2012 Analysis Economics Election Foreign Policy

Congress keeps it real for the Olympics

ABC News reported on Wednesday that America’s rugged, heroic Olympic athletes will be decked out in some classy duds designed by Ralph Lauren this year for the opening ceremonies in London. The BBC offered the next day that “the classic navy blue blazers, white trousers and skirts, and red-accented ties and berets may have a distinctly American look” that will no doubt have every Real American biting their lips to hold back tears of nationalist joy. But there’s a catch: the uniforms, while designed in the United States, were made in China.

Oh boy, cue the outrage!

That BBC article quoted several members of Congress in reporting the bi-partisan concern this development elicited from “the nation’s top lawmakers when they were asked about the affair on Thursday.” House Democrat Steve Israel stated the obvious political fallout tolerably well:

Today there are 600,000 vacant manufacturing jobs in this country and the Olympic committee is outsourcing the manufacturing of uniforms to China? That is not just outrageous, it’s just plain dumb. It is self-defeating.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi might win the award for most rambling Congressional beauty queen contestant over her remarks:

We take such pride and they work so hard. They represent the very best and they’re so excellent, it’s all so beautiful. And they should be wearing uniforms made in America.

The disdain isn’t unique to Democrats either: House Speaker John Boehner said simply, “You’d think they’d know better.” And it isn’t unique to the House. The whiniest, most intense remarks came from the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a press conference yesterday (see the video here), delivered in an unusually enthused drone:

I think the Olympic Committee should be ashamed of themselves; I think they should be embarrassed; I think they should take all the uniforms, put ’em in a big pile and burn them, and start all over again. If they have to wear nothing but a singlet that says USA on it, painted by hand, that’s what they should wear.

We have people in America in the textile industry who are desperate for jobs, and I think what the Olympic Committee has done is absolutely wrong.

Fiery words from our “nation’s top lawmakers”. But how surprising is this really?  In typical 21st century Washington form, the Olympic Committee contracted a private company, Ralph Lauren, to handle the uniforms. Private businesses have been outsourcing for decades to drive down costs. And according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, China was our single largest import partner in 2011. The figures are startling:

U.S. goods imports from China totaled $399.3 billion in 2011, a 9.4 % increase ($34.4 billion) from 2010, and up 299% since 2000… U.S. imports from China accounted for 18.1% of overall U.S. imports in 2010.

Of course, US manufacturing has been on the wane for decades, so our trade deficit with China last year was $282 billion, more than twice our total exports to them for the same period. And who among us has never seen a ‘made in China’ tag on some apparel item? According to the US-China Business Council, textile imports (including “shoes and parts thereof”) accounted for close to $50 billion of that nearly $400 billion import bill, while our textile exports to them didn’t crack the top 10 list.

So, to put it bluntly, China has us by our cheaply clad balls. The outrage here is a tempest in a teacup, made possible only because the Olympics are an easily politicized symbolic object and this alleged fiasco can allow lawmakers to indignantly grandstand and distract attention in an election year from Congress’s total inability to do virtually anything but enrich themselves. These alleged leaders need to grow a spine, pull together, and find a way to turn back decades of increasing job outsourcing and destruction. Perhaps manufacturing really is dead in America, but if so new economic models need to be researched and underwritten by federal spending. Otherwise jobs and the larger American economy will continue to wither on the vine.

Of course, this kind of vacuous outrage makes for decent sound bytes to anyone who isn’t paying attention. The BBC quoted Ralph Lauren saying that the costumes “cost $1,945 for men and $1,473 for women.” Those are ludicrously overpriced — so much for outsourcing as a cost-cutting measue — but even the few hundreds of them needed for a one-off ceremony aren’t going to make a dent in the broader trend either way. This bi-partisan whine fest does nothing but demonstrate how badly broken the Congress is. Don’t expect improvement any time soon. But please do vote in November!

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