A reader writes:
In the kerfuffle surrounding the outsourcing of Olympics uniform manufacturing to China, there has been a subsequent gasp about the 2002 uniforms being made in Burma/Myanmar under Mitt Romney's watch (although I do doubt he placed that order himself). I would like to add to the kerfuffle, because to me, this story is about more than the outsourcing of American jobs, or that we were outsourcing jobs to a country with unsavory politics (because, really, so have China and Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, oh so many of our trading partners … yawn).
The biggest flub is that until last Wednesday, it was against United States law to import items from Burma, plain and simple.
Now, whether that extended to an international body like the IOC I do not know, because these sanctions were not equally placed by all countries, but it certainly extended to US citizens and businesses. These are sanctions put in place in 1997 and stiffened after the monk's revolution of 2007. And they were sewing uniforms for us?
A direct quote from the treasury department's statement on Burma sanctions: "NO IMPORTATION OF PRODUCTS OF BURMA – With certain exceptions, goods of Burmese origin, pursuant to rules of origin of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, may not be imported into the United States." (And yes, I did see that somebody on the IOC did not know that Burma and Myanmar are the same country – more merriment.)
Romney’s Olympic Burma outsourcing (which is a big deal, and needs to be a bigger press issue) crystallizes a key point about outsourcing: It’s only as evil as the country you’re outsourcing to.
If I can produce something cheaper in Canada, then good for Canada. They deserve the work because they play by the rules. I don’t think most Americans are against fair, healthy competition from foreign countries. (If winning outsourcing contracts were driven by worker productivity, America would be doing just fine.)
On the other hand, if I can produce something cheaper in Burma – and the reason it’s cheaper is because I’m exploiting the country’s lack of child labor/slave labor/living wage/public health laws – that’s a problem. Not just because it’s morally appalling, but because it’s economically unfair. "Cheaters like China" as Romney likes to pretend to believe.
Republicans are right: Government regulations have hamstrung the American economy. But it’s not banking regulations and corporate taxes; it’s human rights standards, pollution laws, and everything else we associated with responsible capitalism. American workers won't be competitive globally until we dismantle all laws prohibiting the horrific worker abuses of our past. And we should probably take another look at slavery, too – purely for the sake of economic growth.
Either that, or we could develop a system that draws distinctions in outsourcing – disincentivizing business with Burma without penalizing (or demonizing) healthy global competition. Perhaps it's time for every county to have a "Better Business Rating," with commensurate outsourcing penalties (or lack thereof).