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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Steam and Ice

It’s dangerous to assume the U.S. can recover its industrial base in a pinch.

frick steam tractor
(Acroterion/Wikimedia Commons)

This past weekend brought one of the delightful late-summer festivals of the Mid-Atlantic: the Maryland Steam Show. For four days, farm equipment experts, tractor fanciers, and mechanical tinkerers converge on the village of Upperco deep in the countryside of the Old Line State to show and be shown the cream of historical tractors on the East Coast. In addition to the hulking titular steam tractors—monsters of terrible beauty, some manufactured just over the Pennsylvania line, all lovingly restored and maintained—enthusiasts bring internal combustion–driven tractors from every period of development. This year’s theme was International Harvester, the now-defunct American conglomerate that was one of the most conspicuous victims of American industrial decline in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Red and white Farmalls covered acres of hilly fields under a cloudless blue sky.

It wasn’t all tractors, though; scores of pavilions and outdoor displays showed off a hundred years’ worth machines, large and small, from classic cars to portable oil pumps to the original gas-powered Maytag washing machine. A blacksmith’s forge ran all day next to the threshing floor and the sawmills. A flea market offered lawnmowers, second-hand tools, bedroom sets, Civil War uniform reproductions, flags, hats, glassware, romance novels, and ammo. All in all, the best sort of public event in America—a celebration of our national genius, a showcase of our magnificent achievements in the agricultural and mechanical sciences, and an opportunity to eat pit beef al fresco.

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My oldest daughter asked to stand in the cabin of one of the steam tractors, and, as she perched on the water-tank of a machine that was over a century old, the driver told us about the details of his machine. He commented that the surviving steam tractors tended to have been in continuous use at least into the 1930s, since idle machines were dismembered for parts during the Second World War. This observation was striking; while my family drifted from the steam tractors toward the sawmill for a scheduled demonstration, my mother said that she thought Americans would be able to apply that ingenuity for reuse to restarting the nation’s industry if a crisis like that war ever faced us again. Anecdotally, this is a common attitude among Americans who have been blessed to grow up in the post-war era.

Maybe it’s right; I’m not so sure. To have a national defense industrial base, you need an industrial base simpliciter. Thirty years of trade policy has reduced the American industrial base drastically. Rebuilding it is a daunting task, and, as the American sages of the 19th century knew, sometimes you have to sacrifice some laissez-faire orthodoxy to protect fledgling industries. (I recommend the ongoing “American System” series of articles edited by David Cowan and published by The American Conservative, which is devoted to recovering this largely lost strain of American political prudence.

Building industries is not merely expensive; it is simply difficult. A survey of the various nations’ nuclear programs makes for interesting study. In our own country and our current moment, the halt of construction on the TSMC chip manufactory in Arizona is instructive—despite the federal government splashing ample funds into strengthening our domestic semiconductor industry, the lack of workers with the necessary skills is cramping the project. More worrying is a report in the Sunday edition of the Wall Street Journal, titled “To Build Ships That Break Ice, U.S. Must Relearn to Cut Steel.” The short story: The U.S. Coast Guard has only two icebreakers, the heavier of which is near the end of its operational life. (China has four; Canada has about twenty; Russia has roughly forty.) The initial contract for replacement icebreaker designs was awarded in 2017 to two companies. In the time since, one company has acquired the other and the delivery date for a finished icebreaker has been pushed from 2024 to 2028. (As so often seems to be the case in defense-adjacent industries, consolidation comes without any gains in efficiency.) A central problem: The techniques for cutting the massive pieces of steel plating for the ships’ hulls has simply fallen out of the shipbuilding trades’ collective memories. The U.S. built its last icebreaker in 1976; in 2023, we are stuck reinventing the wheel.

The usual suspects are down on the idea of industrial policy. There’s something to the criticism—tariff costs do get passed back to the consumer, and poorly written subsidies are always going to be an opportunity for unproductive rent-seeking. (I’ve got my own problems with some of the recent spate of industrial policy legislation.) Yet it remains trivially true that tearing up the floorboards and selling them will eventually leave you without a house. It is also trivially true that replacing the floorboards is going to be expensive and difficult, certainly more expensive and difficult than not tearing them up and selling them in the first place. It is a hard task, but the national interest leaves us with one option: to hold fast.