The Olympic Uniform Controversy: An Independent Perspective

Ralph Lauren / Reuters[/caption]

As the Olympic Games draw near, Americans prepare for weeks of cheering on their favorite athletes, and patriotism becomes more popular than ever. The eyes of the sporting world are focused on London. With so much national pride at stake, it is not surprising that the US Olympic team has already seen its first controversy. When word leaked out that the parade uniforms of the US Olympic team were made in China, the media quickly stirred the populace into an uproar. How could the representatives of America be clothed with uniforms produced by one of our economic and sporting rivals? Advocates of domestic manufacturing quickly wrote of their outrage. The Telegraph recorded the words of Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY):

“It is not just a label, it’s an economic solution…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.”

As is often the case, government leaders hopped on the bandwagon, eager to appear outraged and willing to act. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid escalated the rhetoric with a bold statement.

According to Politico, he said:

“They should take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them.”

Amid growing anger over US uniforms manufactured in China, some basic facts of economics are being left out of the discussion. The anger only serves to distract from the real problem: US government policies that focus on helping other nations instead of the people.

First, some facts about the controversy itself. The uniforms themselves were designed by Ralph Lauren, a U.S. based company, but manufactured in China. The United States Olympic Committee, the body responsible for the partnership with Ralph Lauren, is not a government agency, but a private organization, a non-profit organization that is funded through sponsors, corporate and individual. The USOC has since declared that in future years, the Olympic uniforms will be manufactured in the United States. The USOC CEO said:

“After listening to feedback from members of Congress, we have committed, along with our partners at Ralph Lauren, to make future parade uniforms in the United States.”

The decision that sparked the controversy may have been reversed for future years, but the ideas are still rippling through the arena of public opinion. The controversy misses three important points, serving as a distraction from the real issues facing our nation.

The entire controversy misses the point of the Olympics itself. The Olympics is about national pride, and though the pageantry is part of the symbolism, in the end, nations will be proud of what happened on the track, in the pool, and on the court. The country on the tag of the parade uniforms is insignificant compared to the medal count and the good sportsmanship and behavior of the atheletes. As Ana Veciana-Suarez of McClatchy Newspapers wrote:

“At the Olympics, a fashion statement entertains the audience for a mere second or two, the time it takes for a gymnast to stretch between the parallel bars. But in the end, the medal count – the number of golds, silvers and bronzes – is the measure that matters.”

Besides, isn’t the Olympic spirit one of international unity and camaraderie, not just national pride alone? Aren’t we supposed to put aside the economic and diplomatic issues and just have some friendly competition? China does not appreciate our politicians calling for public burning of their products.

In addition, the Olympic uniform controversy misses some key economic facts. Free trade is the foundation of our modern global economy. The country of origin does not determine the moral worth of a product. The worker in China needs a job just as much as a citizen here. It is a simple fact of economics that certain countries specialize in certain products and industries, and doing so promotes efficiency and savings for everyone. According to Bloomberg:

“Because the economics are bad, most U.S. apparel manufacturing operations folded decades ago. Only 97,000 Americans still have jobs in apparel production, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and most of them are making highly specialized products like DuPont (DD) Kevlar uniforms that cannot be made elsewhere.”

It is perfectly natural and a reflection of global trends for these uniforms to be made abroad. Ralph Lauren is not destroying jobs, but creating them, albeit different types of jobs. The article goes on to show the economic boon our domestic clothing companies have been to our economy:

“In fact, the world’s largest apparel companies are almost all U.S.-based, including Nike, VF (VFC), PVH (PVH), and Ralph Lauren, to name a few. These companies have grown a combined 146 percent during the past 10 years, adding more than $27 billion in revenue. Nike has created more than 15,000 new jobs in the U.S. during this time, Ralph Lauren almost 10,000. And unlike the low-paying production jobs next to sewing machines, these are well-paying jobs in marketing, accounting, design, and management.”

The concept is called comparative advantage. American basketball player Tyson Chandler is not a three-point shooter. While Tyson Chandler and Kevin Durant could take equal numbers of three-point shots for the Olympic basketball team, the coach would probably be much happier if big man Tyson Chandler stayed near the basket. Why? When different players (or countries) do what they’re best at, the whole team (or world economy) benefits. Manufacturing overseas is not necessarily unpatriotic.

Finally, it takes a lot of nerve for politicians to criticize US companies for producing a product in China. Too many of our current politicians want the people to believe that they care about the US first, but their actions are not consistent with their rhetoric. They are perfectly willing to send foreign aid dollars to countries all over the world, money taken from the US economy– potentially job-creating capital sent overseas instead.

They are perfectly willing to ship American men and women overseas to die in foreign countries, guarding foreign drug fields and fighting foreign, ethnic civil wars. They are perfectly willing to borrow from China and other nations until our national debt to foreign creditors overshadows our entire economy. The hypocrisy underlying this controversy highlights the fact that most controversies are simply ploys to distract voters from the issues that really matter. Independent voters can refocus the conversation on more substantive issues. What happens in Washington with our dollars is a lot worse than what the United States Olympic Committee and Ralph Lauren choose to do with their money.

Although the Olympic uniform controversy has garnered a lot of attention, it misses the truly important issues facing our nation. The Olympics is about medals and friendly international competition. Grandstanding by politicians strikes at the heart of the Olympic spirit. Economics teaches us that free trade and specialization help everyone. Moreover, the politicians stirring the pot are being extremely hypocritical. When you watch the athletes representing the United States in London, don’t think about the uniforms. Think of the spirit of friendly competition between countries, but don’t forget the serious issue of American jobs getting shipped abroad by the US government via tax-funded foreign aid.