America, its time to start making things again

Making things has deep roots in American culture.

The Founding Fathers were do-it-yourselfers, from Jefferson’s explicit idealization of the self-sufficient yeoman farmer to Franklin’s intrepid experimentation with electricity. Over the centuries, a return to this kind of independent DIY spirit has helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, the radio era of the early 20th century, the hippie movement (the part of it exemplified by the Whole Earth catalog, anyway) and punk rock.

Along the way, America became the greatest industrial nation on Earth, creating airplanes, cars, electronics, computers, and eventually the Internet.

Then we gradually started relocating factories overseas, as we grew to value inexpensive goods made by cheap labor over arguably better-quality products made by skilled (and relatively expensive, often union) labor at home. Americans pursued other, more lucrative and more stimulating careers than factory work.

That made sense, for awhile, as global markets enabled “labor arbitrage” and let the U.S. concentrate on areas where it still held a competitive advantage: design, engineering, software, marketing, advertising.

At the same time, Americans as individuals stopped getting their hands dirty. Fifty years ago every car owner had to know something about basic repair; today, people who can fix their own cars are rare. (Cars themselves are nearly impossible to repair for the home mechanic anyway, given the profusion of electronics under the hood — but they’re also far more reliable than the cars of 50 years ago, so home repairs are less necessary.) Fewer and fewer people do their own home repairs, plumbing, gardening, canning, or clothes making and mending.