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'How Student Protests Sent a Business Professor Around the World'

Author Pietra Rivoli examines Spider-Man costumes being made at a factory in China.
Adam Davidson, NPR
Author Pietra Rivoli examines Spider-Man costumes being made at a factory in China.

Georgetown University economist Pietra Rivoli spent five years studying what T-shirts can teach us about the global economy and its impact on our everyday lives, an effort culminating in the book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. The preface of the book is excerpted below:

Book Excerpt: Preface

On a cold day in February 1999 I watched a crowd of about 100 students gather on the steps of Healy Hall, the gothic centerpiece of the Georgetown University campus. The students were raucous and passionate, and campus police milled about on the edge of the crowd, just in case. As speaker after speaker took the microphone, the crowd cheered almost every sentence. The crowd had a moral certitude, a unity of purpose, and while looking at a maze of astonishing complexity, saw with perfect clarity only the black and white, the good and evil. Corporations, globalization, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) were the bad guys, ruthlessly crushing the dignity and livelihood of workers around the world. A short time later, more than 50,000 like-minded activists had joined the students at the annual meeting of the WTO in Seattle, and by the 2002 IMF-World Bank meeting, the crowd had swelled to 100,000. Anti-globalization activists stymied meetings of the bad guys in Quebec, Canada, and Genoa, Italy, as well. At the 2003 WTO meeting in Cancun, the activists were joined by representatives from a newly energized group of developing countries, and world trade talks broke down across a bitter rich-poor divide. Anti-globalization activists came from college campuses and labor unions, religious organizations and shuttered textile mills, human rights groups and African cotton farms. Lumped together, the activists were named the globalization "backlash."

At first, the backlash took the establishment by surprise. Even the left-leaning Washington Post, surveying the carnage in Seattle, seemed bewildered. "What Was That About?" they asked on the editorial page the next day. From the offices on the high floors of the IMF building, the crowd below was a ragtag bunch of well-intentioned but ill-informed obstructionists, squarely blocking the only path to prosperity. According to conventional economic wisdom, globalization and free trade offered salvation rather than destruction to the world's poor and oppressed. How could the backlash be so confused? By 2004, meaningful progress in world trade talks had been stalled for nearly five years.

At about the same time, however, the madness generated by the ill-informed and economically illiterate noisemakers began to quiet. "Phew," the business establishment seemed to say, "Glad that's over with." But a closer look reveals that nothing was really over with, and that, in fact, the reverse had happened. While some of the craziest slogans ("Capitalism is Death") had faded away, the backlash was not gone but had gone mainstream. Most of the issues that had been on the placards and in the chants were now being discussed in the halls of Congress, in global trade negotiations, and in the 2004 election debates: free trade versus fair trade, outsourcing, labor and environmental standards, trade agreements, and more broadly, rich countries versus poor countries and rich Americans versus poor Americans. While for much of American history, trade issues were of relatively little interest to the public, today these issues are central to political, economic, and moral discourse.

Back at Georgetown in 1999, I watched a young woman seize the microphone. "Who made your T-shirt?" she asked the crowd. "Was it a child in Vietnam, chained to a sewing machine without food or water? Or a young girl from India earning 18 cents per hour and allowed to visit the bathroom only twice per day? Did you know that she lives 12 to a room? That she shares her bed and has only gruel to eat? That she is forced to work 90 hours each week, without overtime pay? Did you know that she has no right to speak out, no right to unionize? That she lives not only in poverty, but also in filth and sickness, all in the name of Nike's profits?"

I did not know all this. And I wondered about the young woman at the microphone: How did she know?

During the next several years, I traveled the world to investigate. I not only found out who made my T-shirt, but I also followed its life over thousands of miles and across three continents. This book is the story of the people, politics, and markets that created my cotton T-shirt. It is a story about globalization.

It is fair to ask what the biography of a simple product can contribute to current debates over global trade. In general, stories are out of style today in business and economic research. Little of consequence can be learned from stories, the argument goes, because they offer us only "anecdotal" data. According to today's accepted methodological wisdom, what really happened at a place and time -- the story, the anecdote -- might be entertaining but it is intellectually empty: Stories do not allow us to formulate a theory, to test a theory, or to generalize. As a result, researchers today have more data, faster computers, and better statistical methods, but fewer and fewer personal observations.

The story, of course, has a more esteemed role in other disciplines. Richard Rhodes, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, peels back, layer by layer, the invention of the atomic bomb. In the process, he illuminates the intellectual progress of a community of geniuses at work. Laurel Ulrich, in A Midwife's Tale, uses the diary of a seemingly unremarkable woman to construct a story of a life in the woods of Maine 200 years ago, revealing the economy, social structure, and physical life of a place in a manner not otherwise possible. And in Enterprising Elites, historian Robert Dalzell gives us the stories of America's first industrialists and the world they built in nineteenth-century New England, thereby revealing the process of industrialization. So, the story, whether of a person or a thing, cannot only reveal a life but illuminate the bigger world that formed the life. This is my objective for the story of my T-shirt.

"Does the world really need another book about globalization?" Jagdish Bhagwati asks in the introduction to his recent book on the topic. Well, certainly the world does not need another tome either defending or criticizing globalization and trade as abstract concepts, as the cases on both sides have been made eloquently and well.2 I have written this book not to defend a position but, first of all, to tell a story. And though economic and political lessons emerge from my T-shirt's story, the lessons are not the starting point. In other words, I tell the T-shirt's story not to convey morals but to discover them, and simply to see where the story leads.

