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2 articles that explain why the TPP debate is so maddening

US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership — see our TPP explainer and Ezra Klein's account of the administration's case for the TPP — has been one of the more frustrating things to cover in my career. The agreement has not exactly captured the imagination of the reading public, but it is the subject of a furious amount of politicking in DC.

Passing it is a top priority of the US Chamber of Commerce, and killing it is a top priority of the American labor movement. The White House and the Republican congressional leadership badly want to pass it. Backbench members of Congress — especially Democrats — are less enthusiastic.

But for all the lobbying, it's frustratingly difficult to get a handle on the actual stakes. Two articles out today do a great job of highlighting the dilemma.

The first, from David Wessel of the Brookings Institution, asks but does not really answer the question of why exactly the AFL-CIO is so passionate about this. It is easy to understand why labor unions representing American manufacturing workers are angry about competition from foreign workers. But the TPP actually does almost nothing to increase imports of foreign manufactured goods into the United States. And at this point, manufacturing unions are a very small share of the AFL-CIO's overall membership. As Wessel says, labor seems to be "fighting the last war" and expending political capital over an agreement that doesn't have all that much to do with its interests.

The second, from the Financial Times's Alan Beattie, notes that the national security arguments the administration's economic team offers for TPP don't hold much water.

If the United States were trying to build a broad anti-Chinese coalition in the Pacific Rim, it would be offering generous terms to our Asian partners to entice them into a deal. In practice, we seem to be doing the opposite — taking advantage of Pacific Rim fears of China to coerce other countries into adopting policies that are friendly to big American companies.

The participation of countries in the TPP has less to do with enthusiasm for importing the US economic model than a grudging acceptance that yet more tribute has to be paid in order to retain access to the US market. Negotiating a trade deal with the US is not a particularly pleasant business, and nor is it becoming happier over time. You are essentially presented with a US model agreement that contains a decreasing proportion of actual free trade and an increasing proportion of intellectual property protection, and invited to sign.

It’s not clear that a country’s affection for the US will increase after being required to rewrite its patent and copyright law every few years on a model dictated by, respectively, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and the Recording Industry Association of America. The US itself does not offer much liberalisation. It is highly unlikely to substantially dismantle its agricultural subsidy and protection regime to allow Australian and New Zealand farmers abundant access to its dairy market or stop its rice subsidies disadvantaging Vietnamese rice exports in world markets. America’s trading partners are thus on a permanent treadmill of enforced policy change in order to keep their trade access to the US.

In essence, the TPP is a trade deal that's "really" about national security that isn't actually about trade or security.

The case for or against TPP overwhelmingly hinges on whether you think getting Asian countries to adopt US-style intellectual property rules counts as a win for the United States of America. It's an interesting question. But the arguments happening in Washington rarely focus on it, instead drifting off into generalized concerns about China or trade.