In the Blink of a T-Shirt

Malcolm Gladwell tells great stories. In Blink, his latest book, he relates how the Getty Museum nearly bought an amazing forgery, why Warren Harding became US president, how to tell if a married couple will divorce and why coronary care can improve if doctors have less information.

The thesis is that humans have sophisticated systems for reaching decisions almost instantaneously. This intuition — sometimes raw, sometimes exquisitely trained — often overshadows reason, which then becomes mere rationalization. Experts’ intuition saved the Getty from an embarrassing acquisition, while average Americans’ intuition (and, more directly, the intuitions of delegates to the Republican convention) failed them and brought in a mediocre president.

Gladwell is convincing in his depiction of rapid decision-making. He reaches for more:

[W]e are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition. We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fagility. Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious. …

Too often we are resigned to what happens in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t seem like we have much control over whatever bubbles to the surface from our unconscious. But we do, and if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition. We can prevent the people fighting wars or staffing emergency rooms or policing the streets from making mistakes.

Unfortunately at that point, there’s only one more page in the book.

The stories are terrific, the insights real and occasionally useful. But the promise of a guide for knowing when to trust expertise and intuition, and when to ignore them, remains unfulfilled.

Pietra Rivoli succumbs to a social scientist’s vice in giving her book a title that’s far too long: The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy – An Economist Examines the Markets, Power and Politics of World Trade. Which is a shame because it’s a snappy account that illuminates many of the vexing questions of globalization.

She takes a common souvenir T-shirt as her starting point. It’s made of cotton that was grown in West Texas, protected by agricultural subsidies but also part of a tough entrepreneurial tradition coupled with good institutions and scientific research. The cotton is woven into cloth and eventually made into a T-shirt in China, home of famously cheap labor but also shedding textile jobs faster than Western countries. Finally, it goes into the recycling bin and encounters a free market for the first time as part of the used clothing trade in Africa.

Here’s her thesis:

My T-shirt’s life suggests, however, that the importance of markets might be overstated by both globalizers and critics. While my T-shirt’s life story is certainly influenced by competitive economic markets, the key events in the T-shirt’s life are less about competitive markets than they are about politics, history, and creative maneuvers to avoid markets. Even those who laud the effects of highly competitive markets are loathe to experience them personally, so the winners at various stages of my T-shirt’s life are adept not so much at competing in markets but at avoiding them.

Micro study illuminates macro trends. An economic book that’s enjoyable to read and filled with real people, from sharecroppers to people leaving the farm in China to clothing entrepreneurs in Tanzania.

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