My friend Michael is offering a new round of his Dismal My A* course this fall, and I am reading in preparation for it. In Dismal, we read and discuss a series of books about economics, “the dismal science.” Fortunately, Michael’s choices are never dismal – whatever the science of economics may be. One of the best in the past was John McPhee’s Common Carriers, which is recommended now and forever for its snapshots of an American life that few of us experience.
This time we will begin with Pietra Rivoli’s The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. The t-shirt I am wearing at this moment was made in El Savador. (This is original research; I took it off and checked the label.) I have others in the drawer made in China, Honduras, El Salvador and the Northern Marianas Islands. The t-shirt Pietra Rivoli bought at Walgreen’s in Ft. Lauderdale required cotton grown in Texas, thread spun and fabric knit and sewn in China, decorations applied in Florida. If she donates it to the Good Will, its final stop will probably be a second-hand market in Africa.
This book tells the story of the t-shirt. Rivoli has statistics, but statistics are not the point. She pursued her t-shirt around the globe and met the people who grew the cotton and operated the sewing machines. She deals head on with the sweatshop issue: are people working in sweatshops coerced and abused, or are they taking advantages of new opportunities in their difficult lives? Maybe both things are true, going all the way back to the industrial revolution in England and the cotton mills of New England.
Like their sisters in time, textile and clothing workers in China today have low pay, long hours, and poor working conditions. Living quarters are cramped and rights are limited, the work is boring, the air is dusty, and the noise is brain numbing. The food is bad, the fences are high, and the curfews inviolate. As generations of mill girls and seamstresses from Europe, America, and Asia are bound together by this common sweatshop experience – controlled, exploited, overworked, and underpaid – they are found together, too, by one absolute certainty, shared across both oceans and centuries: This beats the hell out of life on the farm.
I wanted to learn about the t-shirt because it is such a taken-for-granted part of my life. Baseball? I had serious doubts. Michael’s second book for discussion is Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, subtitled “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” If you share my lack of interest in professional baseball, you especially need to read this book. This is not baseball as athletic contest, but baseball as Theater. How do you put on an award-winning play when you have very little money and can’t afford Tom Cruise or Dustin Hoffman? If your star drops out during rehearsals, how do you replace him?
There wasn’t another first baseman just like him and if there were they couldn’t have afforded him and in any case that’s not how they thought about the holes they had to fill. “the important thing is not recreate the individual,” Billy Beane would later say. “The important thing is to recreate the aggregate.” He couldn’t and wouldn’t find another Jason Giambi, but he could find the pieces of Giambi he could least afford to be without, and buy them for a tiny fraction of the cost of Giambi himself.
Look at the problem itself, not the conventional wisdom about how things have been done and should be done. We follow Beane’s team through the season and meet the human beings who play the game – or appear on the stage, if you like that metaphor better. Lewis describes a pitcher who does not pitch conventionally, but wins a lot of games.
Hitters routinely complained how uncomfortable they felt against him, how hard Chad was to read, how deceptive he was. This was funny. Off the pitcher’s mound, Chad had no ability to deceive anyone about anything. He was who he was. Country. Every now and then he might try to get away with something at home – like not cleaning out the garage when he’d told his wife that he would. He simply couldn’t do it. “I’ll all but gotten away with something and then I’ll come clean,” he said. “I just hate the guilt.” On the pitcher’s mound, he had no guilt. The moment he scuffed the rubber with his foot he became a pitiless con artist, a sinister magician. He sawed pretty ladies in two, and made rabbits vanish.
Now, I ask you. How much do you have to like baseball or even know about baseball to enjoy this book?