July 14, 2022
Can you remember the first time you saw a gear? I remember seeing gears on a cousin’s erector set crane when I was six or seven. A friend got a slot car set when we were nine and I remember counting the teeth on the motor pinion when someone told us the gear ratio determined how fast the little cars went. We had lots of backyard auto repair going on back in those days so a boy could learn a lot just by wandering around the neighborhood. In blue collar Milwaukee circa 1963, all the cool guys seemed to have grease on their hands and a few bleeding knuckles. The emerging social pressure to go to college and get a nice clean office job, in my opinion, had more to do with avoiding the draft than economics. Men with dirty hands were widely admired — especially those who advanced to running their own businesses. It was not beyond a good mechanic or machinist’s reach to have his own shop and to eventually employ others. Those dreams seem to have transitioned away from making things to instead inventing or designing something that could be made inexpensively overseas and sold in a big box store. Politicians may talk about manufacturing jobs, but whenever the questions get too specific they lapse into some vague rant on Silicon Valley and American Exceptionalism. To me, the real job creators are the men and women who start and nurture small manufacturing companies into reliable workplaces for their communities. Most know they will never get rich. They know they will lose sleep over the ups and downs of the market, but they cannot imagine doing anything else. The gear trade is fortunate to have some of these firms. Not as many as there once were, but enough that a young machinist can see how there just might be a way for him or her to have their own shop some day. We need an economic system that nurtures those dreams.