If Pinocchio Were Trying to Sell a Controversial Trade Deal
Four Pinocchios. That’s the rating, reserved only for the biggest whoppers, that The Washington Post has given to the Obama administration’s most recent assertion of truthiness about the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - that the deal could boost income and “support 650,000 new jobs” in the U.S.
How far off was the administration’s claim that the deal could create 650,000 jobs? By about 650,000 jobs.
As Glenn Kessler, Washington Post fact-checker, explained, “the correct number is zero (in the long run), not 650,000, according to the very study used to calculate this number.”
That’s right – the study itself, from the Peterson Institute for International Economics, did not produce an estimate of job growth from the TPP. Indeed, the study used an assumption of full employment, under which projected job gains would be precisely zero.
The Peterson Institute has been hesitant to project employment impacts of controversial trade pacts since inaccurately predicting that NAFTA would create jobs, on the basis that the U.S. trade surplus with Mexico would rise. Just two years into NAFTA, the $3 billion trade surplus with Mexico turned into a $26 billion trade deficit. At that point, one of the study’s authors told The Wall Street Journal, “the lesson for me is to stay away from job forecasting.”
The Obama administration has yet to learn that lesson, apparently. But how did the administration get a jobs number from a study that did not produce one? (If this sounds familiar, the Chamber of Commerce pulled this same trick last year.)
The administration took the study’s projection that the TPP might yield a 0.4% increase in aggregate income in 2025 and used a back-of-the-envelope calculation to determine how many jobs could be created if that income went to new jobs instead. But then they claimed that the TPP not only could create these jobs, but simultaneously could create the income gains that they had just exhausted to produce their jobs prediction.
In short, they double-counted, taking the Peterson Institute’s projection for the TPP’s economic impact and multiplying by two.
It’s hard to blame them – the study’s projection for the deal’s economic impact amounts to less than 40 cents per person per day in 2025 (at present value). If you were selling the TPP, you’d want to double that too. (Not that “less than 80 cents per day” is a great motto for a deal likely to make medicines more expensive, offshore jobs, and undermine health, environmental and financial protections.)
But, you may say, let’s set aside the administration’s fast-and-loose numbers – don’t the Peterson Institute results still mean income gains from the TPP, however meager?
That depends – do you make more than $88,330 per year? If not, you’d be more likely to see income losses from the deal - not gains.
The Peterson study made no attempt to determine the impact that the TPP would have on inequality, despite an academic consensus that trade flows under such deals have exacerbated U.S. income inequality. So, in a study in 2013, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) took the projected TPP gains from the Peterson Institute study and added an analysis of how the TPP would affect income inequality. Taking the Peterson Institute's income projections as given, CEPR used the empirical evidence on the trade-inequality relationship to show that even with the most conservative estimate of trade's contribution to inequality (that trade is responsible for just 10 percent of the recent rise in inequality), the losses from projected TPP-produced inequality would wipe out the tiny projected gains for the median U.S. worker.
If one assumes the still-conservative estimate that recent trade flows have been responsible for 15 percent of the rise in inequality, then CEPR calculates that the TPP would mean wage losses for all but the richest 10 percent of U.S. workers. So if you're making less than $88,330 per year (the current 90th percentile wage), the TPP would mean a pay cut.
And that’s probably still too kind to the TPP, given that it requires accepting the array of outsized assumptions that the Peterson Institute used to produce its small income gain projection. Nearly half of the study’s projected income gains come from what the study presumes will be a surge in foreign investment resulting from the TPP. But a raft of studies has produced, at best, contradictory evidence as to whether or not TPP-like investment protections included in past trade and investment agreements have actually had any impact on foreign investment. Indeed, the most recent studies have concluded that such terms have failed to boost foreign investment. If the Peterson study reflected this reality, the projected aggregate income gain (which would only reach the pockets of the wealthiest) would be halved.
The study also assumes that the workers who the TPP would displace would be able to rapidly find new jobs and that these new jobs would be just as high-paying as the old jobs, meaning no negative impact on consumer demand. This runs counter to U.S. government data. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, three out of every five displaced workers in the manufacturing sector (where we could expect significant TPP-induced displacement) were forced to take a lower paying job upon being rehired last year. For one third, the pay cut was more than 20%. Why should we assume that the same losses would not befall TPP-displaced manufacturing workers?
The Peterson study itself projects that during the final years of TPP implementation, about 100,000 U.S. workers would be displaced each year, and that’s only counting those who take jobs in entirely new sectors. It’s unreasonable to assume that job replacements for all these workers would be immediate, that pay cuts would be nonexistent, and that there would be zero resulting impact on demand. Back in reality, the hit to consumer demand would depress further the tiny aggregate income gain projected from the deal, spelling even tinier gains for the richest and even steeper income losses for the rest of us.
So yes, the administration’s claim of 650,000 jobs from the TPP definitely deserves its four Pinocchios. Or, to borrow a card from the administration, let’s call it eight.