Our unspoken domestic crisis: the servant economy

A box came yesterday, with a variety of electronics-related accessories in it. Three of them were designed to help clean DVD and BluRay players. They were all made in China. One of the accessories, a screen cleaner, was made in the U.S. of U.S and foreign components. The last was a curious little product called the Nest, designed to help store earbuds so they don’t tangle. This one said simply “Made in USA.”

The company that sent these products is Digital Innovations, based near Chicago. I’m interested in it precisely because it decided to make the Nest, its newest product, in the U.S. That proved to be harder than you might expect for a simple bit of silicone (a story I hope to write soon).

It isn’t the first time I’ve heard this story, of an entrepreneurial company that runs into serious challenges trying to make things here. On election day, I’m thinking about The Nest because it shows a long-term issue with our economy: we can’t make many of the things we create.
That wasn’t supposed to matter, one reason why we’ve blithely let most of our manufacturing centers decline for the last several decades. But 15 percent of the U.S. population remains in what some call “legacy cities.” I grew up in one, and over the last 30 years I’ve seen it go from a factory town with a small college to a college town with a small factory. I watched from Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Boston again, waiting for the more prosperous future pundits predicted as we shifted to the service economy. The pundits were wrong. The service economy has become, for many people, a servant economy. Servants add little to the overall economy; their jobs aren’t productive and generally don’t pay well.
No matter who wins tonight, I hope politicians of both parties can come together and bring this massiveĀ  but overlooked domestic issue to the forefront of policy actions.

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