The Great American Garage Project

tinkers in garageAs you probably are aware, at least according to modern mythology, much of the great American economy was started by folks tinkering in the garage. This includes everything from Henry Ford and the entire American automobile industry, the Wright Brothers bicycle shop (not exactly a garage, but certainly not the Boeing factory, either) to HP computers and the whole PC computer market.

Undoubtably, many great industries have gotten their starts from mostly middle class to upper class white men (yes, mostly men, and mostly white) tinkering in their garage. In fact, a recent study these tinkers add about $41billion to the annual economy, and if you think of the major industries that got their starts in someone’s garage, it’s a lot more than that.

Here is the thing, our total economy is about $21 trillion, so $41 billion is a small piece of the equation. But, if you think about it, there are a few things that limit the number of great ideas that are tinkered with in a garage until it turns into something that contributes to Americans’ (and others’) quality of life:

A garage, and a little spare cash to “play at something”, maybe a dozen ‘somethings’ before one turns into a winner.

Probably in the history of America, of the 30 million men or so who have had garages and a little pocket money to play with, very few, say 1 in 100 have seriously used their time, disposable income and space to create something, and one of ten or even one hundred tinkers produce anything worthwhile to the economy, or even to their own personal wealth. Yet, we traditionally have had about 20% of America who have both access to a physical and enough disposable income to have a hobby of tinkering. Of course, if we changed our attitudes, or maybe we already have, this 20% would quit being a “for men only” club, but that still leaves 80% or 250 million people who cannot realistically follow their dreams and ideas and theories and build the next big thing or maybe just the next million-dollar idea, or even one hundred thousand dollar idea. If the 3,000 or so men who live in a house with a garage and who have a few hundred dollars per month to invest in their ideas, schemes or dreams, somehow turn those ideas into useful products or services, and they generate $1 billion dollars in wealth every year, what would 30,000 people, suddenly given the opportunity do?

As an extension of my thoughts on a Universal Basic Income, where I thought about how creating a system of “Social Security for All” in which we tax everyone the same percentage (10%-15% of all wealth created), and then disperse the same amount back to everyone ($500 per person, per month and an additional stipend for the head of household/rent-mortgage payer), I began to think about the creative freedom this small stipend would give us all.

Pretty quickly I began to think of the “garage economy”. And then I thought, “What if we also gave people, almost all people, the same opportunity to turn their creativity into wealth creation like we have always done for those of moderate to high income and housing?”

It is easy to guess we might end up expanding the $41 billion to $200+billion in additional GDP. We might also figure that our odds of hitting the next HP/Ford/Kitty Hawk Flyer will be increased at least four-fold. At a minimum, we could increase the national GDP by over $160 billion dollars.

As this began to become more and more of a real possibility, at least in my mind, I was discussing it with teenagers. And one of us thought of garages that functioned like libraries. The next thought was maybe actually connect them to public libraries. But when we started thinking about what tinkers do in garages, we decided that might not be such a good idea, but then we thought about police and fire stations. Most police and fire stations around the country are conveniently located near the population and often located in low and extremely low income neighborhoods. There are about 8000 urban fire stations out of about 50,000 nationwide (most of the fire stations are located where people have access to garages, though another 10,000 or so serve rural communities where the percentage of poor people outnumber the well-off).

Around 15,000 police departments serve our country, including about 5,000 in urban areas with well over 7,000 stations and substations in urban areas with much less coverage in rural urban areas, but altogether, there should be over 15,000 government owned and operated locations of fire or police where there is enough space to build a 15 foot by 20 foot building, adjoining the existing structure. To build this sort of structure, and add it to the water, power of the existing building would range from about $50,000 in places where both land and labor were not very costly to well over $100,000 in some cities. If you use the number of $100,000 per structure and you built 15,000 garages, total capital outlay would be around $1.5 billion, or a one-time penny on the dollar of the likely return of $150 billion annually.

There is also the matter of both allocation and disposable income, as well as results. My thoughts would be anyone between the ages of 18 and 100 who expresses an interest, can prove they have a household income below the median for that area, do not live at a home with a garage, or at least a garage they have access to, should be eligible on a first come, first serve basis. I don’t think asking for a planned project is needed, though it could be added, depending on what others think. While some projects take years to develop and finish, many projects could be accomplished over a summer or over a 9 month non summer stretch. So, if we allowed 15,000 adults to use the garages around the country, for 9 months, and gave them a stipend of a few hundred dollars per month for materials. Probably at the end of 90% of the “rentals” the tinker would have nothing to show for their work, except maybe a pile of scraps to carry out to the dumpster, but every once in a while, they will invent a better dryer filter, or insulated drink cups or some sort of minor miracle, and on very rare occasions, they might invent a world changing something, at the very least, they will had the opportunity that we in the middleclass take for granted, the opportunity to give it a try, to see if it will work, and to possibly make a go of something.

Then in the summer, we could allow a school aged child, with some degree of adult supervision, to spend three months and a few hundred of the taxpayers’ dollars trying out their young dreams.

In any case, because the buildings would either be attached to or very near either a fire house or a police station, with 24 monitoring by government employees. This arrangement has several advantages over a freestanding system. The interior of the garage could be easily added to the video monitoring of the overall complex, allowing for a safeguard both against self-injury and illegal activity. It would also allow a great community outreach between police and fire departments, allowing a long-term casual relationship to develop between the tinker and the department employees. And there might even be a good recruiting tool to let local community members consider working in whichever department they tinker at.

If every year 15,000 adults have 9 months to tinker and each summer another 15,000 school children get a three month turn. If there isn’t anyone waiting on line, and a tinker wants to extend their usage, that would be okay, too. If we were to implement this at once nationwide, besides the $1.5 billion capital one-time and a smaller annual maintenance, we would need between 50 – 100 million dollars for stipends and utilities.

Of course, more likely we would build a test group and see how it works, not so much looking for immediate results but to make it work as smoothly as possible.

Over the long run, we could allow 2 million or more people access to this ultimate creative space would give us many new ideas, solutions, things, from leisure to life saving devices, and in the process increase our national GDP by several hundred times the investment.


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