The Corner

Economy & Business

How Obama’s Trade Agreement Could Make It Harder to Fight AIDS Abroad — and Why Americans Should Care

As Vox’s Tim Lee reports, an important AIDS research group is worried that the trade agreement that President Obama may get fast-track authority to negotiate, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will make it harder for poor countries to fight HIV/AIDS. How? Isn’t free trade great? Is this just some anti-capitalist whining?

No. The problem is that the TPP is going to include a huge range of rules that affect all kinds of things besides direct barriers to trade, including copyright and patent protections. The patent provisions the AIDS group (amFAR) is worried about are already U.S. law, but the TPP will require other countries to beef up their protections, essentially. That’s worrisome to an AIDS group (and, I assume, to other global-health advocates) because poor countries really need generic drugs — which become available after the end of a drug’s patent term — if they want to fight a disease like AIDS effectively on a realistic budget.

This is an important humanitarian priority though, of course, not the U.S.’s top concern. And our pharmaceutical companies need strong patent protections, because the profits such laws protect are the reason amazing drugs get invented in the first place. But there’s a growing worry that the U.S.’s copyright and patent laws, which are exceptionally strong in historical and international context, might be hindering innovation.

Companies currently holding those rights would like those laws applied to Asia, too, which is why they’re lobbying to get them put into the TPP. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing for the Vietnamese consumer, the American consumer, worker, inventor, or whatever or whomever. Plenty of people think fixing our own laws should be an economic priority, despite what strong corporate lobbies think, because they’re hindering innovation. Reform will be a good bit tougher if we’ve let corporations goad us into making them hold in many more countries internationally.

#related#This goes to a larger issue about TPP: It’s easy to say that protectionism is so passé and free trade rocks so much that even if these copyright provisions are a slight net negative, the TPP is still a good idea. But we don’t know that, because we haven’t seen the agreement. TPP’s reductions in tariffs, which is the first benefit you think of when it comes to free-trade agreements, are not huge — one fairly favorable trade model finds that the deal will raise U.S. GDP by 0.38 percent by 2025. (There are benefits besides just gains from trade, which is what the model above measures — it’s also good to have stronger partnerships in Asia, etc.) Free trade is a good thing, but it’s not like the TPP is the only way to pursue it. It’s the biggest, most feasible-looking free-trade agreement on the table right now, but worldwide liberalization, via the World Trade Organization, is really the best way to get lower barriers.

It’s possible that the agreement gets so larded up with things like new copyright protections or other unwise policies that it’s not worth the benefits. For now, we don’t know. As an aside, the fact that the deal could be bad shouldn’t preclude Congress from letting the president finalize a deal that the House and Senate can then choose to accept or reject as a whole. Whether to give him that authority is the question before Congress right now.

Patrick BrennanPatrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

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