Behind Olympic uniforms

Behind Olympic uniforms

July 17th, 2012 in Opinion Times

When Washington's political leaders rose in unison over the weekend to condemn the manufacturing, in China, of the U.S. Olympic team's ceremonial uniforms, they mainly illustrated their ignorance, or their brass, about America's ghost of a textile industry -- and related industries.

Regardless of the legendary brand names attached to such products, fully half of America's textile goods are now made in China, and most of the rest are made in other lower-wage countries. The same goes for most of our sports apparel and gear, luggage, shoes and lower-cost tools, not to mention electronics, glassware, home goods and a much longer list of consumer goods.

In fact, barely three percent of garments sold in the United States are made domestically. So the fact that congressional leaders stood to fume and pander to voters on their supposed outrage of the off-shoring of jobs once held by American workers makes the politicos look appallingly behind the curve, or simply deceitful. They're either just now learning about the immense job losses due to off-shoring, which makes them look, well, dumb. Or they're crassly pandering for votes by playing Americans for chumps, on the presumption that many voters are not informed about the of extent of off-shoring old-line manufacturing jobs -- not just from America, but from other wealthy industrial countries as well. We assume the latter.

That didn't stop the Senate's Democratic Majority leader, Harry Reid, from saying he thought the U.S. Olympic committee "should take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them, and start al over again." Nor did it inhibit House Speaker John Boehner from piling on Ralph Lauren for his perceived disloyalty of having our Olympians clad in Chinese-made garments.

Yet defenders of off-shore manufacturing make some valid points for sending such jobs to China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Vietnam , Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan, for starters -- along with a raft of Latin American and Eastern European countries.

They claim cheaper manufacturing labor represents just a fraction of an industry's jobs. Many more jobs, they say, remain American and higher paying in the design, engineering, innovation, marketing, transport and retail sales for such products. They also contend that by using contractor manufacturing plants, they are more nimble and more competitive, which allows them to grow and expand their market reach, total jobs and overall profit.

The downside remains. If U.S. innovation is incorporated in overseas manufacturing plants, it may let competitors outpace domestic plants and leapfrog our engineering innovations. Off-shoring also deprives Americans who need manufacturing jobs now, and who are willing to work for lower wages to build their skills. And it deprives companies of customers who might otherwise buy their products if they had a job and income.

In any case, given high unemployment here and the downward trends of wages and wage stagnation in America as globalization expands, it now seems clear that many Americans need and must accept lower-wage factory work.

Ralph Lauren has promised to produce made-in-America uniforms for the nation's 2014 Olympic team. The larger question is, how long will the United States have a plant to fill such an order, when off-shoring of manufacturing jobs has reached such critical mass that domestic competitors are effectively priced out of the market? That's the issue Congress should be exploring.