Monday, July 16, 2012

Job-Creating Emperors' New Clothes

Job–Creating Emperors’ New Clothes

A couple of days ago, the Congress had a rare bipartisan hissy fit.  The object of outrage:  the U.S. Olympic Team’s uniforms, conceived by the well-known American fashion designer Ralph Lauren but manufactured in (oh, the horror!) China. Members of Congress tripped over their Italian-made shoes in order to grab the microphone and denounce the country’s Olympic committee for its unpatriotic sartorial decision.  Senate Leader Harry Reid, for example, demanded that all the uniforms be burned, then replaced by Made-in-U.S.A. tracksuits and singlets.

The hyperbolic outrage is misplaced in many ways. 

First, it should have been directed at the clothing design itself, no matter where the final products were sewn.  The opening ceremony costumes (I use the word deliberately) are extravagantly horrible.  American athletes will look like preppy versions of French metrosexual mariners, complete with foolish berets and way-too-short blazers.  Even the logos are wrong, from a breast-beating patriot’s perspective; the Polo emblem is larger than the flag/U.S. Olympic emblem, and the logo positioning (as far as I can tell from photographs) is such than if athletes put their hands over their hearts during the national anthem or to salute the flag, all that remains visible will be the Ralph Lauren brand image. 

Second, the Congress has no runner in this marathon.  The U.S. Olympic team gets zero federal funding, as opposed to most other countries’ Olympic teams, which are subsidized in whole or in part by national governments.  Therefore, the U.S. Olympic Committee must seek sponsorship and is hostage, pretty much, to whatever sponsors make themselves and their goods available.  In the matter of clothing, the Ralph Lauren organization offered its services and its apparel:  good deal for the U.S. Olympics (free clothes) and good deal for Ralph Lauren (excellent marketing opportunity).  For years, Ralph Lauren has outsourced its manufacturing, as have almost all other U.S. clothing brands.  (Same thing goes for Nike, who supplies ‘Hyperdunk’ basketball shoes manufactured in China).  According to ABC news, only 2% of the clothing sold in the United States is made in this country.  There’s no indication (that I can find) that the Olympic Committee made any proactive effort to secure sponsorship from the few American companies that actually make clothes in the United States (it has now promised to do so in the future).

(Reality check for U.S. citizens:  take off all your clothes, right now, and look at their ‘made in’ labels.  [It’s an extremely hot summer, so we don’t have tons of clothes on, but even still . . .]  Me, this moment:  Skirt:  India.  Top:  China.  Underwear:  Mexico.  Shoes:  Indonesia.  I even rifled through a pile of un-ironed clothing to see where things were made; out of about 30 items [who wants to iron when the temperature is 104 degrees Fahrenheit?  Give me a break!], only one was labeled ‘Made in America’ – a souvenir T-shirt from Booth Bay Harbor, Maine.)

Third, this isn’t the first year that U.S. Olympic apparel has not been manufactured in the United States.  As early as Mitt Romney’s Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, the team uniforms were made in Canada.  So why the uproar now?  Could posturing in an election year – and the fact that job outsourcing is a buzz issue in a down economy – possibly play any part?  

The real issue, it seems to me, is the atrophying of many U.S. manufacturing sectors – in this case, textiles and clothing.  North Carolina (the state I live in) used to be a leader in these industries; now, almost all its textile mills and clothing factories are closed.  It’s a fact of global life that even a ‘right-to-work’ state like mine cannot compete in industries that rely on relatively unskilled labor forces.  For years, North Carolina – to its credit, I think – has tried to replace traditional industries like textiles with more cutting edge industries that require better trained workers, industries like electronic communications, pharmaceuticals, and finance.  Other states have attempted similar transitions.  Yet here and on a national level we’ve seen increasing cuts in educational funding, which make it harder and harder to prepare potential employees to meet the demands of the current and future job environments.  In other words, extreme ‘austerity measures’ hamstring ‘job creators.’

That’s why the U.S. Congress’s hold-our-breath-until-we-turn-blue demonstrations about ‘American-made Olympic clothing’ are not only pathetically absurd but also craven.  It is the way of capitalism that some industries rise in certain places, and others fall, as everything from technology to geopolitics changes.  (I will avoid talking here about how textile politics have driven huge mercantile/colonialist enterprises, such as the slave trade and Indian independence movements, although I reserve the right to revisit this subject.)  Yet when hugely influential parts of a national government refuse to address measures that stimulate economic growth in areas that make sense to do so, one wants to tear one’s Chinese-made clothing into shreds and run screaming, naked, into the streets. 

Or to vote for candidates who have sensible and informed ideas about the country’s economic growth in the 21st century, and what government can and should do to support it. 

I’m not an economist, nor do I play one on the internet.  But it seems head-smackingly obvious that ‘job creators’ should not be simplistically equated with ‘rich people.  (The 2000 – 2008 economic record makes the falsity of this equation, and its trickle-down underpinnings, absolutely clear.)  ‘Job creators’ are in large part those willing to put resources into ‘growing’ (gag – I hate that ersatz verb) a workforce trained for the jobs of today and tomorrow . . . and creating incentives (NOT limited to tax cuts and laissez-faire freedom from any regulation whatsoever) to restructure or completely re-envision job environments that depend on these sorts of workers.

 As concerned citizens, even if we are not entrepreneurs in the classic sense, we – by our votes and by our political efforts – can all be job creators, no matter where our clothes were made.

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