Defending Jones Act is path to disaster
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Arguing with Jones Act supporters is like talking to someone who believes in alien abductions.

You present facts. You offer alternatives. You build a case based on research which demonstrates the Jones Act isn’t achieving its goals. Then they produce their study and say the Jones Act keeps things from being worse.

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This is the equivalent of brandishing a story from the Weekly World News and declaring, “You can’t prove aliens don’t exist.” And it’s just as fallacious.

Recently, Jones Act defenders have tried to spin the decline of American shipping into an argument for the protectionist laws that brought us to this point. The Jones Act (shorthand for the cabotage provisions of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920) requires that goods carried between American ports do so on ships that are built in the U.S., crewed by Americans and American-owned.

However, the rationale for the Jones Act is undermined by reality. Supporters tell us that the Act is necessary for national security reasons. They cite the decline in U.S. flagged-vessels over the last 50 years — not to mention the decline in mariners available for military sealift — then tell us that’s why we need the Jones Act.

It’s a classic racket. We’re like a shop owner who has been paying for protection so nothing happens to our store. But once a month, someone breaks in and empties a shelf. When we tell Big Tony that we don’t see the point in paying for protection anymore, he sends over a bunch of guys to stand menacingly by the register and explain that things, “could get worse,” if we stop paying. So, we keep doing it. But our inventory is still slowly disappearing, and we’re left to wonder: “How much worse could it get?”

The Jones Act is supposed to be an essential part of our national defense. Yet, under the Jones Act, the number of Jones Act ships has dropped from 249 in the 1980s to about 96 today. In other words, the Jones Act has failed at its single most important purpose. But instead of admitting that fact and asking, “What is a more effective way to achieve this national security goal?” we’re told we must cling like lampreys to a law based on military and economic conditions from the Jazz Age, lest things be worse.

The U.S. Jones Act fleet is shrinking like a naked man in a freezer full of porcupines, but we’re supposed to accept that not fixing the Act is the answer. Saying, “I’m sure it will just get better on it’s own,” has never been a good strategy. Not when it comes to the water mark on the ceiling beneath the bathroom. Not when it comes to the strange mole on your shoulder. And definitely not when it comes to questions of military readiness.

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Then there’s the matter of cost. More than one study has put the annual cost of the Jones Act in the billions of dollars. A 2010 study from the University of Puerto Rico put its cost to that island alone at $537 million per year. And yet, Jones Act supporters point to a study from the American Maritime Partnership to claim that the Jones Act doesn’t affect consumer prices in Puerto Rico.

For starters, the American Maritime Partnership is a pro-Jones Act organization that supports the American maritime industry. Citing them is like citing a study from the American Pizza Makers Guild on the health benefits of extra cheese and pepperoni. What’s more, their study is focused on comparing Walmart prices between San Juan and Jacksonville, Fla., for a few, oddly specific goods. While this speaks volumes about Walmart, it doesn’t trump the findings of the Instituto de Estadísticas de Puerto Rico: San Juan is one of the most expensive metro areas to buy groceries in the U.S., with food items generally costing 18.4 percent more than in Jacksonville.

The Jones Act is expensive and ineffective. Trying to prop it up with questionable studies and faulty logic is a path to disaster. Instead of stubbornly insisting that the Act is working, let’s look at bringing it into the 21st century with reforms that help shippers, lower its cost, and get it (and the U.S.) working again.

Malia Hill is Policy Director of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.