The $10,000 suit

suit

Here’s a lovely suit of clothes that can be had for, oh, about $10,000. It’s the result of a project conceived by Drexel University instructor Kelly Cobb to make a man’s suit entirely from materials produced within 100 miles of her home. According to an article by Paul Adams in Wired magazine, the suit was produced by a team of 20 artisans, requiring a total of 500 man-hours.

Let’s see, that’s 500 hours of skilled or semi-skilled labor by artisans whose time is probably worth something on the order of $20 an hour. For about $10,000 I can have one made for you.

But if you take up my offer, don’t get too smug about buying local. According to the same article in Wired, Cobb estimates that 8 percent of the materials came from outside the prescribed 100 mile radius. Now here’s the money quote: “If we worked on it for a year and a half”, says Cobb, “I think we could have eliminated that 8 percent”.

So—20 artisans, at—oh, let’s be way conservative—$10,000 each per year, for a year and a half—if you’re really a purist, your suit will run you about $300,000.

Or you could go down to Wal-Mart, grab something a little snazzier for well under a hundred bucks, and reflect on the benefits of global trade.

(A tip of the hat to Mike Rizzo.)

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28 Responses to “The $10,000 suit”


  1. 1 1 Joseph Clark

    Ah yes, but what about the value of the smugness? That’s got to be worth at least 300k.

  2. 2 2 Tom Limoncelli

    That sounds like startup cost. What’s the second one cost to make?

    The suit I wear cost $500 but I’m sure the manufacturer paid a hell of a lot more for the first one and has been amortizing that cost over all the ones after that.

    You could be more biased by including the cost of the building they used. I’m sure it took $10 million for the university to build the building they were in. The suit really cost $10,010,000.

    You have superior powers of economic knowledge. Rather than mocking such a program, why not discuss the economic upsides and downsides of using local material?

    The cafeteria I eat in every day gets 90+% of the food from a 100-mile radius. Enough corporate cafeterias do this in Mountain View (Google, Yahoo, etc.) such that it has stabilized the local farming community which has economic benefits that I’m sure you can describe better than I. One farmer was quoted as saying that the Yahoo/Google gives them the base income that let’s them invest instead of living day-to-day.

    I live in New Jersey where manufacturing is dead. If companies tried to favor local companies for the next 5 years, it could have a major benefit for my state. Going from 1% to 2% locally produced would be a small investment by companies, but a big win for the manufacturers. That could start the momentum that is needed to bring back manufacturing. (which would have a bigger payback than the initial investment, right?) Alas, that sounds a lot like collective thinking, which is (I’m being sarcastic) automatically evil.

    Why is it that so many Nobel Prizes in Economics go to people that have found loopholes in the “competition is always best” arguments? Nash is just one example. How many “exceptions” have to be found before people realize that the rule isn’t true?

    Oh geeze, I’m posting this using HTTP and HTML… two standards that competing companies ratified because the greater good of open protocols would benefit everyone. Greater good? Sounds like communism to me. I’m going to go delete my web browser so it doesn’t infect me any more.

  3. 3 3 Louis Friedel

    If only all of us had the balance sheets of Google and Yahoo, perhaps we could afford the luxury of overpaying for locally-grown produce. Those companies are doing nothing more than engaging in acts of charity, as they could buy cheaper elsewhere but choose not to. That brings up a number of consequences that you, Tom, fail to address:

    1. Are the local California farmers the optimal use of their charitable dollars? You must think so, otherwise you would advocate not buying locally and using the money they save to donate to cancer research, starving children in Africa, or maybe even the effort against global warming. I am not passing judgment on which of those uses is the most noble/worthy, but clearly you are…and you’ve chosen the farmers.

    2. Forget charity for a second. What if they used the extra money to hire more people in efforts to boost profits for their shareholders? Would those jobs they created be evil too? Who is to say that helping a farmer is a better allocation of resources than helping an unemployed mother of 3 living in the Bay Area?

    3. Opportunity cost is a valuable tool (just ask the government). Every dollar that New Jersey citizens do NOT spend subsidizing local farmers is a dollar that directly or indirectly goes to better schools for your children, programs to help poor people that aren’t farmers, and to paying for the cushions on the chairs my cafeteria that allow me to enjoy my lunch more comfortably than you enjoy yours. If subsidizing local farmers in New Jersey was an optimal allocation of resources, it wouldn’t have died. The resources that used to be spent on local farming didn’t just disappear…they went somewhere, and the benefits of those somewheres are being borne by you every single day.

