WASHINGTON - Americans have a love-hate relationship with foreign trade.
In the marketplace, we're enthusiasts. During 2012, we scarfed up $2.3 trillion of imports: cars, computers, clothes, smartphones, shoes, toys, oil and much more.
We are also eager exporters, though not as successful, peddling $1.6 trillion last year of jets, tractors, pharmaceuticals and corn, among other things.
But in the political arena, we're skeptics.
By one typical poll, 63 percent of respondents declared trade "bad" because it "results in the loss of jobs and lower wages." Only 30 percent cheered that it reduces prices and expands choices for consumers.
The conflicts permeate public debate. We're obsessed with "competitiveness" and denounce "unfair" trade practices.
Led by China and India, "emerging market" countries seem especially threatening. Meanwhile, the White House has proposed new trade pacts with Asia and Europe.
Is trade good or bad? Can we separate rhetoric from reality?
A new study by two pro-trade economists tries to do just that. It concludes that trade often receives more blame for our problems than it deserves.
Consider the decline of U.S. manufacturing, which is probably the most serious charge leveled against trade.
Measured by jobs, the fall has been deep and persistent.
From 1973 to 2010, manufacturing's share of non-farm U.S. employment has dropped from 25 percent to 10 percent.
The recent decline has been particularly severe, with more than 5 million jobs disappearing since 2000.
Some losses clearly stemmed from the Great Recession. But trade is often portrayed as the real villain; imports - cheap and sometimes subsidized - allegedly did the dirty deed.
The reality is more complicated, argue Robert Lawrence of Harvard and Lawrence Edwards of the University of Cape Town in "Rising Tide," published by the Peterson Institute.
What's happened, they write, is that factories have gotten spectacularly more efficient. They produce more goods with fewer people. In economics jargon, their "productivity" is rising.
Manufacturing employment is shrinking not mainly because jobs are moving "offshore" - though this obviously happens - but because fewer workers are needed.
Interestingly, the proof lies abroad.
In most advanced countries, even those with strong export sectors, manufacturing's share of jobs has plummeted. From 1973 to 2010, manufacturing's proportion of employment fell from 22 percent to 10 percent in Canada; from 37 percent to 21 percent in Germany; from 23 percent to 9 percent in Australia; from 28 percent to 17 percent in Japan; and from 29 percent to 13 percent in France.