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Economist Josh Hendrickson asserts that the Jones Act is properly understood as a Coasean bargain. In this view, the law serves as a subsidy to the U.S. maritime industry through its restriction of waterborne domestic commerce to vessels that are constructed in U.S. shipyards, U.S.-flagged, and U.S.-crewed. Such protectionism, it is argued, provides the government with ready access to these assets, rather than taking precious time to build them up during times of conflict.

We are skeptical of this characterization.

Although there is an implicit bargain behind the Jones Act, its relationship to the work of Ronald Coase is unclear. Coase is best known for his theorem on the use of bargains and exchanges to reduce negative externalities. But the negative externality is that the Jones Act attempts to address is not apparent. While it may be more efficient or effective than the government building up its own shipbuilding, vessels, and crew in times of war, that’s rather different than addressing an externality. The Jones Act may reflect an implied exchange between the domestic maritime industry and government, but there does not appear to be anything particularly Coasean about it.

Rather, close scrutiny reveals this arrangement between government and industry to be a textbook example of policy failure and rent-seeking run amok. The Jones Act is not a bargain, but a rip-off, with costs and benefits completely out of balance.

The Jones Act and National Defense

For all of the talk of the Jones Act’s critical role in national security, its contributions underwhelm. Ships offer a case in point. In times of conflict, the U.S. military’s primary sources of transport are not Jones Act vessels but government-owned ships in the Military Sealift Command and Ready Reserve Force fleets. These are further supplemented by the 60 non-Jones Act U.S.-flag commercial ships enrolled in the Maritime Security Program, a subsidy arrangement by which ships are provided $5 million per year in exchange for the government’s right to use them in time of need.

In contrast, Jones Act ships are used only sparingly. That’s understandable, as removing these vessels from domestic trade would leave a void in the country’s transportation needs not easily filled.

The law’s contributions to domestic shipbuilding are similarly meager. if not outright counterproductive. A mere two to three large, oceangoing commercial ships are delivered by U.S. shipyards per year. That’s not per shipyard, but all U.S. shipyards combined.

Given the vastly uncompetitive state of domestic shipbuilding—a predictable consequence of handing the industry a captive domestic market via the Jones Act’s U.S.-built requirement—there is a little appetite for what these shipyards produce. As Hendrickson himself points out, the domestic build provision serves to “discourage shipbuilders from innovating and otherwise pursuing cost-saving production methods since American shipbuilders do not face international competition.” We could not agree more.

What keeps U.S. shipyards active and available to meet the military’s needs is not work for the Jones Act commercial fleet but rather government orders. A 2015 Maritime Administration report found that such business accounts for 70 percent of revenue for the shipbuilding and repair industry. A 2019 American Enterprise Institute study concluded that, among U.S. shipbuilders that construct both commercial and military ships, Jones Act vessels accounted for less than 5 percent of all shipbuilding orders.

If the Jones Act makes any contributions of note at all, it is mariners. Of those needed to crew surge sealift ships during times of war, the Jones Act fleet is estimated to account for 29 percent. But here the Jones Act also acts as a double-edged sword. By increasing the cost of ships to four to five times the world price, the law’s U.S.-built requirement results in a smaller fleet with fewer mariners employed than would otherwise be the case. That’s particularly noteworthy given government calculations that there is a deficit of roughly 1,800 mariners to crew its fleet in the event of a sustained sealift operation.

Beyond its ruinous impact on the competitiveness of domestic shipbuilding, the Jones Act has had other deleterious consequences for national security. The increased cost of waterborne transport, or its outright impossibility in the case of liquefied natural gas and propane, results in reduced self-reliance for critical energy supplies. This is a sufficiently significant issue that members of the National Security Council unsuccessfully sought a long-term Jones Act waiver in 2019. The law also means fewer redundancies and less flexibility in the country’s transportation system when responding to crises, both natural and manmade. Waivers of the Jones Act can be issued, but this highly politicized process eats up precious days when time is of the essence. All of these factors merit consideration in the overall national security calculus.

