Thomas Friedman Returns

Thomas Friedman is loose in Silicon Valley, the economic hub best known for colluding to rip off its workers. He can’t contain his enthusiasm for “start-up America,” telling readers;

What they all have in common is they wake up every day and ask: ‘What are the biggest trends in the world, and how do I best invent/reinvent my business to thrive from them?’ They’re fixated on creating abundance, not redividing scarcity, and they respect no limits on imagination. No idea here is ‘off the table.’

Yeah, it must have taken some brilliant Silicon Valley imagination for Apple to sue Samsung to get its competitor’s cell phones off the market. In places that are behind the curve they would think that they have to produce a better cell phone, but in Silicon Valley they have the government just remove their competitor’s products from the shelves. See, no idea is off the table.

Okay, but that’s just cheap fun. The real story here is that Friedman is calling out Washington for not supporting the trade deals the corporations love. Just to be clear, Friedman makes no pretense of evaluating trade deals based on evidence. In fact, he boldly proclaimed the opposite:

I was speaking out in Minnesota — my hometown, in fact — and a guy stood up in the audience, said, ‘Mr. Friedman, is there any free trade agreement you’d oppose?’ I said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ I said, ‘You know what, sir? I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.’

Given his religious devotion to pacts labeled “free-trade” agreements, it is hardly surprising that Friedman would strongly support the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP). He begins by calling them “next generation” trade agreements:

that even the playing field for us by requiring higher environmental and labor standards from our trading partners and more access for our software and services.

That’s a great story. Obviously he hasn’t heard about the leaked environmental chapter of the TPP that is universally recognized as a joke. No one, other than perhaps Thomas Friedman, thinks the labor chapter will be any more serious.

Then Friedman quotes the Economist:

Studies suggest that proposed deals with Asia and Europe could generate global gains of $600 billion a year, with $200 billion of that going to America

His keepers were supposed to keep Friedman away from big numbers. Does Friedman think these numbers are for next year, ten years our, twenty years out? He doesn’t tell us and probably doesn’t have a clue himself. Hey, the world is flat, everyone is hyper-connected, why does it matter?

For those who actually like their numbers to mean something, these projections are for somewhere around the middle of the next decade when world GDP will be around $160 trillion and U.S. GDP will be close to $30 trillion. That puts the projected gains at a bit less than 0.4 percent of world GDP and 0.7 percent of world GDP. That’s not trivial, but hardly the difference between booming growth and a stagnant economy. In the case of the U.S. the boost to growth would be around 0.05 percentage points.

While Friedman insists these numbers are too low, the opposite is almost certainly true. These deals are focused to a substantial extent on increasing patent and copyright type protections. These government granted monopolies, restrict competition and raise prices. (This is likely to be an especially big issue in the case of prescription drugs.) The studies that show gains from these trade agreements don’t make any effort to incorporate the higher prices that result from these protections.

These monopolies will be a drag on growth and will quite likely more than offset any projected gains from the trade liberalization portions of the deals. They also have the effect of redistributing income upward. That is why serious people have serious reservations about the TPP and the TTIP.

But such issues don’t trouble Thomas Friedman, after all he “just knew two words: free trade.”

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economy and Policy Research. He also writes a regular blog, Beat the Press, where this post originally appeared.

Photo by Charles Haynes, used under Creative Commons license