The Dubious Defense of the Jones Act

September 28, 2017

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act, is impossible to defend with a straight face. The Act requires that all people and goods travelling from one U.S. port to another be carried on U.S. owned, flagged and crewed ships. The rationale usually offered these days in support of the Act is that it protects American jobs, and that our military needs to have a fleet of ships it can borrow in case of some sort of emergency. Neither can be taken seriously.

For starters, the Jones Act probably costs us jobs. The high shipping costs engendered by the Jones Act encourage businesses to ship more things via rail or truck. Where that’s not possible (as with Puerto Rico), it incentivizes businesses to import goods, rather than buy from a domestic customer and pay the prohibitively expensive toll the Jones Act imposes. In either case, fewer jobs result.

The Act makes it cheaper for U.S. livestock farmers to buy grain from overseas than from American sources, and forces states such as Maryland and Virginia to import their road salt rather than buy it from Ohio. The East Coast of the U.S. cannot afford to get lumber from the Pacific Northwest. And shipping oil from Texas to New England costs about three times as much as shipping it to Europe.

The Jones Act survives because it’s hard for people to see what it costs them. As long as constituents aren’t complaining, politicians are happy with the status quo - especially since ship builders will write big checks to anyone willing to protect the Act. 

The recent relaxation of the Jones Act for Puerto Rico has the potential (albeit slight) to change this calculus, but since it is scheduled to only last for ten days, the residents of this island won’t see how much they could potentially save from not having this burden. 

And those savings would be immense: In a study I recently did with Russ Kashian, we estimated that U.S. consumers would save billions of dollars if we got rid of the Jones Act. And places like Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska would benefit most of all, since they are overly dependent upon shipping prices.

However, as those are only two low population states and a territory with no voting representation, their inconveniences won’t resonate much with Congress.

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