Forced to defend an obsolete, economically harmful law, advocates of the Jones Act, a protectionist United States shipping law, find themselves twisting into some strange contortions to bolster their position.
The Jones Act specifies that ships carrying cargo between two U.S. ports must be built in the U.S. and be 75% owned by American citizens. In addition, at least 75% of a ship’s crew must be U.S. citizens, and the ship has to fly the American flag.
Advocates of the Jones Act cannot claim that the protectionist legislation is good for the economy — not when multiple studies have found that it costs the American people millions every year, especially in places like Hawaii and Puerto Rico. They cannot say that it helps American farmers or miners — not when the Act makes it cheaper to import things like grain and road salt from other countries than buying it from a producer a few states away. So they are drawn to their last resort — the Jones Act is necessary for our national security. Except that it has failed in that regard as well.
If the Jones Act defenders truly cared about national security, they would be the first ones to call for reform. Instead they use patriotism to hide the truth about how the Act has been unable to stop the hemorrhaging of the U.S. Merchant Marine. If anything, the refusal to consider any modification to the Jones Act is what is truly harming the security of the United States.
To begin with, advocates of the Jones Act often use the “national security” claim, but they leave their explanation extremely vague. The casual reader would naturally conclude that the Jones Act is somehow necessary for port security or that there is something inherently unsafe about foreign-built vessels or foreign crews docking in our country.
A quick examination demonstrates how absurd that is. Foreign ships and crews dock in the U.S. all the time, and the Jones Act has nothing to do with the security of our ports. The implication that foreign-built vessels themselves are inherently unsafe is ludicrous, as the average age of most international cargo ships is 13 years while the average age of a U.S. Jones Act ship is a comparatively elderly 33 years.
Brian Riley, a military expert at the Heritage Foundation, notes, “Proponents of the Act seem to make it sound like without it, Chinese and Iranian-crewed barges would be going up and down the Mississippi river, which is not going to happen.”
In fact, the security rationale for the Jones Act flows from the philosophy of Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose 1890 work on naval warfare, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, was hugely influential to American naval strategy. Mahan posited that a powerful navy requires a healthy merchant shipping industry at its root. According to this reasoning, America’s national security requires a strong Merchant Marine to help project power, move supplies, provide the backbone of maritime strength, and keep shipyards operating.
For this reason, the Jones Act is intended to protect the American shipbuilding industry and the U.S. Merchant Marine through protectionist laws that limit the transport of goods between American ports. Except that the effect of the law has fallen short of its intention.
Over the past several decades, the U.S. Jones Act fleet has been steadily shrinking, even as aging ships have some questioning the safety of the vessels themselves (an issue that was repeatedly raised in the aftermath of the El Faro disaster). In 1946, there were more than 2,300 American cargo ships carrying nearly half of all imports and exports involving the U.S. By 2015, the U.S. ocean-going fleet was down to less than 200.
Because maritime jobs have shrunk alongside the shipping industry itself and so many shipyards have gone out of business, the U.S. Navy has had to turn to foreign built ships to fill its needs. According to a report from the Heritage Foundation, 65% of America’s Ready Reserve Fleet is made up of foreign built ships, and in March 2014, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said that the US Navy needs 161 more ships in order to remain effective.
The truth is that defenders of the Jones Act are employing a national security straw man in a desperate bid to prevent any reform. The Jones Act is not keeping us safer, and pretending so ignores the true implications of the decay of the American maritime industry.
If the Jones Act lobbyists were truly concerned about defending national security, they would be concerned about the harmful effects of the Jones Act on our Navy, instead of clinging to an outmoded and failed piece of legislation. National security advocates should instead look at ways to ways to reform or update the Jones Act for the 21st century to help create a stronger merchant marine, and a stronger economy.