The spoils of trade: imported frozen seafood in Vernon, California, September 2018.
MIKE BLAKE / REUTERS

“We must always take heed that we buy no more of strangers than we sell them, for so we should impoverish ourselves and enrich them.” Those words, written in 1549 and attributed to the English diplomat Sir Thomas Smith, are one of the earliest known expressions of what came to be called “mercantilism.” Update the language, and they could easily have been tweeted by U.S. President Donald Trump, the most prominent mercantilist of today. Trump believes—or at least says—that the United States “loses” when it runs trade deficits with other countries. Many Americans seem to agree.

Yet the

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