Hillary Clinton made an about-face on the Trans-Pacific Partnership this week, after calling it the "gold standard" of trade agreements when she was secretary of state and even praising it in her book Hard Choices. Now she says, "I am not in favor of what I have learned about it."
This doesn't exactly ring true. Clinton surely knows as much about TPP as anyone outside the actual negotiators, and by all accounts the actual content of the pact has improved since 2012. So her comment sparked a lot of snickering among the political press, who are always looking for new angles to Get Clinton. Others on the center-left pronounced themselves worried. Ezra Klein argued that this reversal is of apiece with Clinton's disturbing habit of endorsing dumb populism against the advice of sensible economists and policy wonks, like the time she came out for a temporary repeal of the gas tax in 2008.
Repealing the gas tax was indeed a pretty lame idea. But stopping TPP is not. Furthermore, listening to sensible economists and policy wonks these days is as likely to lead to howling disasters as it is to good policy. And Clinton's move against TPP suggests, at least to some degree, an all-too-rare willingness to bend to democratic pressure when it comes to macroeconomic policy.
For the last generation and more, serious people in suits bearing white papers about economic development have been one of the greatest threats to world prosperity. It was serious, sober technocrats, sporting elite education and wide experience, who laid waste to Russia after the collapse of the USSR. Similar people created the eurozone — now an economic disaster area suffering through a crisis worse than the Great Depression. It was sensible economists — sometimes literally the exact same ones — who demanded that nations disembowel themselves with austerity after the financial crisis.
Paul Krugman constantly points out that such people are talking nonsense when it comes to bog-standard economics — thus the "Very Serious People" epithet. But there really is a tension between listening to elite advice from smart-sounding people with sterling educational pedigrees, and actually having a quality policy agenda. Sometimes, elite culture is corrupt, seized by groupthink, and plain old stupid.
Trying to accommodate popular unrest is one way to lean against this tendency. That doesn't necessarily mean literally doing everything protesters want. But ordinary people often do have a good bead on whether things are improving for themselves and their community — just look at the long-suffering Greeks. It means at least listening both to regular people and to unwashed critics who are irritated at getting no credit for being right about elite errors.
And TPP is just exactly the kind of noxious policy glib economists have been trying to foist on the world for decades. Its best-case benefits are tiny. Its potential downsides are large. It erodes democratic sovereignty — something the worst elites always seem to want, because it keeps decisions out of the hands of the filthy proles. Naturally, the arbiter of faux-serious elite groupthink, The Washington Post editorial board, strongly supports it.
It's anybody's guess whether or not Clinton really means what she says about TPP. But it's too much to say that this is simply a cheap feint against a proposal that is already guaranteed to pass. TPP's passage is not at all assured — people from Bernie Sanders to the slavering reactionaries at Breitbart are against it (where they're calling it "Obamatrade"). Clinton's stance now means both parties' frontrunners are against it. It's absolutely feasible that her move could stop it from passing.
If that happens, it's likely not coming back. TPP has been years in the making, and other nations will likely be extremely irritated at being pushed hard by U.S. negotiators who can't even deliver their own country's vote. And if that happens, we may have Hillary Clinton to thank.