What Does Tom Friedman Know About TPP?

Thomas Friedman (cc photo: World Affairs Council)

Thomas Friedman: “I just knew two words: free trade.” (cc photo: World Affairs Council)

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman once declared that he doesn’t really bother understanding international trade agreements. But that doesn’t stop him from writing about them. In a TV interview (CNBC, 7/22/06), he once admitted: “I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.” (Actually, he didn’t even know what its name was; it’s the Central America Free Trade Agreement, not “Caribbean.”)

So there was Friedman on Sunday (2/16/14) writing about the TPP, or Trans-Pacific Partnership. Friedman was contrasting the can-do spirit of Silicon Valley with the paralysis on Capitol Hill:

But Washington these days won’t even do the league minimum. As The Economist observed in an essay entitled “When Harry Mugged Barry,” both the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with big Asian markets like Japan, which is almost done, and the U.S.-European Union trade deal, which is being negotiated, are “next generation” agreements that even the playing field for us by requiring higher environmental and labor standards from our trading partners and more access for our software and services.

International trade deals are being to written to benefit the United States and raise environmental and labor standards. Well, who could be against that?

The only problem is that doesn’t appear to be what’s happening. As Friedman’s paper has reported (1/15/14):

The Obama administration is retreating from previous demands of strong international environmental protections in order to reach agreement on a sweeping Pacific trade deal that is a pillar of President Obama’s strategic shift to Asia, according to documents obtained by WikiLeaks, environmentalists and people close to the contentious trade talks.

The paper added that “the draft environmental chapter does not require the nations to follow legally binding environmental provisions or other global environmental treaties.”

OK, but Friedman is not citing his paper–he’s citing The Economist (2/8/14). The problem is that he mischaracterizes what they wrote.

In Friedman’s mind, the message from The Economist was that these trade deals

are “next generation” agreements that even the playing field for us by requiring higher environmental and labor standards from our trading partners and more access for our software and services.

But go look at the article he’s citing. The only reference labor and environmental standards is one line suggesting that Senate Democrats who are opposing the White House on fast track might be able to insist that these be part of the agreement: “Haggling in the Senate may yield a new version with enough about labor standards and the environment to satisfy the protectionists.” In other words, this is a possible outcome only because Democrats are opposing the White House push on the TPP–which is a political tactic that both Friedman and The Economist are against. (The “damage has already been done” by the fact that “America’s leaders seem determined to attach conditions to a fast-track bill,” the magazine writes.)

Misrepresenting his source not the only problem with Friedman’s column; as economist Dean Baker notes (Beat the Press, 2/15/14), Friedman suggests the good news from these trade deals is that they “could generate global gains of $600 billion a year, with $200 billion of that going to America.” Which means… what, exactly? Baker writes:

For those who actually like their numbers to mean something, these projections are for somewhere around the middle of the next decade when world GDP will be around $160 trillion and US GDP will be close to $30 trillion. That puts the projected gains at a bit less than 0.4 percent of world GDP and 0.7 percent of US GDP. That’s not trivial, but hardly the difference between booming growth and a stagnant economy. In the case of the US, the boost to growth would be around 0.05 percentage points.

Whatever the case, Friedman’s been told these are “free trade” deals, and those are the ones he’s for.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.