Today the New York Times ran an op-ed by Clyde Prestowitz, one of the last generation’s most vocal trade policy Cassandras, who argues that the Trans-Pacific Partnership has no security or economic value to the United States, and would only exacerbate our trade deficits with the countries involved. Despite how things turned out, the same guy who warned in the early 1990s that Americans had best ingratiate themselves to their imminent Japanese overlords by learning to say “I surrender” in their native tongue doesn’t appear the slightest bit abashed about peddling more American defeatism to a new generation.

Most of what Prestowitz has to say in his op-ed is anachronistic or plain wrong, but let’s focus on his characterization of the U.S. trade deficit as a symptom of economic decline. There has been no shortage of hand-wringing about the U.S. trade deficit over the years. Since the 1980s, scolds have been warning about the unsustainability of running trade deficits and the perils that would follow. Today, the heirs of that perspective consider trade balance or a trade surplus to be the objective of trade policy — and trade deficits proof that the United States is losing at trade.
This misguided belief that the trade account is a scoreboard measuring the success or failure of trade policy explains much of the public’s skepticism about trade and trade agreements, lends plausibility to Trumptastic claims that the United States is routinely outsmarted by shrewder foreign trade negotiators, and provides cover for the same, recycled protectionist arguments that have persisted without merit for centuries.