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The Naked Truth About Congressional Silliness

Congress has finally found the person responsible four our country’s prolonged economic malaise: fashion designer Ralph Lauren.

Lauren’s offense was fulfilling a contract to make the Team USA uniforms for the opening and closing ceremonies of the London Olympics in the most cost-effective and efficient manner possible - by having the garments produced in China.

In a fit of carefully constructed outrage, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid said the U.S. Olympic committee should “take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them and start all over again.” Although Democrats have yelped most loudly, congressional Republicans, including House Speaker John A. Boehner, have joined in condemning the uniforms. “You’d think they’d know better,” Boehner said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., took the matter a step further, introducing a bill that would require the privately funded U.S. Olympic Committee to have all ceremonial uniforms “sewn or assembled in the United States.” I have no idea why Gillibrand thinks Congress has any right to tell the USOC how to get its uniforms.

Gillibrand and Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., also wrote a joint letter to the committee’s chairman, Lawrence Probst, saying it was “shocking and deeply disappointing” that he would allow the uniforms that will adorn our star athletes to be made in China when there are hard-working Americans clamoring to do that work.

Except, of course, there aren’t really so many Americans interested in textile work, especially not at the wages paid to laborers in other countries. Even if there were Americans who would work for similar pay, our minimum wage laws prohibit manufacturers from hiring them to do so. Meanwhile, U.S. factories that have implemented greater automation in order to compensate for higher labor costs struggle to find the skilled workers they need to run their new machines.

The Olympics may be an opportunity to showcase national prowess, but it is also an opportunity to celebrate internationalism. U.S. Olympians wearing U.S.-designed but foreign-made uniforms are actually an appropriate symbol of the global economy and of the United States’ place within that economy. Because he has the freedom to locate different parts of his business in the most logical places for them, Lauren has built a thriving company, with its headquarters and most of its highest-paying jobs in the U.S. In a statement, the U.S. Olympic Committee rightly called Ralph Lauren “an iconic American company” and said it was proud of the partnership.

Reid, Gillibrand and their fellow crusaders have shown little concern over the national origins of the U.S. Olympians’ actual competition gear, including leotards made by the German sports clothing manufacturer Adidas and shoes made by Nike, which has been widely criticized for using foreign factories accused of human rights violations. There also has been little discussion of the fact that the Olympic uniforms Ralph Lauren made in 2008 were also manufactured in China. Nevertheless, Ralph Lauren has said that, in 2014, every Ralph Lauren garment worn by the Winter Olympians will be stitched in the U.S. The USOC ought to start saving some extra cash to pay for those American-sewn uniforms.

In the meantime, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has suggested replacing the Ralph Lauren uniforms with new ones to be made in the U.S. by custom suit designer Hickey Freeman. The company has said it could make the uniforms in time for the games at its headquarters in Rochester, N.Y. According to Schumer, Hickey Freeman could fulfill the contract without “making any compromises cost-wise or fashion-wise” - except, of course, the cost compromise of ditching one set of perfectly good uniforms to start from scratch.

Reid, presiding over the “burner” camp, has said that if the Olympic competitors “have to wear nothing but a singlet that says USA on it, painted by hand, that is what they should wear.” To be sure of pleasing their elected representatives, Team USA might take this even further, protesting Lauren’s blunder by forgoing uniforms altogether and displaying only their made-in-the-U.S. bodies. Of course, then we would need to drop some members from the team. In 2008, at least 33 of the athletes representing the U.S. in Beijing were, like their uniforms, originally from other nations.

This political posturing over Olympic uniforms is silly, but that does not mean it is pointless. The folks who wrote the laws and set the policies that brought us to our current state are in no hurry to have voters reflect on their performance. Distraction is the name of the game. Hence the similarly motivated campaign of President Obama to make Mitt Romney’s circa 1999 income tax returns - from a period when he was in private life - the main topic of conversation.

For politicians who want to talk about anything but their own performance in office, any topic at all - even the national origins of Olympic costumes - will do just fine. Silliness is no problem.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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