This week's political focus on presidential candidate Mitt Romney's alleged involvement in Bain Capital's pioneering practices of outsourcing American jobs to China and Mexico, collided with headlines that revealed Team USA's Ralph Lauren uniforms were produced in China. The overlapping themes of the Olympics, which Romney left Bain to run in 1999, and the impact of outsourcing on the U.S. economy has finally captured the American public's attention on a subject that has been ignored for too long.
Early in the week, it seemed that the U.S. Olympic uniform's story had provided a rare moment of consensus amongst Democrats and Republicans. The Washington Times ran a story on July 12 entitled, "Boehner,Pelosi pan Chinese-made U.S. Olympic uniforms," with House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) stating that "they should be wearing uniforms that are made in America." In the same article, House Speaker John Boehner (R) remarked that "they should know better." The awkwardness of American uniforms being made in China seemed to be obvious to all. The irony of the world's largest democracy using the world's largest communist to make uniforms designed to espouse US national pride, however, seems to be lost on everyone.
While watching NBC's Meet the Press, two Republican surrogates, Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie and Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) distanced themselves from the controversy. When asked on their opinions on outsourcing jobs by host David Gregory, both Republicans dodged away from the issue by saying they, and Romney, did not believe the discussion should "politicize" the Olympics. It is obvious that this week's expanding media coverage and the political attack ads focusing on Romney's involvement in outsourcing practices at Bain, have presented a conundrum for Republicans on the issue. Romney, according to SEC filings and a Boston Globe article, remained involved in some of Bain's business dealings that included large outsourcing initiatives after his departure in 1999, when he joined the Winter Olympics. In light of this, Republicans have opted to ignore the issue, distancing themselves from the Democrats continued criticism of outsourcing. It is a shame that once again, the parties are unable to come together on an important issue that could help provide a much needed perspective on American job growth, the issue both sides claim is important. Ignoring the outsourcing questions that this Olympic scandal poses is yet another indication that politics are trumping the national interest around economic growth.
As the owner of a fashion company that proudly produces its goods in New York City, I am intimately aware of the supply and production chain, and the people it employs. I am highly skeptical when I hear comments from economists, politicians, or media pundits attempting to justify the benefits of mass outsourcing by large corporations. However, I do understand that global outsourcing, in the global economy, can be a positive tool that can benefit businesses and in some cases improve their products. I myself import some of my hardware components and fabrics from Italy, while the manufacturing of my handbags is done here in New York City's garment district... where I can oversee quality control throughout the sampling and production process. Large American firms, however, who ship thousands of jobs oversees in order to access cheap, and often exploited, pools of cheap labor, strike me as having a large moral gap.
While the economic debate, about the pros and cons of outsourcing on the U.S. economy goes on, Americans should take this Olympic opportunity to ask themselves a few key questions. I would suggest the following:
1. In this national climate of unemployment, why would the U.S. Olympic committee not consider a "Made In USA" brand to cloth our athletes? There are plenty of high quality American designers, who manufacture in New York's garment center and within the US. Even a small number of jobs required to make these uniforms would be substantial enough.
2. With unemployment at 8.2 percent and a lot of election rhetoric about national pride and job creation, why would one of the two political parties back away from a timely discussion about outsourcing national pride? Where are all those flag waving, U.S.A. chanting nationalists?
3. Should we be satisfied with Ralph Lauren's statement that it is too late to change the current uniforms for the upcoming opening Olympic ceremony, but that "they will domestically manufacture Team USA's apparel for Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games"? Wouldn't a more satisfying answer be, now that this has been exposed, that they will move mountains to have the uniforms made in the USA for the upcoming Summer Olympics and the Winter Olympics, and they will commit to the creation of more domestic jobs and/or support local fashion movements such as Save The Garment Center?
As our access to cheaper foreign-made goods provides us with more convenience and consumer choices, we may have turned a blind eye to the fact that our homes were being stocked with more foreign-made products while 7.9 million manufacturing jobs disappeared in from our country. As we changed our consumer habits to adjust to this new abundance of inexpensive products, we may have become distracted from the new reality we were creating. A world where unemployment was high, and America's Olympic athletes donned uniforms designed by an American company, but were made by laborers in a communist country, where the lack of democracy and freedom could ensure low labor costs.
What this says about our values and what we are willing to tolerate for higher corporate profits should be considered by all those chanting USA, USA , at the upcoming Olympic ceremonies.