In search of answers, I took a drive out to Lincoln to visit with Al Lubrano, president and CEO of Materion's Technical Materials division, which specializes in the sort of highly engineered metals that are used in cars and consumer electronics.
Lubrano is a hard-charging Brooklyn native of strong opinions. Pinstriped shirt, a copy of the Wall Street Journal on the table, and in the corner of his modest office: two pictures of the CEO with President George W. Bush.
Technical Materials, he tells me, was in "pretty dire" condition when he arrived some 20 years ago. But he turned it around. Cut the fat, focused the place. "We're very profitable," he says. "Have been since I arrived here."
Still, if the Technical Materials story is proof that manufacturing can prosper on American soil, he suggests, the sector can only fulfill its promise if a clueless Washington finally tackles the heavy constraints on industry: the "highest effective corporate tax rate in the industrialized world," soaring energy costs, stifling regulation ("the EPA is running amok!"), and Chinese currency manipulation, among others.
And Rhode Island, he argues, only exacerbates this national problem by creating one of the worst business climates in the country; not long ago, Lubrano says, he seriously considered shifting Technical Materials to Massachusetts but ultimately decided against it because the moving costs were too high.
There is plenty to quibble with in Lubrano's analysis — and not just the bit on the EPA. The US effective corporate tax rate is not the highest in the world (though it is certainly near the top), and tax cuts too often line corporate pockets, rather than lead to more investment.
Moreover, cracking down on currency manipulation by imposing tariffs on some Chinese goods — as the US Senate voted to do last fall — could drive up the cost of Chinese imports for the average consumer and spark a trade war just as the economy is showing signs of life.
Lubrano, for one, is willing to take the gamble. "When does it stop?," he asks, of the manipulation. "When does it stop?"
And here, at least, he's got plenty of allies on the left. Freshman Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline, who has built his early Washington career around reviving manufacturing in the state, counts himself among the many elected Democrats who support a crackdown on currency manipulation.
But it is, probably, one of the few places where he would overlap with Lubrano and other conservatives. Indeed, there is a sharp divide in Washington on industrial policy.
The Democratic version includes a national manufacturing strategy, tax incentives meant to encourage "insourcing" rather than "outsourcing," and Cicilline's call for a block grant program that would allow old-line factories to retool and retrain their workers.
For much of the GOP, these strategies smack of government overreach and are destined to fail. Indeed, the very term "industrial policy" conjures cries of Bolshevism in some corners.
So in a recent conversation with Cicilline, I put the question to him: absent an unlikely Democratic sweep in this fall's election, can we really expect Washington to put any kind of coherent manufacturing program in place?
"We have to," he insisted. "I think anyone who looks at this fairly realizes that we will not maintain our position as a great economic power unless we make things again in this country."