The Machine Stops

Since supply chain issues are garnering some attention these days, it might be informative to share my experience with that most prosaic of tasks – building a fence.

The east fence on the North 40 was a sad, sagging, patched affair which probably could trace its origin back to homesteader days. It would be inadequate to prevent any unwanted romantic liaisons with my neighbor’s bull when cows are put in the field next spring. Thus, it was time to replace the old fence with a new quarter-mile (402 metres, as the French would say) four-strand barbed wire fence – a task well within the capabilities of a weekend duffer who is willing to shed a little blood.

First requirement was for treated lumber for the H-frames which hold the tension on the wire, available through the local lumber yard from a plant in Texas.

Then to the local supply store. My old hammer having gone AWOL after an earlier job, I bought a beautifully machined solid steel claw hammer (made in China); galvanized fence staples (China); screws (China); drill bits (Mexico); fence wire tensioner (China). The local store had only a remaining handful of metal T-posts (so called because of their T-shaped cross-section), and those were of the wrong size; I required 130 of them, one every 10 feet. Further, the store was completely out of barbed wire – and regretfully did not know when their wholesaler would be able to restock them.

Fortunately, it was only a 38-mile round trip to another supply house which still had the right size of T-posts in stock, and there I also bought up the last of their barbed wire. The T-posts were of undisclosed origin. The barbed wire enigmatically stated “U.S. Made: U.S./Foreign Materials”.

The strenuous part of erecting a barbed wire fence is driving those T-posts into the unforgiving ground. I rented a T-post driver – a small highly-effective solidly-built US machine, powered by a miniature Honda 4-stroke gasoline engine (Japan).

The finishing element on a barbed wire fence is the installation of the fence stays – a piece of heavy-gauge wire cunningly formed into a DNA-like double spiral which maintains the correct separation between the 4 strands of barbed wire and prevents cattle-sized animals from wriggling through. 130 required – one midway between each pair of T-posts. Unfortunately, they are apparently made from Unobtanium; even Amazon is out of stock. So the job remains unfinished until the supply situation improves.

Short version – it is now not possible in the formerly highly-productive Arsenal of Democracy to do something as basic (and essential) as erecting a fence without imported tools and manufactured products. Is this a cause for concern?

There is also discussion these days about Taiwan and what the military situation would be if China makes a move. As my fence shows, the most effective action President Xi could take to neutralize the US on Taiwan (or anything else) would simply be to order the scores of container ships waiting off California to weigh anchor and head back to the Middle Kingdom. The resulting genuine shortage of essential products would be exacerbated tremendously by panic buying (Remember the great Lock Down toilet paper crisis), and the US would descend into a paralyzing chaos.

Unless/until the US makes serious progress on reshoring manufacturing capabilities, we are critically dependent on the kindness of strangers – which puts a genuine limitation on the scope of any international action.