Like it or not, supply chains are infrastructure

By Bart Taylor | May 09, 2021

One casualty of our political paralysis is momentum to enact supply chain and manufacturing initiatives that appeared to have bipartisan support coming out of the election. Today we can't seem to agree on the need to agree.

I thought as much reading Robert O'Brien's insights last week in Bloomberg, "Supply Chains Are Our Most Critical Infrastructure," that said so much even as it didn't.

O'Brien served as national security advisor to Donald Trump and obviously understands the strategic importance of a stronger U.S. manufacturing economy. In one short paragraph he supports and derides President Biden's $2.3 trillion infrastructure program before concluding, "Republicans may respectfully disagree on the plan, [but] a shared lesson from the pandemic is that essential U.S. supply chains constitute critical infrastructure. That is a point we can all agree on."

Can we? I'm not convinced we all agree, but O'Brien's right about the supply chain. He offers other useful nuggets:

  • "[S]trengthening U.S. supply chains and protecting our national security go hand in hand. Bringing our supply chains and manufacturing plants home provides stability in times of crisis and means good jobs for American workers today -- many of whom were forgotten when industries rushed to low-wage countries over the past three decades."
  • "Covid-19 pandemic exposed how dependent the U.S. has become on foreign suppliers for our most essential materials and products."
  • "The problem is that while the U.S. engaged in free trade for decades, the rest of the world did not. Consequently, we lost many of our critical supply chains and much of our industrial base, imperiling U.S. national security."
  • "As the 2022 midterm elections approach, it will be good politics for candidates of both parties to support the onshoring of critical American supply chains."

O'Brien writes as a political actor so he falls short, in the end, of acknowledging that both sides agree action is necessary to strengthen U.S. manufacturing, even as neither side will take all the steps necessary to compromise and cooperate for the greater good. That admission is apparently a bridge too far in today's landscape.

If we reach a consensus on basic themes, we can get to the business at hand, that of shortening the supply chains of which O'Brien speaks. A slimmed-down infrastructure spending program that energizes supply-chain development should enjoy bipartisan support. The formula is straightforward: help companies accelerate factory innovations that keep production more local, reduce costs to enable OEMs to compete utilizing domestic labor, and use scalpel-like tariffs to establish a more fair domestic market for U.S.-made products. Plus, celebrate U.S. craftsmanship, increasingly fueled by technology: CNC and artisan will co-mingle in the same sentence, a lot, in the future.

The means to accomplish the ends are available to lawmakers.

There are so many good stories to be told, if we can take small but significant steps. Crossing the political divide to undergird U.S. manufacturing tops the list.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Email him at