Took a trip to the small burgh of Red Wing, Minnesota yesterday. The two main reasons the place exists are the Red Wing Shoe Company (yes, somebody still makes SHOES here in the USA!) and Red Wing Pottery, going since 1865.
It’s a town that Frank Capra could have used as a backdrop for one of his small-town America feel-good movies.
But like most picturesque small towns, as new big-box retailers kill the downtown area off, it has tried to survive on tourism and antiques, selling off the past piecemeal.
And for a while, it worked. But as our New Economy takes its toll, people just don’t have the disposable income to buy that antique lamp or commemorative dish. The tank of gas it takes to get here is better saved for the commute to the new job which pays less than the old one did. If you have a job at all, that is.
You really can’t keep a town alive on selling off the heirlooms or with gift shops selling Chinese crap you can buy anywhere, or musty smelling antique stores. Yet most of the small Midwestern towns seem to keep trying to do that.
It takes real economic growth to keep things going, and that means making things. The Red Wing boots made here are kind of a working-class icon. I’m sure they could be made cheaper in China, but they keep hanging on, out of stubborn pride, I guess. They are made to last. You’ll spend a lot to get a pair, but not as much as the 3 pairs of foreign-made boots you’ll burn through before you wear out your Red Wings.
Plus, when you lace them up in the morning, you’ll know they were made by real people in a small town on the banks of the Mississippi, not Chinese or Vietnamese children.
The same way with the pottery. You can go to the place it’s made and watch them turn it on a wheel. No lead or toxic materials in it.
Other companies and products could be made in places like this, and these little places could come back to life. But they don’t generate enough profit for shareholders and Wall Street.
We can rail all we want about the demise of small manufacturing, but as long as people want those double-digit returns in their 401(k) pension plans and mutual funds, they’re just giving US companies permission to race to the bottom of the cheap labor pool.
People used to be happy making a living. Now we are only satisfied if we are making a killing.
And killing places and opportunities is just what we’re doing.