Don’t Believe the TTIP Hype

More than likely, you’ve never heard of TTIP and don’t care what it is. Well, it’s the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed new trade pact between the United States and Europe. Would it be a good thing if we cobbled together an agreement? Yeah, probably. But Jared Bernstein wisely counsels us not to believe the hype we’re likely to hear about it:

I doubt that an actual TTIP (as opposed to the ones you’ll see simulated in coming months) would have a large effect of trade flows between us, because a) the deal will likely accommodate, not eradicate, initiatives like Airbus and their protection of treasured wines (and TV shows!), and b) again, the barriers just aren’t that high, so I wouldn’t expect bringing them down to be a huge deal (average tariffs between us are around 3-4%). And of course, let the record show that we too subsidize our farms and our Boeings, and these subsidies have survived many a “free trade” agreement.

I could be wrong and this time trade barriers will fall like never before. My point here is that we don’t know, so we should avoid the usual claims—on either side—that are trotted out the minute some diplomat suggests a treaty. If you really want to get a feel for the impact of a deal like this, you actually have to slog through the negotiations. Assumptions about the textbook benefits of free trade won’t help you because in the real world nothing works like the textbooks, especially in this realm.

If you read any TTIP stories, you’ll hear a lot about the nefarious French insistence on maintaining the “cultural exception.” This refers to the French desire to protect French moviemakers, which is pitted against the ecumenical desire of Hollywood moguls to fill every theater in Paris with the latest Avengers flick. It makes for good conflict journalism—chauvinistic but art-loving French! greedy but audience-pleasing Americans!—but it’s basically a sideshow. If Europeans want to continue resisting the tide of American cultural hegemony, that’s not hard to understand. And the amount of money at stake is, in the grand scheme of things, small.

The more serious—and difficult—topics are going to be regulatory harmonization and the removal of various non-tariff barriers. But as Bernstein says, even if we make substantial progress on that stuff it’s hardly going to usher in a golden age. It’s worth doing, but everyone should keep their expectations about its job-creating power firmly in check.