On Tuesday, some 14,000 fireworks displays will explode over the United States. By the end of the day, Americans will have spent over 1.5 billion dollars on fireworks. They’re impressive, fun, and sometimes take one by surprise. They’re ideal symbols of America. The problem: Just about all of them come from China. The very fireworks intended to mark the anniversary of American independence today reflect a new, dangerous, and potentially existential industrial dependence.
In 2019, the American Pyrotechnics Association reported that 99 percent of backyard consumer fireworks and 70 percent of professional display fireworks come directly from China. In 2021, the US imported 651.6 million USD worth of fireworks. Ninety-nine percent of those imports were from China.
The very fireworks intended to mark the anniversary of American independence today reflect a new, dangerous, and potentially existential industrial dependence.
In pragmatic terms, dependence on China for fireworks is the least of America’s industrial challenges. These are not key inputs into next-generation industries that will determine tomorrow’s economic hierarchy like semiconductors or copper. They’re not foundational economic building blocks like agricultural products, energy, or steel. Neither the US defense industrial base nor critical infrastructure depends on them.
But the US does depend on China for those ingredients, too: For microelectronics, critical minerals, polysilicon, and aluminum; for aircraft assembly and machine tools; electric vehicle batteries and pharmaceutical products.
Fireworks are symbols. That makes dependence on China for them a symbol too – a reflection of the larger industrial impotence that threatens American prosperity, growth, security and, underlying it all, independence.
Fireworks are symbols. That makes reliance on China for them a symbol too – a reflection of the larger industrial impotence that threatens American prosperity, growth, security and, underlying it all, independence.
It would be nice if the US could make its own fireworks. But the solution here is not for the US to go all in on domestic pyrotechnic production. The more logical solution is for the US to go all in on investments in strategic elements of national and allied industry – such that dependence on China for fireworks no longer symbolizes an existential threat to the country. That means rebuilding a domestic industrial base to ensure that the economy has a real foundation to fall back on. It means coordinating with US allies and partners to compete for tomorrow’s industrial battlegrounds. It also means measuring national strength in terms of industrial influence and national security in terms of industrial autonomy, and then getting serious about competing for those.
It’s the Fourth of July, a day to celebrate the United States of America. The US was able to secure that independence, against all odds, in large part because it was able to support itself militarily and economically; because during the Revolutionary War, Washington and Congress doubled down on developing American manufacturing. Over the centuries that followed, the US grew from a fledgling state without a functioning economy into a global superpower because it continued to develop domestic industry – with it, unprecedented economic growth, international influence, and independence. Now, that growth, influence, and independence are challenged because the United States has stopped making.
But there’s still time to get in gear. And what better day to remember as much than July 4th. Independence day displays of imported fireworks symbolize a faltering national edge. At the same time, they can – and should – be the reminder the country, and Americans, need to get back to building.