  4. 4 4 Greg B.

    Josheph Clark…love the comment…reference to Southpark? :-)

    There has been a documentry thing on HBO recently about the garment industry going global(my wording)…of course their take is more akin to “how bad people took our jobs and made us losers for life”. Interesting and useful history, with a free comical perspective soundtrack! Ricardian Comparitive Advantage, anyone?

    As for the Nobel Prize commentary…we’ll need a new thread for that gripe session.

  5. 5 5 ryan yin

    Tom,
    Remember that if marginal costs are less than average costs (which you seem to be assuming), full competition would drive all firms out of business. So your primary example doesn’t really work. In most dimensions, we’re not at an increasing returns margin.

    And no, trying to bring manufacturing back to New Jersey wouldn’t yield big returns. Sorry. (If you’re really shocked by how long it takes people to learn a lesson, think about this one: economists have been trying to explain to people why mercantilism and protectionism are bad for all countries involved all the way back to Adam Smith. Yes, even Paul Krugman. 233 years and people still don’t believe us.)

  6. 6 6 Brian McCann

    Ummm… this isn’t protectionism. Protectionism would be if we slapped a tariff on Chinese suits to make them more expensive than the goofy looking homeless guy in the picture’s suit. In this case we are simply apply to social pressures, not financial ones.

    This, I’m sure, had more to do with carbon emissions than protecting domestic labor. I would bet, for instance, that whomever made this suit would be fine with Chinese programmers emailing their software to the states.

  7. 7 7 Artemis

    you’re belief that html is “standard” betrays your vast ignorance and ability to only speak from your poorly educated liberal mind.

    HTML is not “standard”. In fact, no browser company follows the “standard” and if they did, then you wouldn’t be using the browser you are using to view and comment on this article.

    The great features that you mistakenly attribute to sacrifice for the common good were born out of something you mentioned, but in a typically liberal fashion, ignored because they were not relevant to your wild fantasies

    The experience you enjoy is the result of many companies competing to have the best browser and creating new features for richer web experiences to gain that edge.

  8. 8 8 Samuel Nasuti

    @ Brian McCann

    Are you the catcher for the Braves? You were on my fantasy team this year.

    @Louis

    Great response except you totally lost me with “Every dollar that New Jersey citizens do NOT spend subsidizing local farmers is a dollar that directly or indirectly goes to better schools for your children, programs to help poor people that aren’t farmers” – I don’t follow. Every dollar you save by buying cheaper non-local food is simply available for allocation by the saver.

  9. 9 9 John

    Tom Limoncelli write: “The suit I wear cost $500 but I’m sure the manufacturer paid a hell of a lot more for the first one and has been amortizing that cost over all the ones after that.”

    So how local is the market for the suit you bought? You think “amortizing” the cost of a suit might be easier in a big market than a small one? The need to “amortize” is one of the reasons why globalization enriches us. Thus your argument is self-contradictory.

  10. 10 10 Louis Friedel

    Samuel, perhaps I did skip a stop on the logic train. With regards to farming in particular, most of the subsidies to local farmers are paid directly by the government, and the cost of the food is lower for the end consumer. Really this is no different than the consumer/tax payer just paying more for the food in the first place, but the end result is that farmers who should not be in business remain in business, and the government funds used to subsidize them could have been diverted elsewhere (schools, poor..etc). But if you take the government out of it, then every marginal dollar spent just becomes pure waste…and you’re right, in the short run it is just additional savings, but I think it is safe to assume that the dollars get spent somehow. In this case I offered seat cushions as an example of such spending.

  11. 11 11 Samuel

    Louis, I got you. Didn’t you hear though? Statism is Dead.

  12. 12 12 M Lewis

    500 hours per suit?

    With that kind of productivity we could have full employment forever.

  13. 13 13 Shelley

    That’s cheeky. Calling themselves artisans.

  14. 14 14 Ben M

    I live in New Jersey where manufacturing is dead. If companies tried to favor local companies for the next 5 years, it could have a major benefit for my state.

    No, it would just be a waste of time and resources. It’s cheaper to simply produce other things and then spend that money to buy things other people can produce more efficiently. That’s how the world works, luv. The reason why the jobs don’t exist in Jersey anymore is simple: because we can afford to take up other jobs and simply pay other people (Chinese, Taiwanese, etc.) to make the stuff for us.

    Well, anyway, the bulk of your post is a tangential straw man so I’m probably just wasting my time.

