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Variations | Got T-shirt?

IN 1999, a Georgetown University business professor, Pietra Rivoli, witnessed a gathering of students denouncing garment “sweatshops” and, by implication, the Americans who wore the garments produced by evil manufacturers.

“I decided to investigate,” the professor said. “During the following 6 years, I traveled the world to investigate the story of the people, politics, and markets that created my cotton T-shirt. I not only found out who made my T-shirt, but I also followed its life over thousands of miles and across three continents.”

The result was a book published in 2005 and 2009, and whose latest edition came out in 2014: “The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade.”

It is a highly informative, award-winning work that is widely praised in the U.S. and other countries. Among its admirers are Time magazine, the New York Times, and Financial Times. It is a nonpartisan book although based on her musings, the author probably is a moderate Democrat (if such a person still exists).

Reading about how powerful America’s textile/cotton/garment lobby was, and how it wielded its political influence over the years, I realized that Saipan’s garment industry was already marked for extinction when it dared set foot on this American island. But that subject is for a future editorial.

Today, let’s talk about, of all things, trade — specifically, the trade deficit. As individuals, we all have trade deficits. In my case, I buy my groceries all the time from a store which has never bought a single thing from me. Sure the store sells copies of the newspaper that employs me, but the store also gets a share of the total sales. Come to think of it, I also have a trade deficit with my barber, several restaurants and bars, gasoline stations and online stores.

I hear you say, “Don’t be silly. When you patronize those establishments you get something in return for your money. You obviously consider it a fair exchange. You like buying what you buy from them. Otherwise you would have stashed your money under a mattress and enjoyed contemplating your ‘trade surplus’ in your addled mind.”

A parable of sorts

In her book, Rivoli recounted how the English woolen industry, which had no rivals in the early 17th century, waged an all-out war against foreign competition. “Woolens were itchy, they were hard to clean and dry, and they were hot and clammy in the damp English summers. It is hard to imagine how even the most passionate patriot would, if given a choice, prefer woolen underwear to cotton.”

In contrast, “handmade Indian cotton calicoes and muslins that began to pour into British ports in the mid-1600s were a consumer boon not unlike today’s cotton T-shirts from China. For socks, children’s clothing, and frocks, there was a marvelous new alternative: It was cheap, it was light, and it was washable. It came in a variety of bright colors and prints, and it was soft instead of itchy.”

Unpatriotic consumers! They cared only for themselves — and not for their “country” as patriotically represented by their woolen industry. So Parliament passed laws restricting the entry of cotton imports. In 1689, Parliament mandated that cottons could be used in the summer only. Apparently the measure was not enough. In 1699, a new law was passed requiring “all magistrates, judges, students of the Universities, and all professors of the common and civil law...[to] wear gowns made of the woolen manufacture [at all times of year].”

Rivoli said “when this attempt to dictate dress failed, the woolen interests turned their attention to less powerful groups. It was argued quite shamelessly that even the poorest could afford a bit of wool in their wardrobe: An act at the same time introduced to Parliament required all female English servants earning five pounds or less to wear only woolen hats. As in today’s trade agreements, there was an attempt to keep some piece of the pie for the domestic industry. If the woolens could have some part of the calendar, or some part of the population, then their well-publicized misery would be eased.”

By 1700, however, Parliament could only require one group of “consumers” to stick to wool clothing. It was “a group that didn’t get itchy in wool, the one group that was less powerful than female servants. An act, passed easily, stipulated that: ‘No corpse of any person...shall be buried in any shirt, shift, sheet or shroud... other than what is made of sheep’s wool only.’ For this event, like many others, there was a little poem: Since the living would not bear it/They should when dead be forced to wear it.”

But people, even if they were British, could only die once, “and once dead did not change clothes, so this limited market was not enough to restore the fortunes of the English woolen industry.” In 1701, an exasperated Parliament simply banned all imported calicos that were painted, dyed, printed or stained.

However, “it became clear almost immediately that Parliament could not legislate the woolen industry’s salvation…. In putting up a wall to keep out Indian printed cottons and save the domestic woolen industry, the protectionists had instead constructed a warm and profitable incubator for the cotton printing and dyeing industry in Britain. The woolen workers were behind where they had started.”

Another Act of Parliament was needed then. This time, a ban on all imported cotton cloth that would not be lifted for decades, “forcing a generation of Britons into hot, itchy, and expensive clothing, all in the name of saving the domestic textile industry.”

And yet before long, “the British gushed forth with a stunning string of ideas about how to manufacture cotton cloth in England: power looms, spinning jennies, factories, the Industrial Revolution itself. By blocking access to cheap cotton clothing from Asia, protectionist dinosaurs had launched the modern world.”

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