The US has run a massive trade deficit for over 30 years. In recent times, there has been a growing chorus of commentators who seek to place the blame on our trading partners, most notably China, just as in an earlier time others had targeted Japan and Germany. It is said that the problem stems not from our reduced international competitiveness, but rather from the manipulation of exchange rates by our more successful trading partners.
This claim is not based on any direct evidence, but rather on an inference derived from standard international trade theory, which predicts that free trade will automatically lead to balanced trade. From this particular theoretical perspective, our large and persistent large trade deficit must be rooted in some obstacles to free trade. The large surpluses of our trading partners such as China then make them natural candidates for our opprobrium. Of course, if the standard theory is incorrect, this line of inference collapses. I wish to argue that the standard theory is wrong, on both theoretical and empirical grounds, and that free trade does not automatically eliminate trade imbalances. On the contrary, free trade reflects international competitiveness, and persistent trade deficits are symptoms of persistent competitive weakness.