by James Winner
Media outlets, intellectuals, and even academics talk about the Jones Act as an antiquated piece of legislation that prevents the U.S. from mysteriously entering an economic golden age. Yes, it’s a hundred years old, but don’t let its age mislead you. Today, it is much more important to America and Virginia than its critics admit.
The Jones Act was created after World War I when the foreign ships America relied on for trade were repurposed for the war effort, leaving the U.S. without an overseas shipping force. Congress, determined to prevent this vulnerability in future conflicts, passed the Jones Act which states that any ship traveling between U.S. ports could only be U.S. built, owned, manned, and flagged. The rule ensured that the U.S. would always have a robust marine merchant to supplement the military in a conflict or crisis, and it has done so for decades.
But for the past few years, several voices have proclaimed that the law is obsolete and harms the American economy. Many in the media and politicians alike have called for its repeal, using any and all opportunities to discredit the law. They are fixated on the idea that if America outsources all of its shipping to foreign countries, the costs of imports would go down and consumers would benefit.
Like clockwork, calls to repeal the Jones Act consistently emerge whenever a hurricane strikes American islands like Puerto Rico. In the wake of Hurricane Maria and more recently Hurricane Fiona, Puerto Rician shortages were blamed on the Jones Act. After Fiona hit in September, several articles were published erroneously blaming the Jones Act as the reason a BP ship – the GH Parks – was idling off the coast waiting to drop what reporters claimed was much needed fuel. In reality, members of the media were capitalizing on a non-issue to create Jones Act hysteria.
These Jones Act opponents relied on the public not knowing that cargo ships and tankers can be easily tracked on publicly available websites. At the time when the GH Parks was awaiting its Jones Act waiver, another tanker, the Coastal Alliance, was already unloading oil and diesel at the port in question. In addition to the U.S.-flagged Coastal Alliance, two other tankers were already on their way, the Confidence from the Virgin Islands and the UACC Manama from the Netherlands. Puerto Rico had more than enough help on the way when the Jones Act waiver requests came rolling into the Oval Office.
But even if Jones Act opponents thought they were right to blame the act in the aftermath of a hurricane, they are still missing the bigger picture.
Critics, for instance, consistently point out that the Jones Act places a financial burden on consumers who cover the costs of the extra labor required to reload and redistribute cargo to ships that are compliant with the law. And now, because of skyrocketing inflation, more officials are claiming that the death of the hundred-year-old Jones Act is the solution that will save our economy. Conveniently, they don’t address the real causes of our current financial burdens – federal government spending, inflation, and restrictions on energy development.
On the other hand, the Jones Act remains true to its origins. It still protects us today from a misplaced reliance on foreign shippers like the Chinese who single-handedly hold control of 48% of the global shipping industry.
Despite the way critics portray it, the Jones Act isn’t just another way to tax Americans. It is a national security expenditure. Like an unused nuclear stockpile or the many reserve capabilities that are stationed across the Old Dominion from Hampton Roads to northern Virginia, the Jones Act is something America saves for a rainy day. And with many experts predicting further economic recession, Russia invading Ukraine, and indicators that China is preparing to strike Taiwan, why would the United States choose now to kill the only law ensuring that the country maintains a vibrant domestic shipping industry?
All it would take is one major crisis for our allies to turn to themselves and leave us economically stranded. But if the strategic logic of the Jones Act is alone enough to prove its benefits, its real value has already been proven.
Just last year, a man was arrested after attempting to set off explosives on barges in the Ohio river. The attack was only foiled by American mariners who spotted the devices and coordinated with law enforcement to find the culprit and disable the explosives.
Imagine a world where the Jones Act was gone and an attack like this was attempted by operatives of China or Russia, now permitted to canvass and traverse major domestic waterways with little to no American crews getting in their way. Americans would be outraged and the consequences could lead to a serious conflict between these countries. The United States avoids this type of trouble using the Jones Act for the same reason it prevents China and Russia from offering domestic airline services.
In the end, the Jones Act has been a thorn in the side of groups hostile to our nation’s interests. And like every check the government cashes for the military, the Jones Act is also an investment in national security. Repealing it would be unwise.
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James Winner is a Virginia-based writer and contributor to the Charlottesville based Jefferson Independent