Editorial: Chinese-made U.S. Olympic uniforms

Posted: July 19, 2012

AFTER THE FIRST flash of outrage over the revelation that the U.S. Olympic team will march into the opening ceremonies in London wearing blazers and berets outsourced to China by American designer Ralph Lauren, we calmed down a bit.

After all, even if you are committed to "buying American," it is very challenging these days to follow through: In most American stores, it is rare to find clothing that isn't made in China or Vietnam or Indonesia — or one of dozens of other countries with low-wage workers. In fact, 98 percent of the clothing sold in this country is made somewhere else.

Then we saw that the Russian Olympic team managed to get its uniforms made in the USA by American Apparel, and wondered if the U.S. Olympic Committee and Lauren should maybe outsource their public relations: the bad publicity probably cost a lot more than making clothes in China would save, if it saved all that much.

(Of course, that also means that the Russians outsourced their Olympic uniforms to another country. Just as Americans don't "buy American" much any more, apparently the Russians don't "buy Russian" much either.)

Ralph Lauren's company has issued an abject apology, saying that — while it's too late to replace the Made in China uniforms — starting with the 2014 Winter Olympics, the uniforms will be manufactured here. Ralph Lauren promised "to lead the conversation within our industry and our government addressing the issue of increasing manufacturing in the United States," whatever that means.

Not surprisingly, members of Congress on both sides of the partisan divide tried to gain political advantage from the revelation, since it plays into a larger narrative about the U.S. economy, jobs, outsourcing and offshoring. Both parties have been trying to tag each other with the blame for the massive loss of manufacturing jobs in the past three decades.

We guess we should be thankful that the issue of offshoring is at least being discussed these days. But a large part of the bipartisan speechifying in Congress is just so much grandstanding. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for example, wants to "take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them." Maybe he should check the labels in his own suits and throw them all on the pyre, although probably that would leave his closet — and him — bare. Seven senators have co-sponsored a bill requiring that Olympic uniforms be made in America, but that also is a symbolic move.

What might make a bigger difference is a bill in the Senate sponsored by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow that would finally end tax deductions for companies that ship jobs overseas: Under tax law, companies can deduct as business expenses the cost of moving personnel and equipment overseas. U.S. taxpayers have been providing subsidies for outsourcing for decades. At the same time, the bill would provide a tax incentive for American companies to bring manufacturing jobs back to the States.

That would be just a small step toward the massive change in American economic policy that is needed to keep more good jobs here, while making it easier to create decent-paying manufacturing jobs in other parts of the economy.

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