David R. Henderson  

Travels of a T-Shirt

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In an e-mail, Jeff Hummel wrote a book review that's good enough to post. Here it is:

Pietra Riovoli's THE TRAVELS OF A T-SHIRT IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY: AN ECONOMIST EXAMINES THE MARKETS, POWER, AND POLITICS OF WORLD TRADE was first published by John Wiley in 2005. The author is a professor at Georgetown University, and this popular book received such high praise from the FINANCIAL TIMES and the mainstream press, and sold so well that a second, revised edition came out in 2009. But my impression is that it has generally been overlooked in the free-market, libertarian community.

As a result, I only recently got around to reading (actually, listening to) the book. I found it a wonderful, readable, and accessible defense of free trade and globalization. Riovoli combines sound economics with good journalism, having interviewed participants in all stages in the production of her t-shirt and then integrating their personal experiences into the overall picture. To be sure, she is not a libertarian and approves of a few too many labor regulations for my taste. But overall her book is a stunningly effective antidote against anti-globalization and anti-free trade propaganda.

Part of her persuasiveness comes from her fairness in treating both sides of the argument. Initially the reader cannot be sure on which side she will come down. But as you get further into the book, it demonstrates that nearly all of the seemingly legitimate complaints about trade and globalization result not from markets but from government intervention. Whether detailing the unfair agricultural subsidies that still make the United States (and particularly the area around Lubbock, Texas) a major producer of the cotton going into t-shirts or explaining the byzantine, ever-changing U.S. trade restrictions that hobble the importation of t-shirts made in China and elsewhere with cotton grown in the United States, her book ends up being a chilling illustration of public-choice dynamics in operation.

She also provides a splendid history of the development of cotton production and the textile industry from before the industrial revolution, as well as one of the most compelling defenses I've seen of the benefits of factory work for women, backed up by several individual testimonials. The book concludes with an utterly fascinating account of the only competitive market in her entire story that is almost entirely free of government meddling: the worldwide market for discarded used t-shirts and other clothing, or what is called "mitumba" in parts of Africa.

I therefore strongly recommend THE TRAVELS OF A T-SHIRT and think it would be particularly useful in undergraduate courses on international economics or development.

Postscript by DRH: "angus" of http://mungowitzend.blogspot.com wrote this as a comment on Marginal Revolution on May 4, 2011 in response to a Tyler Cowen post about a good book to recommend for undergrads who are not necessarily interested in economics:

I'd go with "Travels of a T-shirt" by a wide margin. It's excellent and in my experience using it in class, non-econ students love it. Very few non-econ students are going to sit still for "Economics in one Lesson", or Sen or DeSoto.

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Warren writes:

When I taught International Economics I had this as the last things we covered in class. It touched on most topics we did and was interesting. I particularly enjoy the history of sweatshops that she has in her book.

Roy Haddad writes:

"I therefore strongly recommend THE TRAVELS OF A T-SHIRT and think it would be particularly useful in undergraduate courses on international economics or development."

I took an undergraduate Development Economics course, about 5-6 years ago, and this book was assigned. I agree with all of the praise - I remember enjoying it very much.

Ken B writes:

Wow. Maybe I misjudged it. I tried listening to it, but gave up the second time she misstated what comparative advantage was. I'm not an economist so I don't assume I will in general be able to spot subtle errors in economic logic> When I find an egregious error then I quickly lose faith in the author.

dave smith writes:

I assign this in both my undergraduate development class and my graduate international seminar. It is excellent and very much overlooked.

Ken B writes:

Clearly I need to get this out of the library and give it another try. I was running short of audio books, so that's good. But did anyone else notice the bit about comparative advantage?

Jeff Hummel writes:

Ken: I cannot recall any misuse of the term "comparative advantage" in the book. Indeed, my impression is that she hardly mentions the term at all. Perhaps upon re-listening you can offer an instance.

Jeremy H. writes:

On my recommendation, my university (a small private college) used Rivoli's book as our first-year, common reading last year. We even had Rivoli on campus to speak. The first-year seminar theme was "globalism," so this book was a great fit for that ambiguous term. Faculty across the campus loved it, other than some complaints about "too many numbers" (ha ha).

dave smith writes:

Jeremy...our campus used a guy named Kelsey Timmerman's book "Where am I wearing" as a freshman reader a few years ago. I told everyone that reading his book, which is fluffly, was terrible unless you assign it next to Rivol. I see that your univeristy assigns more serious books than mine does.

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