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President Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal has attracted so much non-economic praise and criticism that it’s been understandably hard for many to remember that the strongest arguments against it concern its likely impact on both America’s growth and hiring, and on global recovery and financial stability.

It’s true that the TPP would affect realms of policy and life beyond the sale of goods and services across borders per se. In particular, it seeks better harmonization of regulations impacting health, safety, and other social priorities across the twelve member countries – and in ways that surely would curb national sovereignty. It will also inevitably bear on U.S. relations with East Asian countries at a time when China is displaying determination to replace America as kingpin in the Western Pacific. And let’s not forget the secrecy charges!

Nonetheless, economics deserves pride of place in the TPP and broader trade debate for two main reasons.  First, achieving most of America’s non-economic goals – including national security – ultimately depends on its ability to grow satisfactorily and in healthy ways. TPP and the endorsement of current trade strategies signaled by its passage would make that sustainable pie expansion all but impossible.  Second, the previous bubble decade should have taught Americans a bitter lesson about ill-considered trade expansion.  TPP’s passage would repeat the blunders that helped nearly blow up the entire world economy just over a half a decade ago.

The strongest evidence for TPP as an American recovery killer comes from examining what’s happened to that portion of U.S. trade flows most heavily influenced by trade agreements and related policies (like years of apathy re foreign currency manipulation). Adjusted for inflation, the rise in the non-oil goods deficit since the current expansion’s technical beginning in mid-2009 has slowed this sluggish recovery’s pace by nearly 20 percent in real terms, as of the first (still preliminary) first quarter 2015 figures. Nearly all this damage, moreover, has come in the private sector, which remains the economy’s only serious bet for genuine, long-term prosperity.

In other words, if the non-oil goods deficit, which was already $65.50 billion in the second quarter of 2009, had simply not gotten any worse through the first quarter of 2015, inflation-adjusted gross domestic product (GDP) would have grown by $95.40 billion more than its actual $487.30 billion increase. And although the relationship between economic growth and employment is ever more controversial, who can reasonably doubt that this faster expansion would have boosted hiring and therefore increased upward pressure on stagnant wages?

Many TPP supporters point to America’s already wide open markets and wonder why TPP would indeed worsen trade deficits. They need to look at America’s experience with the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), which the Obama administration has touted as the high standards model for TPP. In one sense, it’s clear why the president portrayed KORUS as the TPP blueprint: Korea’s economy is defined by the same kinds of non-tariff trade barriers found in many of the TPP countries, and America’s trade negotiators targeted them in their talks with Seoul before training their sites on the TPP group as a whole.

But since KORUS went into effect in March, 2012, U.S. goods exports to Korea have actually fallen on a monthly basis by 21.44 percent. U.S. merchandise imports from Korea are up by 33.58 percent. The most valid global comparison is with the nation’s worldwide non-oil goods balance, and it’s devastating. During this period, U.S. goods exports in this category increased by 2.32 percent, while merchandise imports were up 17.20 percent – just over half as fast as they surged from Korea.

Apologists for this dismal performance concentrate on exports and point to America’s service trade performance. But these flows so far have only been lightly affected by trade liberalization. Moreover, according to the latest (2012) official U.S. data, two-way U.S. Korea services trade ($27 billion annually) was dwarfed by goods trade ($101.18 billion). And signs are appearing that the U.S. services surplus with Korea could well go the way of the goods balance, as the high tech Korean economy keeps making steady progress in narrowing its global intellectual property trade deficit in particular.

TPP supporters also blame Korea’s sluggish recent growth for disappointing U.S. export and therefore overall trade performance under KORUS. But since 2012, Korea’s economy has expanded considerably faster in real terms (by 2.29 percent, 2.97 percent, and 3.32 percent, respectively) than America’s (2.32 percent, 2.22 percent, and 2.39 percent). A much more plausible explanation for export lag is KORUS’ entirely predictable failure to reduce significantly those Korean non-tariff barriers – which is bound to be repeated with the TPP zone for reasons that have bedeviled U.S. trade diplomats (and American producers) for decades: These measures, put into effect and maintained by highly secretive bureaucracies, are excruciatingly difficult even to identify, much less document in trade courts.

Meanwhile, the post-KORUS U.S. import surge from Korea also has a policy-related explanation with ominous implications for a post-TPP America. Seoul – and all the companies it still tightly controls – correctly interpreted the deal as a green light to ramp up shipments to the United States, in full confidence that Washington would ignore the various forms of subsidization largely behind their price competitiveness. Since major TPP countries like Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Mexico are comparably export-dependent, expect TPP to have the same disastrous effect on their trade flows with America. And if TPP does indeed have a docking provision, which means that new members can be added to the deal without Congressional approval once it’s finalized, the deal could wind up giving the same signals to a host of other export-led Asian economies, including China’s.  

Finally, the results of soaring U.S. trade deficits would damage not only the American economy but the global economy. As I’ve written repeatedly, many leading economists now acknowledge that the unprecedented global economic imbalances that built up in the last decade, and that were centered around the rapid expansion of U.S. trade with China and other developing countries, were instrumental in inflating the interlocking American spending and housing bubbles that burst so disastrously in 2007-08.

In particular, the offshoring spurred by these policies transferred enough production power to the third world to undermine U.S. consumers’ livelihoods and incomes, but couldn’t transfer enough consumption power to these populations to turn them into world-class spenders. The problem was exacerbated by the decisions of many developing countries to grow by amassing trade surpluses, not by consuming, and to protect themselves against financial turmoil by amassing large amounts of dollar and other foreign currency reserves – which also requires exporting much more than importing. When Washington decided to compensate for consequent losses in earned income by propping up American consumption with enormous budget deficits and then-record low interest rates, catastrophe became inevitable, and economies around the world were victimized.

The steady rebound of America’s trade deficits even during an historically feeble recovery and the president’s determination to conclude trade deals practically structured to supercharge them has put the United Stated and the rest of the world right on course for Financial Crisis 2.0. The sooner the TPP critics start going back to these economic basics, the more optimistic I’ll feel about defeating the president and creating a trade policy that makes this disaster less, not more likely.

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