In 1985, in a large Harvard Business School amphitheater classroom, about 75 of us were discussing the shrinking of US manufacturing and the explosive growth of the service economy. I somehow became the class’s “real world” expert on this topic because my dad was a unionized autoworker. At the time I had no idea how rare that experience of having your children move up a whole economic level was soon to become–for the next generation of tradesmen and laborers.
We can’t reverse the tides of automation, globalization, or a service economy, but what can we do? I mean those of us who have relative economic security and unimaginable freedoms to design our lives, compared to the people currently living in my Detroit neighborhood. With that freedom comes power and responsibility. What can economic (and often liberal) elites do?
Buy American. Buy from small businesses. Buy quality.
I’ve said for a long time, if everyone spent just 10% of their disposable income on products from emerging independent companies, we would take care of our own. We’d be expressing a powerful movement I call Citizen Commerce.
This election taught me that I’ve underestimated how much people in Michigan and Ohio and Wisconsin are hurting. As such I’m thinking I need to narrow my 10% rallying cry definition of “everyone.” Why? I’m not sure how realistic it is for a person in Ohio working 50+ hours per week–whose real wages haven’t risen in 50 years struggling to make ends meet– to pay more to buy locally made products from her local retailers.
So I’m now calling on those that can afford it–those whom the dispassionate marches of globalization and technology have directly helped–to redouble our habits. Specifically I’d like to see us allocate 20% of our spending on locally made quality goods from independent, young enterprises. These are the businesses fighting tooth and nail to produce their products in the US. They are creating two out of three new jobs. They do business locally, not globally, and care about their employees, they care about the Main Street retailers who sell their products, and about their suppliers. They have to. They don’t have the scale or power or even the pressure of big box distribution to squeeze everyone they touch. They are the innovators and builders. But too many of them die on the vine before we ever see them because it takes an informed and caring community that values quality, local production, and local jobs to support them. And mostly it takes people who can afford to skip the trip down Amazon or Walmart’s aisles in the quest for cheap serviceable goods. If you are among the lucky professionals who have seen real wage growth and relative job stability, I am talking to you. The next time you decide you need something, pause to think about the greater good. And be grateful you can express your own values and create jobs with your purchases, to really create the world you want to live in.
When I graduated from HBS I naively thought it was my birthright to step up in the world beyond my parents’s achievements. And that was reality for a person like me: a physically able white person from a stable home. Today, in my same home, with the same parents, I would not easily have that chance. But the little Detroiter girl who is actually living at 12701 Appleton could and should. The question is does the liberal elite care enough to make her better future possible?