The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade Paperback – Mar 3 2009
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Praise for THE TRAVELS OF A T-SHIRT IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
"Engrossing . . . (Rivoli) goes wherever the T-shirt goes, and there are surprises around every corner . . . full of memorable characters and vivid scenes."
"An engaging and illuminating saga. . . . Rivoli follows her T-shirt along its route, but that is like saying that Melville follows his whale. . . . Her nuanced and fair-minded approach is all the more powerful for eschewing the pretense of ideological absolutism, and her telescopic look through a single industry has all the makings of an economics classic."
—The New York Times
"Rarely is a business book so well written that one would gladly stay up all night to finish it. Pietra Rivoli's The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy is just such a page-turner."
From the Back Cover
Praise for The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy
"Engrossing... [Rivoli] goes wherever the T-shirt goes and there are surprises around every corner....full of memorable characters and vivid scenes."
"An engaging and illuminating saga . . . Rivoli follows her T-shirt along its route, but that is like saying that Melville follows his whale . . . Her nuanced and fair-minded approach is all the more powerful for eschewing the pretense of ideological absolutism, and her telescopic look through a single industry has all the makings of an economics classic."
The New York Times
"Rarely is a business book so well written that one would gladly stay up all night to finish it. Rivoli's The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy is just such a page-turner."
"Succeeds admirably...T-shirts may not have changed the world, but their story is a useful account of how free trade and protectionism certainly have."
"A readable and evenhanded treatment of the complexities of world trade... As Rivoli repeatedly makes clear, there is absolutely nothing free about free trade except the slogan."
San Francisco Chronicle
"A fascinating exploration of the history, economics, and politics of world trade...The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy is a thought-provoking yarn that exhibits the ugly, the bad, and the good of globalization, and points to the unintended positive consequences of the clash between proponents and opponents of free trade."
Fort Worth Star-TelegramSee all Product Description
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Rivoli first adeptly traces the history of cotton as a critical world commodity, including the struggles in England two hundred fifty years ago by the wool industry to combat the comfort of cotton, going so far as to prohibit the use of calico and the requirement that people be buried in wool. The questionable economics of slavery moved cotton production to the United States, but it was and still is the intervention of technology, research and financial capital that made cotton farming so much more productive today. Nonetheless, the ability of Texas farmers to market "low quality" cotton can best be attributed to both technology and federal price supports, up to 19 cents on a 59 cent pound of cotton. Cotton, while still a major commodity in global trade, has probably declined in relative value and share of the world economy. What we may be seeing is more of the slow death of the importance a dated commodity and less of a "race to the bottom" that she suggests.
She then takes us to t-shirt and apparel manufacturing and employment, now on the wane in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. People mistakenly think that these jobs are being sent to China. They're not. In fact, they're just disappearing. Rivoli notes that China, between 1995 and 2003, lost ten times the numbers of textiles manufacturing jobs as did the United States (p. 142), and Chinese workers have little or no safety net or alternative employment, unlike their displaced American brethren. In the ill-fated "race to the bottom," it should be clear that this fate seems to await any industry that is unable to maintain a long-term competitive advantage, and the only way to do that seems to be through protectionism. While t-shirts are cheap, saving textile jobs is not cheap. Saving American textile jobs costs between $135,000 and $180,000 per job saved, according to best estimates (p. 144), costing American taxpayers and consumers billions of dollars. Where jobs are being created is in the lobbying and trade association industry. This section (Part III) is an overwhelming alphabet-soup of acronyms - WTO, AGOA, NAFTA, CBTPA, ADTPA, ATC, MFA, ACMI, LTA, ATMI, and ITCB -- for trade agreements, trade associations, trade and lobbying groups, and other defenders of (primarily) protectionism. The complexity of the letters is exceeded by the complexity of the trade agreements they promulgate. It takes a lot of honest, well-intentioned effort and dollars to disrupt the free flow of trade.
As noted above, Rivoli generally passes over the details of the American retail trade for apparel, other than minimal attention to the hated global icon Wal-mart. She observes the expensive foreign vehicles and SUVs in the American shopping mall parking lot, lined up to drop off used clothing at the Salvation Army van in anticipation of going inside and buying up more equally recyclable apparel. I doubt that those malls contain a Wal-mart, and that there is likely a big difference between those who shop at Wal-mart and those who re-cycle clothes before shopping at Lord & Taylor.
This recycled donation sets the stage for the best example of free trade in the book - the used clothing stalls in Tanzania, where savvy shoppers brand shop at rock bottom prices, haggling and playing the market from dawn to dusk. Discriminating, well-informed, fashion-conscious shoppers happily haggle, engaged in one of Tanzania's functioning markets. She is careful not to buy the `humiliation' argument, the one that says that Africans should be ashamed to wear second-hand clothes. As she notes, some of the used stuff dropped off at the American mall never makes it to Africa; it gets picked off along the way as "vintage clothing" and worn by Americans and Japanese willing to pay "hundreds of dollars" for used jeans. As she notes, while much has remained the same in impoverished Africa, most Africans do dress better today, thanks to this free market.
