That's nothing new. In recent decades, trade agreements have been a tough sell to left-leaning lawmakers and the public. Some economists think supporting the president's trade proposals is a "no-brainer" and opponents are pandering to voters who don't understand the wisdom of free trade. That's both condescending and disingenuous. Opponents have identified real concerns that supporters can't simply dismiss with appeals to Economics 101 – especially when some concerns are well-grounded in Econ 101.
Just before leaving for the Memorial Day recess, the Senate passed and sent to the House "fast-track" legislation that would allow the president to negotiate trade agreements – most immediately the Trans-Pacific Partnership between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries – and submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote with no amendments. Understandably, the debate conflated the merits of fast-track authority with those of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Blocking fast track and, thus, cutting off negotiations at the pass is a good way to block an agreement you don't like.
On the merits, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a close call for many economists, including prolific economics blogger Brad DeLong, who developed the economic impact analysis of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the Clinton administration, and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who won his Nobel Prize for work on international trade. They certainly understand the economic argument for trade agreements – that opening their borders to international trade makes countries better off economically. But they also understand that trade agreements produce winners and losers within countries, and modern trade agreements involve lots more than lowering barriers to trade in goods and services.
The "no-brainers" argue that reducing trade barriers makes the economic pie larger, so, in principle, there's more for everyone. In practice, however, how the pie is sliced is just as important as its overall size. In an era of sluggish wage growth and rising profits, average American workers find cold comfort that the pie is larger if the gains don't show up in their paychecks. Globalization is not the only factor in disturbingly high levels of U.S. inequality, but concerns that trade will exacerbate it make a trade deal a much tougher sell. Supporters should be able to address that concern.
Moreover, critics have an important concern with the Trans-Pacific Partnership quite apart from Econ 101 issues of the gains and their distribution. That's the intellectual property rights (patent and copyright) provisions it would likely contain. Hollywood complains that bootleg copies of their movies are rampant in some of the countries involved in the proposed partnership. Pharmaceutical companies want greater protections for patented drugs. The companies have understandable concerns, but do average Americans share them? Patents and copyright protection gives a movie producer or a drug company the legal right to charge us monopoly prices. We hope that, in return, we'll get more and better movies and drugs. Beyond a certain point, however, intellectual property protection produces more profits than innovation.
Once they see the details, fair-minded people may well decide that we're better off with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, warts and all. But it won't be a no-brainer.