Should we bring it home?

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The US-China trade war has a new target — apparel. The Trump administration has announced certain restrictions on clothing from China that may have been produced by forced labour in the Xinjiang region, where as many as a million Uighurs are in concentration camps, possibly being used to make products that end up on American backs.

I’m somewhat cynical about the Trump administration really caring about the wellbeing of Muslim minorities in China. But the new proposal, which of course comes on heels of the various technology bans already in place, and the war over TikTok, raises an interesting question: which products and industries should Americans care about bringing home?

Let’s put aside the human rights issue for now (I think we’d all agree nobody wants to buy products made with forced labour, though the question is whether we’d pay more not to — see my colleague John Gapper on that question), and approach the issue another way. Assuming that Chinese cotton and textiles were produced in a totally moral way, is apparel an area that the US administration should care about bringing home?

It’s an issue I explored in a FT Weekend feature last year while profiling the company American Giant, which I also cover in my latest column. I spent a week travelling across the Carolinas studying their supply chain, and examining whether a low-margin industry such as clothing could create broader economies of scale that increased productivity and wages domestically. My answer was yes, but only if the workers and companies in the industry could replicate a German Mittelstand-style model in which the public and private sector worked together on things such as vocational training, infrastructure and tax incentives.

In Germany, of course, this sort of model is practised higher up the food chain — in areas such as high-tech machining, materials and the car industry. According to a recent McKinsey Global Institute study on supply chains, keeping those higher-margin industries at home could do more for rich countries than trying to bring home apparel, which is becoming more regional in any case because of new technologies and the desire for more speed to market.

But, of course, the “bring it home” push happening on both sides of the aisle isn’t just about economics — it’s about politics. I was struck, in my journey across the Carolinas, by the fact that many of the people who ran the small and midsized companies in American Giant’s supply chain despised Donald Trump, but had nonetheless voted for him because they felt they’d been sold out by mainstream Republicans and Democrats alike.

As one of them put it to me, pithily parodying the bet that US policymakers of both stripes placed over the past two decades: “For years the textile industry has been a pawn item for China, or Vietnam or Africa — ‘If you let us sell Coke, we’ll let you ship clothes over here duty free.’”

This seemed to make sense at a time when everyone thought China would become more free as it became richer, and that there would be enough high-paying service jobs for all Americans. It doesn’t any more. Some people were willing to vote for a bomb-thrower in order to expose this hypocrisy.

It was an issue that came to the fore in the very first Trump/Hillary debate, when he trounced her on trade. But Joe Biden isn’t Hillary. He understands that the Faustian trade bargain of the Clinton years no longer works, economically or politically. Indeed, he’s taking a fairly tough stance on China himself. Will this be enough to swing a state such as North Carolina to go blue?

Ed, I’m curious your thoughts on that. 

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Edward Luce responds

Rana, as it happens Trump just held a not very socially distanced rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina on Saturday night. The main rallying cry was “fill that seat” — for the robes just vacated by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. T-shirts emblazoned with that mantra were apparently far more in evidence than face masks. I doubt very much that people cared where the campaign T-shirts were made. I tried a little thought experiment in my head in which instead of talking about a Supreme Court opening within 24 hours of RBG’s death, Trump had spoken about how to get higher-value added jobs back to North Carolina. It was impossible to imagine. Trump doesn’t talk policy. Nor do his crowds come to hear about it. They are there for the red meat. Trump is the embodiment of politics rage against the other side.

Can Biden nevertheless win? The only Democrat to win North Carolina since 1976 was Barack Obama in 2008 — and by a hairsbreadth. Mitt Romney won it back for the Republicans in 2012. So Biden’s task is a hard one. Polls show him with a one to two point lead over Trump, which is within the margin of error. North Carolina is one of several potential swing states with a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature, so if the results are close the state could return competing slates of electors to Washington. Biden, as you say, has been touting “build back better” and free public college tuition for the middle classes. He would also expand Obamacare and protect coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. The Supreme Court is due to hear a case that would essentially kill Obamacare before the end of the year. More than 4m North Carolinians could lose their coverage. 

Will these considerations weigh on voter minds? I certainly hope so. But if Trump manages to “fill that seat” before the Supreme Court’s next round of hearings, the election may already be too late. 

US election Q&A with Demetri Sevastopulo

We are starting a new weekly item, featuring the FT’s Washington bureau chief Demetri Sevastopulo and Marc Filippino, host of the FT News Briefing podcast. Every Monday we’ll share highlights from Demetri and Marc’s conversation on the presidential campaign. To kick us off: Latino voters and their outsized importance in the battleground state of Arizona. Download Friday’s podcast for the full conversation. 

Arizona has been a Republican stronghold for decades. What puts it in play for Democrats this year?
There’s a growing Latino population in Arizona, and not all Latinos vote for Democrats — it’s important to point that out, but a large majority do. Also because of anti-immigration or anti-immigrant measures locally, in Arizona you have more reasons for Latinos in the state to become more interested in politics.

What is Joe Biden actively doing to go out and recruit the Latino vote in the state? 
The Biden campaign says they’re investing a lot of money there (although they won’t actually say how much). They’re running a lot of Spanish language ads and they’ve set up a kind of a Latino Council of advisers. But advocacy groups pretty much uniformly say Biden got off to a slow start — but that he’s catching up. Still, they say he’s just not doing enough. 

And what’s the Trump campaign been doing on this front? 
The campaign has been tailoring messages to the Latino communities in different states. In Florida, where there’s a heavy Venezuelan and Cuban presence, a lot of people are concerned about communism and socialism. So you say, ‘Joe Biden is a socialist.’ In Arizona, more people originate from Mexico so you tell your message differently. He’s also tailoring one of his national arguments to Latino men and that is: ‘Democrats want the economies to remain in lockdown. If Biden gets elected, you, a Latino man providing for your family in Arizona, are not going to be able to.’” Some pro-Democratic activists in Arizona tell me that message is resonating.

To read more of Demetri’s reporting on the campaign to win over Latino voters in Arizona go here, and find all our election coverage on our US presidential election 2020 hub.

If you have any questions about the campaign that you would like Demetri or Marc to answer please send them to swampnotes@ft.com.

We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes@ft.com, contact Ed on edward.luce@ft.com and Rana on rana.foroohar@ft.com, and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce. We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter.

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