  15. 15 15 muirgeo

    “Or you could go down to Wal-Mart, grab something a little snazzier for well under a hundred bucks, and reflect on the benefits of global trade.” SL

    Could you?

    http://andstillipersist.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/mumbai-squalor.jpg

    There’s some 1.2 billion people living in this sort of squalor around the world. They’d have been better off living the indigenous lives of their forefathers. There didn’t even used to be 1.2 billion people in the world until about the time of Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species.

    So if we look at just these 1.2 billion and compare them to the 1.2 billion that lived in Darwin’s age I’d say we’ve gone backwards quite a bit.

    But if you are capable of not noticing or ignoring 1.2 billion people … yeah you could make the argument that Mr. Landsburg makes.

  16. 16 16 Daniel Arcure

    Louis,
    Why is any suggestion that paying more for something is necessarily a bad idea (i.e., locally grown produce.). If you believe the quality is worth the extra cost (a reasonable position when it comes to produce), where’s the harm, so long as the government is not mandating “local content?” The same goes for suits. People with sufficient means pay thousands for suits that are of a higher quality than those you can buy at Wal-Mart. No knock on Wal-Mart. Having limited means myself, I shop there regularly.

  17. 17 17 improbable

    I do think 500 hours is excessive. If I remember correctly (from reading about scottish islands) spinning and weaving the cloth for a man’s suit was about a week’s work, 40 hours, plus a day or two for tailoring.

    This is for people who did this all the time, not the first-timers I imagine were hired here, but it’s not large-scale thing. Does the 500 include some estimate of the cost of raising the sheep?

    Not disputing the lesson by the way, I just think the figures are off.

  18. 18 18 Ned Danison

    @ Muirgeo: Hmm. There were 1.2 billion in Darwin’s time; let’s assume a number of those 1.2 billion were well-off, and a number were bad-off relatively speaking (like the man said, “The poor you shall always have with you”). Today there are (according to you) 1.2 billion bad-off out of 6 billion — that’s 4.8 billion not-so-bad-off today. So far so good? Somehow humans today are able to decently support four times the entire earth’s population of Darwin’s time. How did this happen?

  19. 19 19 Jim Hlavac

    The fallacy in the “buy local” argument is that it presumes that all things required or desired are available locally. And that all the skills to take raw materials are available also.
    This is unfortunately the idea behind kings of old wanting to keep all the business in their kingdoms, and it is part of Marx’s ideas that the resources of the world should be spread around equally. They are not. And no matter how “local” you wanted your Orange Juice produced in the Boston Metro Area, well, good luck. On the other hand, Brazil can’t produce Maple Syrup for their pancakes in the morning. Hence world trade.

  20. 20 20 Ralph C. Eggen

    All of these arguments and comments only reinforce the idea of getting the government out of the way so the invisible hand can do its majic.

  21. 21 21 muirgeo

    Ned,

    I already said if you are capable of writing of 1.2 billion people living in abject misery I could not argue with that. You obviously win the debate.

  22. 22 22 nailhead tom

    Landsburg’s piece is a great example of the role of maligned corporations in modern life. Prior to corporate, mechanized garment production, a typical individual was lucky to own more than one pair of pants and a couple of shirts. Holes in socks were darned. Today, you don’t even see patches on clothing or buttons replaced, even though people dress like slobs. Imagine producing automobiles, washing machines, refrigerators, heating systems on an artisan scale. Only the wealthiest would be able to afford any of those things.

  23. 23 23 Chris A.

    @muirgeo:

    Why would you assume that the lives of anyone’s “indigenous forefathers” would be better than their descendants’ lives are now? Financially speaking, subsistence living is the absolute lowest you can go. Since the hallmark of most primitive cultures (and, for that matter, many more advanced ones) is an absolute dependence on what you or your tiny village can raise each year to barely keep yourselves fed, I would wager that even the poor family in Bombay working around the clock, barely able to keep up in rent and food and clothes and school, is better off.

    Capitalism, even in the grossly government-distorted landscape that is most developing countries, is qualitatively better than primitive subsistence living.

  24. 24 24 muirgeo

    “Financially speaking, subsistence living is the absolute lowest you can go.”

    Are finances the only way to measure happiness. I suspect the Natives of Hispanola and others had a happy life of liberty, no government, abundance of resources, an abundance of leisure, no commute traffic, surrounded by family, connected to their natural environment, self sufficiency, no war and NO money. Then the Capitalist arrived. We’ll never know if they were happier then us… but happier then “slumdogs”… I’d guess so.

  25. 25 25 Chris A.