Of course I brought to this story my own biases and I no doubt harbor them still. As a classically trained financial and international economist, I share with my colleagues the somewhat off-putting tendency to believe that if everyone understood what we understood -- if they "got it" -- they wouldn't argue so much. More than 200 years after Adam Smith advanced his case for free trade in The Wealth of Nations, we are still trying to make sure that our students, fellow citizens, and colleagues in the English department "get it" because we are sure that once they understand, everyone will agree with us. When I happened by the protests at Georgetown and listened to the T-shirt diatribe, my first thought was that the young woman, however well-intentioned and impassioned, just didn't "get it." She needed a book -- maybe this book -- to explain things. But after following my T-shirt around the world, my biases aren't quite so biased anymore.

Trade and globalization debates have long been polarized on the virtues versus evils of global markets. Economists in general argue that international market competition creates a tide of wealth that (at least eventually) will lift all boats, while critics worry about the effects of unrelenting market forces, especially upon workers. Free trade in apparel, in particular, critics worry, leads only to a downward spiral of wages and working conditions that ends somewhere in the depths of a Charles Dickens novel.

My T-shirt's life suggests, however, that the importance of markets might be overstated by both globalizers and critics. While my T-shirt's life story is certainly influenced by competitive economic markets, the key events in the T-shirt's life are less about competitive markets than they are about politics, history, and creative maneuvers to avoid markets. Even those who laud the effects of highly competitive markets are loathe to experience them personally, so the winners at various stages of my T-shirt's life are adept not so much at competing in markets but at avoiding them. The effects of these avoidance maneuvers can have more damaging effects on the poor and powerless than market competition itself. In short, my T-shirt's story has turned out to be less about markets than I would have predicted, and more about the historical and political webs of intrigue in which the markets are embedded. In peeling the onion of my T-shirt's life -- especially as it relates to current debates -- I kept being led back to history and politics.

Many once-poor countries (e.g., Taiwan or Japan) have become rich due to globalization, and many still poor countries (e.g., China or India) are nowhere near as poor as they once were. The poorest countries in the world, however, largely in Africa, have yet to benefit from globalization in any sustained way, and even in rapidly growing countries such as China many are left behind. My T-shirt's life is a story of the wealth-enhancing possibilities of globalization in some settings but a "can't win" trap in others, a trap where power imbalances and poorly functioning politics and markets seem to doom the economic future.

My T-shirt's story also reveals that the opposing sides of the globalization debate are co-conspirators, however unwitting, in improving the human condition. Economist Karl Polanyi observed, in an earlier version of today's debate, his famed "double movement," in which market forces on the one hand were met by demands for social protection on the other. Polanyi was pessimistic about the prospects for reconciling the opposite sides. Later writers -- perhaps most artfully Peter Dougherty -- have argued instead that "Economics is part of a larger civilizing project," in which markets depend for their very survival on various forms of the backlash. My T-shirt's story comes down on Dougherty's side: Neither the market nor the backlash alone presents much hope for the poor the world over who farm cotton or stitch T-shirts together, but in the unintentional conspiracy between the two sides there is promise. The trade skeptics need the corporations, the corporations need the skeptics, but most of all, the Asian sweatshop worker and African cotton farmer need them both.

I could not have predicted when I began this book that my T-shirt's story would be relevant for some of the most significant economic events of our time. The 40-year-old regime governing textile and apparel trade -- first put in place following a John F. Kennedy election promise -- would expire as this book was finished to leave a brave new world of many losers, a few big winners, and an uncertain future. At about the same time, in a stunning David-Goliath maneuver, the poorest countries of the world held global trade talks hostage over U.S. agricultural subsidies, particularly those on cotton, the main (or indeed really only) ingredient in my T-shirt. And in the days following September 11 -- below the public's radar screen -- T-shirt sales and military support were bundled up in a bizarre negotiation between the Bush administration and Pakistan, a negotiation that revealed the surprising power still held by the U.S. textile industry. China, where my T-shirt spent much of its life, assumed center stage as the world's second largest economy. As I wrote this book, China's strange capitalist police state swelled up like a balloon and flooded the United States with low-cost imports, forcing virtually every American company of any size to devise a "China strategy," meet the "China price," or manage the "China threat," while both Democrats and Republicans struggled to explain their position on the "China issue."

Finally, since I first encountered the protests at Georgetown University, students peacefully occupied the university president's office and refused to budge until the university and its apparel suppliers agreed to address the alleged "sweatshop" conditions under which Georgetown T-shirts and other licensed apparel were produced. Similar protests went on at dozens of universities across the country. During the past five years, the students and their compatriots around the globe have made remarkable progress in changing the rules in the race to the bottom, and in changing the way some of the world's largest companies do business. Thanks to the backlash, the life story of a T-shirt made today is a different and better story than that of a T-shirt made just a few years ago. I thought, when I started this book, that I would in the end have a story that would help the students to see things my way, to understand the virtues of markets in improving the lives of the poor. I do have such a story, I hope, but it is not the whole story. To the students, I also say, I (now) see where you're coming from.

I also now know the characters in my T-shirt's life story: Their names are Nelson, Ruth, Gary, Yuan Zhi, Ed, Gulam, Qin, Mohammed, Yong Fang, Auggie, and Patrick. They are great people, every one, and I am honored to have met them. I wish that everyone who has an interest in globalization and international trade could meet them. This book is the next best thing.

Excerpted from The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, by Pietra Rivoli, copyright 2005. This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons Inc.

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