about these agreements as if they're "free trade" agreements, just recognize that calling them free trade agreements is a lie -- and it's a lie that's used to convince the gullible that these agreements must be good for the economy. And it appears to work on some people:
As Thomas Friedman once famously said in reference to his support of CAFTA, "I didn't even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade." Others in the media may be too sophisticated to express themselves so bluntly, but undoubtedly most share Friedman's view. Under such circumstances, there will be few politicians prepared to stand up for principle or their constituents and vote against the pacts regardless of what it is in them.
In short: people (correctly) believe that free trade is generally a good thing. Businesses recognize this -- and even though we generally have an awful lot of free trade around the globe these days, with fewer and fewer tariffs and trade barriers, governments are working on "free trade deals" because they know by calling them that, people will often support them, believing blindly that they're good things. Instead, there's very little that's actually about free trade, and an awful lot that's about propping up and protecting legacy business models, while stifling the important free flow of information.