POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

A Little T 'n' A.

by David Trumbull

December 16, 2005

I write from Hong Kong where I am observing the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as the representative of a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). My NGO, the National Textile Association is made up of companies who weave, knit, or finish fabric in America. Textile trade is among the thorniest of issues in global trade, right up there with agriculture. T and A --textiles and agriculture-- are the perennial hot issues in trade. I'm sure those men from the sugar beet industry who were behind me in the queue to pick up credentials must be busy. Sugar and textiles were close allies in the fight over the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement. U.S. And textiles and agriculture cross paths again in this round of trade talks.

Think about it, T and A make up two of the three basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. And many textiles are made of agricultural products --cotton, wool, flax, silk. T and A also illustrate the complex and sometimes contradictory trade policies of America. For while the protesters outside rail against the free trade policies of the U.S. and the E.U., saying that free trade hurts the world's poor, inside the WTO delegates from the poor countries demand that the U.S. and the E.U. practice more free trade for the sake of the world's poor. And both sides have a point. President Bush follows the Republican maxim that free markets are generally better than government micromanagement of the economy, and the U.S. has one of the freest economies in the world. But President Bush has, on the other hand, been responsive to America workers facing unfair foreign competition and has shown compassion for those who are the short-term victims of long-term shifts in production. That's why he has pursued policies --temporary tariffs on steel imports, the new textile agreement that limits through 2008 U.S. imports of Chinese textiles, and continued support for American farmers-- that have been decried as "protectionist" and anti-free trade.

Sound rather confusing, eh? If you want to get an overview of the complex issues in international trade, read The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005). It's the fascinating yarn of how cotton grown in west Texas gets shipped to China to be spun into yarn, knitted in fabric, and sewn up as a T-shirt which is then exported to the U.S., worn, discarded, and sent to Africa as used clothing for those too poor for even Wal-Mart's bargain prices.

The book is clearly written and very informative. In my ten-years in the textile industry I have never seen so clear an explanation of U.S. cotton subsidies. It is full of information. For example, the author reveals just how it is that the Chinese can produce a shirt for less than a dollar. And while the author is not terribly sympathetic to the American textile industry, she certain did her homework and talked to all the right people. You'll also read about my colleagues Auggie Tantillo, an Italian-American from South Carolina whose defense of the American textile industry has the intensity of a moral crusade, and Jock Nash, "the American textile industry's most colorful voice." I recommend it highly.

David Trumbull is the chairman of the Boston Ward Three Republican Committee; he may be contacted at (617) 742-6881 or Boston's Ward Three includes the North End, West End, part of Beacon Hill, downtown, waterfront, Chinatown, and part of the South End.