When you're rich and powerful in the United States you get to lie freely to advance your position in public debate, including the opinion page of The New York Times. This is why the paper ran an anti-free trade diatribe against China, insisting that the country respect patent and copyright protections claimed by U.S. companies.

The column, by two former U.S. intelligence officials, asserted:

"Chinese companies, with the encouragement of official Chinese policy and often the active participation of government personnel, have been pillaging the intellectual property of American companies. All together, intellectual-property theft costs America up to $600 billion a year, the greatest transfer of wealth in history. China accounts for most of that loss."

Hmmm, $600 billion a year? That's more than 3 percent of U.S. GDP, it's more than 25 percent of all U.S. exports, it's roughly 30 times what we spend each year on TANF. Does that make sense?

The column doesn't give the source for this number, but when the industry groups have come up with these sorts of figures in the past, it is usually by assigning the retail value of their product in the United States to every unauthorized copy everywhere in the world. Let's say that there are 100 million unauthorized versions of Microsoft Windows in China. (I have no idea if this is a reasonable number.) If the retail price of Windows is $50 a copy, then the industry group writes down $5 billion as the theft, even if most of these people would switch to a decent operating system even if they were just charged a couple of dollars for Windows.

We get the same story for prescription drugs. A generic version of a drug like the Hepatitis C drug Sovaldi may sell for a few hundred dollars in the developing world. Gilead Sciences has a retail price of $84,000. If there are a million treatments in India and elsewhere, this comes to $84 billion in "theft." We, of course, have to skip the fact that Gilead Sciences doesn't have clear patent rights to this drug in much of the world. If they say so, it is good enough for the debate and The New York Times.

Anyhow, it is striking that this sort of nonsense is supposed to be treated respectfully by serious people. We expect President Trump and other political figures to go to bat with China and other countries to enforce the claims of Microsoft, Pfizer, and other companies whining about their intellectual "property," but when it comes to adjusting currency values to address the trade deficit — well, then we are all really wimpy and can't do anything. After all, that is just about the income of manufacturing workers (you know uneducated people), not the money of people who really matter.

So, there you have it. The folks who matter have a right to expect the president to massively interfere in the internal affairs of China and other countries to make them richer. But, ordinary workers? Well, let's twiddle our thumbs and pretend to give a damn.