The U.S. Olympic Committee's Kelly Skinner sorts the team's Opening Ceremony uniforms in London on July 25. (Photo by JAE C. HONG/AFP/GettyImages)
The hypocrisy underlying politicians’ faux indignation over Chinese-made Olympic team uniforms.
Fake outrage is a little like pornography—hard to narrowly define, but you know it when you see it. It is the television pundit railing on the supposed “War on Christmas” or the radio host calling a woman a “slut” for the alleged crime of discussing contraception. It is the Democratic partisan pretending to be offended by John McCain's expensive shoes, or the Republican partisan taking umbrage at President Obama for daring to repeat the truism that “if you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.” And when it comes to the 2012 Olympics it is the typical congressional leader criticizing American athletes' uniforms for being made in China.
This has been the big story in the lead-up to the games, as top lawmakers from both parties are pretending to be upset that Team USA's clothing was manufactured far away from home. The operative word, though, is “pretending.”
A look the record shows that many of these lawmakers supported (and continue to support) the tariff-free trade policies that eviscerated the domestic textile industry—aka the industry that should be making the uniforms. And yet, these same lawmakers preen before the cameras, clad in suits made in factories their votes helped offshore. Gold medalists in fake outrage, they breast beat about jobs and American pride, correctly betting that few reporters will highlight their phony indignation's inherent deceit.
Of course, while Washington's purported outrage over the uniforms is entirely fake, the underlying questions about offshoring and domestically sourced products are very real—and very troubling.
Since the mid-1990s, when multinational corporations began convincing both parties to vaporize the trade and tariff policies that built this nation's economy, the United States has lost almost 1,300 textile mills, according to the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO). In just the five years between 2004 and 2009, NCTO estimates that those factory closures have translated into a net loss of a quarter million textile and apparel jobs—or more than a third of the industry's entire U.S. workforce.
The predictable result is what ABC News reported in 2011: “As we searched far and wide across this country for American-made products, we found one industry particularly difficult to locate. Where can we find fabrics made in the United States? According to business owners, it’s almost impossible to create textiles from start to finish with 100 percent American-made materials.” Hence, the American Olympic team's Chinese-made uniforms.
Such a galling reality was not a predetermined inevitability—it was not, as free trade triumphalists insist, merely the “invisible hand” of economic “progress.” It was instead the deliberate result of trade deals supported by both parties—trade deals that reduced the tariffs that used to financially discourage companies from trying to profit off of exploitation and oppression. Sans such levies, our trade pacts now encourage companies to cut costs not through technical efficiencies or innovation but by simply moving production to countries that tolerate poverty wages and sweatshop conditions.
You know these bipartisan pacts by infamous alphabet-soup acronyms like NAFTA, China PNTR, CAFTA, and, potentially, TPP. That last one, the so-called “Trans Pacific Partnership” with Pacific Rim countries, is particularly relevant because it is being finalized right now. Should it eschew domestic production incentives, NCTO predicts it will “cause the catastrophic loss of textile and apparel jobs in the United States.”
No doubt, many lawmakers planning to support that kind of TPP are the same ones criticizing the Olympic uniforms. They expect their fake outrage to garner all of the attention. But if you peruse their votes, you will know what the real outrage is—and you should take that outrage to the polls in November.