    Perhaps an anthropologist could correct me, but I was not aware that personal liberties were present in any significant sense in any primitive societies? Certainly freedom of religion and speech is absent. No government is certainly not true. Every tribe I have ever read of had a leader and some sort of leadership system, typically along the lines of despotism and oligarchy. Abundance of resources? You do realize that the phenomenon of local famine was only wiped out in the west with the dawn of the transportation revolution of the nineteenth century. Certainly the natives of Hispanola had plenty of resources — they also had an almost complete inability to utilize them. Primitive societies only have the ability to trade with the very closest neighbors. That means that if a drought hits the area, everyone suffers. Bountiful crops from the Aztecs in Mexico could not have been brought in to alleviate the suffering.

    Saying they have an “abundance of leisure” leads me to believe that you do not understand what subsistence living is. Subsistence living means you have no leisure, because you spend (virtually) every waking moment trying to ensure that you do not die from lack of food, clothing, shelter, or whatever other natural/human hazards are present. If someone had time for leisure, that means that they are *not* subsistence farming and that they have nothing greatly productive to be doing with that time.

    I won’t dispute the next two, but they are also fairly irrelevant. As capitalism aids family after family to rise out of poverty, they can afford to move to suburbs to avoid traffic and they can afford to travel frequently to see family, who incidentally now can live farther apart and still see each other regularly.

    “Connected to their natural environment”? The poor subsistence farmers of the water-logged Bangladesh coast(along with their similarly-placed counterparts in India) daily are “connected” to their environment with floods that kill them by the thousands and ruin their crops, tigers that kill them by the hundreds (it still stuns me that man-killing animals are such a source of fear in places on earth in modern times), and hurricanes, tidal waves, and disease brought on by the nature of the swampy conditions they live in. Whereas wealthier, non-subsistence areas similar in geography can afford to minimize the dangers of their locations while still enjoying nature’s splendor around them.

    I think our whole discussion centers on disagreement as to the benefit of self-sufficiency, so I’ll skip that as well. No war is hugely unlikely. Recall that the primary source of African slaves for European traders was not Europeans, but African tribal chiefs who sold their enemies, gained in myriad tribal wars. War is best avoided when people are interconnected through trade. Who wants to shoot their customers? A good example is World War II. After the first world war, a massive wave of protectionism issued across the world, and by the time WWII started, each “side” was reliant on their allies for trade, so of *course* they could attack each other. In contrast, China and the US are not likely to fight, for each side would lose out hugely in terms of international providers and customers.

    Ahh yes, and the grand finale: money. Of course, money is only a medium by which trade is conducted. Money is used so one does not have to figure out how many of a farmer’s ears of corn are worth a tailor’s shirt. Instead, you can determine for yourself how many pieces of [insert monetary unit] an ear of corn is, and how many a shirt is, then exchange based on that. Money is only a representation of resources, a representation of real wealth. Subsistence farmers still have resources and still have wealth in the form of their property. Saying they have no money is probably false first of all, and if true, only means that they are hurting themselves by refusing mutual exchange with neighbors.

  26. 26 26 MikeM

    “There’s some 1.2 billion people living in this sort of squalor around the world. They’d have been better off living the indigenous lives of their forefathers.”

    Of course, they couldn’t go back because, as you say, there’s five times as many people in the world. The old methods of production wouldn’t work any more to support a larger population.

  27. 27 27 Ian Stuart

    I happily pay extra for produce at my local farmer’s market because I place a premium upon fresher produce and because I prefer to see local farms remain in existence for social reasons. In Norway small farms are subsidised by the State, but not agribusiness, because keeping farmers on the farm is seen as having externalities and the electorate is happy to support this. Maximising my utility is not the same thing as minimising my costs.

  28. 28 28 gb

    This is a cool art project, but it doesn’t really prove anything:

    When transportation costs were high, it prevented regions from competing with each other, leading to networks of artisans in each region.

    Nobody _EVER_ built a suit this way — it is too labor intensive!
    Adam Smith pointed this out in his pin-factory example.

    The sheep shearer would shear 200+ sheep in a day. Then the carder would card all of the wool, the spinners would use ring-spinning or spinning jennys, the dye-maker would specialize in dye-production, the weavers would use high-speed looms, the shoemaker would make large numbers of shoes, the tanner would tan thousands of hides, etc.

    So the labor costs were due to unspecialized and often unskilled laborers doing artisinal work that has been superseded by modern technology.

    As a practical matter, people didn’t really dress like this before modern methods reduced the labor costs. The colonial garments were much easier to make.

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