Commentary — July 20, 2012, 11:59 am

A Uniformly Useless Flap

Alan Tonelson is a Research Fellow at the U.S. Business & Industry Educational Foundation and the author of The Race to the Bottom: Why a Worldwide Worker Surplus and Uncontrolled Free Trade are Sinking American Living Standards (Westview Press). He wrote “Up From Globalism” in the January 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

For all its intensity, nearly all the outrage sparked by news about the U.S. Olympic team’s Chinese-made uniforms has been pathetically superficial and downright useless. Even worse, the furor is shaping up as another lost opportunity for Americans to learn why jobs and production really move overseas, what the full costs have been, and how this tide can be stemmed and even reversed.

After all, if most of the fulminating lawmakers and pundits really were exorcised about Ralph Lauren’s decision to manufacture even high-end clothing in China, and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s indifference, and if they actually did want to revive the apparel industry, they’d be talking about scrapping the U.S. trade agreements that have veritably kicked so many companies and entire industries overseas—and for which U.S. multinational firms lobbied so hard.

Of course, this indictment needs to exclude long-time vigorous critics of these trade agreements, like Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown. And although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s proposal to burn the Olympic uniforms and start over with American-made products was a calculated headline-grabber, and the Nevada Democrat has rarely prioritized trade policy issues, he has at least opposed most ill-conceived trade deals.

As for the rest, however, what else could be expected of two decades of decisions that have handed businesses the option of supplying the lucrative, high-price U.S. market from super-low cost, practically regulation free foreign production sites like China and Mexico and Vietnam?

The impact on labor-intensive sectors like apparel has been especially devastating. Since NAFTA went into effect at the start of 1994, inflation-adjusted apparel output in the United States has nosedived by an astonishing 82 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis. An almost identical share of the nearly 835,000 jobs then generated by the industry have been destroyed. And imports now account for between 90 and 99 percent of virtually all the varieties of clothing bought by Americans.

Policy types have long treated apparel as a throwaway industry. But it has always been a valuable source of family-wage jobs for Americans with modest skill and education levels—exactly the types who desperately need work nowadays rather than the unemployment compensation, food stamps, and other forms of welfare on which so many are forced to rely.

Worse, apparel’s woes inevitably have bled into the more capital-intensive apparel textile sector and other apparel supplier industries. And massive trade-related losses have crippled countless advanced manufacturing industries as well.

Maybe the only silver lining of the uniform furor has been the temptation it’s given many showboats to flaunt their actual or willful ignorance about manufacturing issues. One outstanding example: freshman New York House member Nan Hayworth. She eagerly told Fox News host Greta Van Susteren last night that apparel making could return to the United States if only burdensome regulations were rolled back.

Not that considerable regulatory reform isn’t needed. But does Hayworth (who like so many other free market ideologues endorsed all three NAFTA-like trade agreements approved by Congress last fall) really think that the global playing field can or should be leveled that way? And if choking American factory towns and cities with China-like pollution and turning domestic plants into death traps doesn’t do the trick, would she repeal child-labor laws to boot?

Ironically, two of the Washington figures who for the time being have conducted themselves with the greatest dignity during the uniform flap have been House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama.

The Ohio Republican has never met an outsourcing-focused trade deal he didn’t like. He’s also single-handedly blocking Congressional approval of a bill that could overturn some trade policy blunders—the anticurrency manipulation passed by the Senate last fall, and that enjoys majority support in his own chamber. But at least he had the decency to make his uniforms comment terse.

And the always loquacious White House incumbent, who has morphed from a trade policy critic during his first presidential run to a standard outsourcer as chief executive? So far, not a peep.


© USBIC Educational Foundation

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Alan Tonelson:

Context June 19, 2015, 3:28 pm

Up from Globalism

“Today, the idea of maintaining genuine American prosperity without a vibrant manufacturing sector stands exposed as a fairy tale.”

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Wood Chipper·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was tucked in a blind behind a soda machine, with nothing in my hand but notepad and phone, when a herd of running backs broke cover and headed across the convention center floor. My God, they’re beautiful! A half dozen of them, compact as tanks, stuffed into sports shirts and cotton pants, each, around his monstrous neck, wearing a lanyard that listed number and position, name and schedule, tasks to be accomplished at the 2019 N.F.L. Scout­ing Combine. They attracted the stunned gaze of football fans and beat writers, yet, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, continued across the carpet.

Article
Common Ground·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

Article
The Black Axe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

Article
Who Is She?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

Article
Murder Italian Style·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A federal judge in South Carolina ruled in favor of personal-injury lawyer George Sink Sr., who had sued his son, George Sink Jr., for using his own name at his competing law firm.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today