I've got to take some issue with my friend Paul Krugman over his blog post pronouncing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) no big deal. As a trade question he is undoubtedly right. The countries in the pact are ones with whom the United States already has extensive trade ties and generally low barriers. Eliminating or reducing the remaining barriers cannot possibly have much impact on the U.S. economy.

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.)  

For another example, our gas industry has been pursuing fracking at an ambitious clip with little regard for its environmental impact. I personally am agnostic as to whether natural gas can be a useful bridge fuel until the cost of clean energy falls further. However, I can see no justification for allowing the process in ways that let the gas companies pollute people's drinking water and ruin their farmland.

In the Bush years the industry arranged a special exemption to the Clean Water Drinking Act so that they do not have to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process. (They claim their mixes are industrial secrets.) If the industry got similar wording in the TPP it would both lead to open fields for fracking in the other signatories and also make the U.S. law more difficult to reverse.

There are many other areas where industry groups are seeking special treatment along these lines. No, I can't give a list with links because the draft text is a secret. Public Citizen's website probably is the best source available. It includes the chapter on intellectual property that was obtained through Wikileaks.

Anyhow, Krugman is on the money in his assessment of the impact of the TPP on trade. But the point is that the TPP is not really about trade, it's about changing the regulatory process in ways that would almost certainly be opposed by the people in most of the countries included in the deal.