Repairing Market Failure in Used Cars
Relative Academic Salaries

Roger Lowenstein Praises Pietra Rivoli

He writes:

Travels With My Florida Parrot T-Shirt - New York Times: In The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy" (John Wiley & Sons, $29.95), Ms. Rivoli... ha... created an engaging and illuminating saga of the international textile trade.... [O]n "a cold day in February 1999," Ms. Rivoli was watching as students gathered at the gothic centerpiece of Georgetown to demonstrate against the International Monetary Fund.... The crowd, Ms. Rivoli noticed with characteristic acuity, had "a moral certainty, a unity of purpose" that permitted it to distinguish black from white and good from evil "with perfect clarity." One woman seized the microphone and asked: "Who made your T-shirt? Was it a child in Vietnam? Or a young girl from India earning 18 cents per hour? ... Did you know that she lives 12 to a room? That she shares her bed and has only gruel to eat?"

Ms. Rivoli did not know these things, and she wondered how the woman at the microphone knew. But she decided to find out. In the rest of her narrative, the author tells the story of "her" T-shirt, which she purchased for $5.99 by the exit of a Walgreen's in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It was white and printed with a flamboyantly colored parrot, with the word 'Florida' scripted beneath." A company in Miami had engraved the front, after buying the shirt from a factory in China. The Chinese manufacturer had purchased the cotton used to make the shirt from Texas. Eventually it will end up as part of a large but little-known market for used clothing destined for resale in East African ports.

Ms. Rivoli follows her T-shirt.... In Texas, she plumbs the reasons for America's pre-eminence in the cotton trade. This leads to a fascinating inquiry into the pre-Civil War South and its use of African slaves, whose cheap labor was an early example of "the ability to suppress and avoid competition" that she finds at every stage - not least in today's Asian sweatshops - of her T-shirt's journey....

By looking across history to the shifting center of textile manufacturing from Manchester, England, to Lowell, Mass., to South Carolina to Japan and, finally, the developing nations of Asia, Ms. Rivoli discovers a universal truth. Without making light of the horrors experienced by workers, she asserts that their jobs were a little better than other available options (usually farm work) and, what's more, that textile factories led to advances in industrialization and, just as dependably, in living standards. It is not too much to say that she uses the T-shirt to tell the story of progress.... Ms. Rivoli does her best work at ground level, introducing us to a family farmer outside Lubbock, Tex.; a young woman on the assembly line in Shanghai; a reseller of shirts in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; a K Street lobbyist in Washington; not to mention figures from history. We learn of an earlier generation's exploitation from an Alabama sharecropper; of the mangled limbs suffered by factory workers in 19th-century Manchester from Friedrich Engels; and of the hazards of sweatshops from a survivor of the infamous fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in lower Manhattan in 1911 that killed 146 employees....

Ultimately, she concludes that the argument for free trade is as strong as ever, and it is a moral case as well as an economic one.... [H]er telescopic look through a single industry has all the makings of an economics classic.