When the US president attacks Canada’s prime minister as "dishonest and weak", before staging a love-in with the dictator of North Korea, you know that the journey through the looking glass is complete. But for economics nerds, the puzzle isn’t that Donald Trump is making concessions to a rogue state while slapping hefty tariffs on the steel and aluminium produced by his allies. It is that the entire debate about trade is upside-down and back-to-front. Trump complains of "trade abuse", saying that other countries "impose massive tariffs and trade barriers" while "sending their product into our country tax free". This is narrowly true, broadly false and wholly absurd. The narrow truth in Trump’s tweet is that there are some unconscionably high tariffs around. Beyond a small quota, Canada’s average tariff on dairy imports is well over 200%. The broad falsehood is the idea that only the US levies low tariffs. American tariffs are indeed low — the World Trade Organisation (WTO) estimate...

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