Now we’re seeing the result of a move toward a virtual economy. Years of disinvestment in science, clean energy and manufacturing have left us with a weird, skewed economy in which the finance sector alone generates two out of every five dollars of corporate profits, and a bunch of bright 28-year-olds at Wall Street investment banks are capable of throwing the entire game. The unreal part of the economy is so powerful that it can wreck the real part. “I see that Goldman Sachs made $3 billion in a quarter, and that makes me want to vomit,” says Alan Turner. “Go work for a living, you motherfucker. You don’t have to work with your hands for a living, but do something. Make something.”
Whether out of necessity, epiphany or disgust, Americans are rediscovering the value of mechanical competence in a host of surprising and exotic ways. There’s a new artisanal bakery about to open in Phoenixville, the Brick Oven Bread and Cheese Shoppe, that is the brainchild of a former corporate accountant who quit his job so he could devote all his time to the mysteries of sourdough starters. There are two local doctors who like to decompress by watching fowl wander around on their lawn: Gail and Steven Herrine, an ob/gyn and a gastroenterologist, respectively, have been raising chickens in the backyard of their Bala Cynwyd home since 2003. “I’m trying to raise most of my food from about June to November,” explains Gail Herrine. “The chickens eat aphids and other bugs off your plants. They mix up the soil … and they’re pretty.” There’s also a local pre-K-to-eighth-grade school, the -Waldorf School of Philadelphia, that has carved out a niche as a computerless haven where students are taught to cut dovetail joints, build fences and crochet puppets. And across the region, newly unemployed adults are gambling on what they hope will be a more secure future in the trades: Union apprentice programs are filling up, and local trade schools are enrolling a flood of new applicants.
For instance, the Orleans Technical Institute in the Northeast saw a significant increase in students last year. One was Sarah Levetter, who had been laid off from her office job as an executive assistant, and another was Charles Lord, who’d sold Sprint phones before his store closed; both Levetter and Lord just graduated from Orleans as newly minted electricians. “I had become expendable, you know?” says Lord. “Now I can start a business for myself.”