She offers a short conclusion (pp. 211-215) and analysis. She does see some hope: "Cutting agricultural subsidies, democratization, and giving poor countries a place at the table at trade negotiations are all steps in the right direction." She notes Cordell Hull's view, that global commerce may be the best prevention for war.
The book is relatively short (215 pages), well-written, engaging, and, despite the need to use acronyms, very clear and readable. It is an excellent primer on the problems of protectionism and the intricacies of delivering on truly free trade, while noting that many who espouse free trade really don't want to practice it or, more commonly, be subjected to the competition from free trade.
Three minor quibbles.
She writes deferentially about Tom Friedman, his lions and gazelles metaphors, hardware and software analogies, but forgets that he also says that the world is flat. This book shows that the world markets for t-shirts is not free, fair or flat. And the playing field is not level. It is full of lumps, dips, and massive mountains. And, as Rivoli notes, it was not made or kept this way other than by "snarling dogs", not lions, not gazelles. Friedman has popularized interest in globalization but he has shed little light on its understanding or analysis.
With two or three almost casual asides, she seems intent on laying this travesty of fair or free markets at the feet of George Bush, if only because west Texas cotton farmers are such beneficiaries of federal subsidies. A fairer view would recognize that people of the same political and social demeanor who now fight against globalization once fought --- and still do fight -- for crop price protection for farmers.
Rivoli claims that economists everywhere around the globe appear to have universally adopted, recommended and embraced free trade ("virtually unanimous support among professional economists, a group almost without exception who scorn protectionism in general" p. 148). I am not willing to go that far. But you should go so far as to read this good book.
This book really stands out in its scope and conclusions. All too often we are exposed to one-sided attacks on or treatises for globalization - this book offers a comprehensive look at both sides, and more importantly it recognizes the importance of both. Amartya Sen (Nobel prize winner) proposed and supported many of the same ideas before, but this book articulates them exceptionally well and offers plenty of real, historical examples to seal the case.
I read this book for a class, but it's a kind of book I would have no hesitation reading on my free time either - it's a solid investment of your time and a real eye opener.
Her detailed discussion of textile trade politics leaves me to marvel at the fact that I am in fact wearing a T-shirt at all! Teleologically all political activity is aimed at material gain, hence, we are back to economics or as she so aptly demonstrates that politics gets in the way of economics.
Travels of a T-Shirt is an engrossing, informative, enlightening, and exciting book. The most salient feature is her historical discussion of cotton production and the textile industry. If you thought that globalization is a 21st century phenomena think again. Globalization is as old as the human race. Only its magnitude is unique to our century.
Readers will discover that the issues of globalization are not black and white but rather infinite shades of grey. I urge everyone to read this book for I guarantee that they will walk away with a whole new perspective.
With regards to standards addressed, I will mention just a few of the many. Productivity is an early focal point of the book, and slavery, the cotton gin, the tractor (after the mule), advanced fertilizers, and genetically modified seeds are all explored, and those passages make for great lesson starters. For lessons on supply and demand, I often refer to Rivoli's mentions of Crisco, which is made from cottonseed oil (input costs and complementary goods), and the production of GM "Roundup-Ready" seeds by the company that makes Roundup weed killer (complementary goods again), as well as the passages on subsidies to U.S. cotton farmers. Teaching about the role of government in a market economy is aided by a section detailing corruption, and other examples of the lack of good governance, plaguing cotton farmers in West African countries. Also, the debate over free trade versus protectionism is explored in great detail, with stakeholders from many different vantage points expressing their views.
Aside from the breadth of introductory economic concepts explored in this book, and how interesting and colorful the insights are both from Rivoli and her sources, a central benefit to economics teachers (especially in Georgia) is how relatable this all is to our young people. This book is a boon to Georgia teachers in two ways here. First, teenagers love their t-shirts, so there is some inherent interest waiting to be tapped into. Secondly, cotton farming (and to some extent textiles) often quite literally hits close to home. The importance (and challenge) of relating the concepts to students' actual lives is hard to overstate, and that this book does it for me in multiple ways is really incredible. As both a teaching tool and just plain great read, I give it my highest recommendation.
Her story transports you across continents and centuries from the scene at which a freshly minted Yale graduate revolutionized the world with his invention in 1793; to the heart of modern cotton country; to the trading ports of 18th century Asia; to the inner workings of the halls of power in Washington; to the wacky woolens industry of pre-industrial Great Britain; to a fascinating bazaar in Dar Es Salaam. As Rivoli takes you through this riveting journey, you absorb the surprising economic, political and human insights and lessons that took her years of international adventure and research to uncover. As only the best authors can, Rivoli miraculously manages to impart the reader with years of exhaustively researched and painstakingly-acquired knowledge in one exhilarating read.
Simply put, reading this book is the most enjoyable way you can enrich your mind on the history and future of international trade, protectionism, globalism, and labor activism. I agree that it ought to be required reading for all students of these subjects.
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