US flags at parades likely made in China

On Veterans Day, Americans drape the Stars and Stripes around their neighborhoods, businesses promote U.S. flags alongside their holiday discounts, and public officials display them on government buildings.

It was originally a holiday to honor those who fought in the “war to end all wars” and marked the armistice that ended World War I hostilities on Nov. 11 exactly a century ago. Today, we wave flags to commemorate all veterans and active-duty members of the U.S. armed forces.

Recently, while walking by a VFW Post dutifully displaying a U.S. flag, I read a newspaper headline about President Trump’s latest round of tariffs on Chinese goods. The juxtaposition of the flag and the headline made me wonder how many American flags come from China? And are they being hit with the tariffs?

You may be surprised at the answers.

Invoices show that in 2017 the U.S. imported 10 million American flags. Of those, all but 50,000 came from China.

These imports represent a fraction of the estimated 150 million U.S. flags Americans buy each year. Nevertheless, 10 million is still a large number for a national symbol.

The typical flag made in China is not the giant banner waving over car dealerships, town halls and fast-food restaurants. Instead, they’re the small ones you and your friends might wave at a Veterans Day parade. The average imported Chinese flag cost the importer only 56 cents, without including any tariffs, and weighs about two and a half ounces.

So given President Donald Trump’s efforts to get more citizens to buy American products, I thought it would be only natural he would include the national flag on the list of Chinese imports being hit with tariffs.

The tariffs are 10 percent now and will rise to 25 percent on Jan. 1. The full list of items subject to tariff contains thousands of product categories, from anchovies to zinc products.

What the list doesn’t include is American flags.

I am an economist and generally favor free trade because of the benefits I and many other parts of society receive.

The tariffs have divided Americans and businesses about whether they’re a good thing. While some support them, others are suffering because of the rising costs of raw materials or the higher prices at the cash register.

Trump clearly thinks the tariffs are the right way to make trade with China less unfair and appears skeptical about free trade more generally. He also wants Americans to buy more goods made at home.

I have a simple suggestion. Instead of putting punitive tariffs on a very large list of products, let’s put the tariffs on a much smaller list of important items, such as steel, which China is accused of dumping. Let’s also put tariffs on items tied to national defense, plus a few symbolic goods, like flags.

This would ensure most of the benefits of free trade are maintained, while the president is able to conduct a policy that doesn’t hurt as many U.S. businesses yet telegraphs to China and other countries that they’ll have to change their behavior.

As a result, the act of waving a flag on Veterans Day to honor the men and women who keep the U.S. free will be doubly patriotic.

Jay L. Zagorsky is an adjunct associate professor at Boston University. His commentary was distributed by The Convesation, a nonprofit editorial organization.