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A T-shirt's role in world trade


While books by economics professors wouldn’t be first choice reading for most of us — save perhaps as a sleep inducer at bedtime — there is the occasional exception.

One of them is, “The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade.”

Though I was late in reading it — the first edition, published in 2005, was translated into 14 languages and has won numerous awards — a friend passed along the extensively updated second edition, published in 2009.

The author, Pietra Rivoli, professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, specializes in international business, finance, and social issues in business. During the protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings, she observed an activist demanding of the crowd, “Who made your T-shirt?”

Determined to find out everything involved in the T-shirt she purchased at a drugstore for $5.99, Rivoli launched a globe-spanning journey, starting with cotton farmers in Texas, all the way to factory workers in China, and finally, used clothing vendors in the poorest areas of Africa, interspersing it all with fascinating historical insight about U.S. cotton’s rise to dominance, a look at the myriad of forces involved in global trade, and personal stories of an extensive cast of characters.

“My T-shirt’s life suggests,” she writes, “that importance of markets might be overstated by both globalizers and critics. While my T-shirt’s life story is certainly influenced by competitive economic markets, the key events in the T-shirt’s life are less about competitive markets than they are about politics, history, and creative maneuvers to avoid markets.”

While there has been much media attention to charges by activist organizations that U.S. cotton subsidies unfairly oppress poor African farmers, Rivoli notes that subsidies are not so much the problem as is the inability of African farmers to match the superior knowledge, management skills, and resources of U.S. farmers.

“As I traveled around the world visiting textile mills … cotton buyers everywhere sang the praises (of U.S. cotton) … They especially loved the USDA classing system. Every textile mill manager seemed to have a nightmare story of cotton bales from China or India or Uzbekistan that were opened to reveal one unhappy surprise after another … That never happened, they told me, with American cotton.”

For other world producers to compete with U.S. cotton, she writes, “requires capital, functioning markets, and both technical and basic literacy. Many poor cotton producers lack capital, working markets, literacy, or all three.”

While critics of U.S. agricultural policy are quick to point the finger at subsidies as the source of America’s advantage in cotton, Rivoli says, “the removal of the subsidies would do little — at least in the short term — to develop the literacy, property rights, commercial infrastructure, and scientific progress to take on (U.S. producers) in world markets.”

There’s much more, in a very engrossing story. If you want a good read, check it out.

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