To review, the Jones Act’s opaque and implicit subsidy—doled out via protectionism—results in anemic and uncompetitive shipbuilding, few ships available in time of war, and fewer mariners than would otherwise be the case without its U.S.-built requirement. And it has other consequences for national security that are not only underwhelming but plainly negative. Little wonder that Hendrickson concedes it is unclear whether U.S. maritime policy—of which the Jones Act plays a foundational role—achieves its national security goals.

The toll exacted in exchange for the Jones Act’s limited benefits, meanwhile, is considerable. According to a 2019 OECD study, the law’s repeal would increase domestic value added by $19-$64 billion. Incredibly, that estimate may actually understate matters. Not included in this estimate are related costs such as environmental degradation, increased congestion and highway maintenance, and retaliation from U.S. trade partners during free-trade agreement negotiations due to U.S. unwillingness to liberalize the Jones Act.

Against such critiques, Hendrickson posits that substantial cost savings are illusory due to immigration and other U.S. laws. But how big a barrier such laws would pose is unclear. It’s worth considering, for example, that cruise ships with foreign crews are able to visit multiple U.S. ports so long as a foreign port is also included on the voyage. The granting of Jones Act waivers, meanwhile, has enabled foreign ships to transport cargo between U.S. ports in the past despite U.S. immigration laws.

Would Chinese-flagged and crewed barges be able to engage in purely domestic trade on the Mississippi River absent the Jones Act? Almost certainly not. But it seems perfectly plausible that foreign ships already sailing between U.S. ports as part of international voyages—a frequent occurrence—could engage in cabotage movements without hiring U.S. crews. Take, for example, APL’s Eagle Express X route that stops in Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Dutch Harbor as well as Asian ports. Without the Jones Act, it’s reasonable to believe that ships operating on this route could transport goods from Los Angeles to Honolulu before continuing on to foreign destinations.

But if the Jones Act fails to meet U.S. national security benefits while imposing substantial costs, how to explain its continued survival? Hendrickson avers that the law’s longevity reflects its utility. We believe, however, that the answer lies in the application of public choice theory. Simply put, the law’s costs are both opaque and dispersed across the vast expanse of the U.S. economy while its benefits are highly concentrated. The law’s de facto subsidy is also vastly oversupplied, given that the vast majority of vessels under its protection are smaller craft such as tugboats and barges with trivial value to the country’s sealift capability. This has spawned a lobby aggressively dedicated to the Jones Act’s preservation. Washington, D.C. is home to numerous industry groups and labor organizations that regard the law’s maintenance as critical, but not a single one that views its repeal as a top priority.

It’s instructive in this regard that all four senators from Alaska and Hawaii are strong Jones Act supporters despite their states being disproportionately burdened by the law. This seeming oddity is explained by these states also being disproportionately home to maritime interest groups that support the law. In contrast, Jones Act critics Sen. Mike Lee and the late Sen. John McCain both hailed from land-locked states home to few maritime interest groups.

Disagreements, but also Common Ground

For all of our differences with Hendrickson, however, there is substantial common ground. We are in shared agreement that the Jones Act is suboptimal policy, that its ability to achieve its goals is unclear, and that its U.S.-built requirement is particularly ripe for removal. Where our differences lie is mostly in the scale of gains to be realized from the law’s reform or repeal. As such, there is no reason to maintain the failed status quo. The Jones Act should be repealed and replaced with targeted, transparent, and explicit subsidies to meet the country’s sealift needs. Both the country’s economy and national security would be rewarded—richly so, in our opinion—from such policy change.

Chances are, if you have heard of the Jones Act, you probably think it needs to be repealed. That is, at least, the consensus in the economics profession. However, this consensus seems to be driven by an application of the sort of rules of thumb that one picks up from economics courses, rather than an application of economic theory.

For those who are unaware, the Jones Act requires that any shipping between two U.S. ports is carried by a U.S.-built ship with a crew of U.S. citizens that is U.S.-owned and flies the U.S. flag. When those who have memorized some of the rules of thumb in the field of economics hear that description, they immediately think “this is protectionism and protectionism is bad.” It therefore seems obvious that the Jones Act must be bad. After all, based on this description, it seems like it is designed to protect U.S. shipbuilders, U.S. crews, and U.S.-flagged ships from foreign competition.

Critics seize on this narrative. They point to the higher cost of Jones Act ships in comparison to those ships that fly foreign flags and argue that the current law has costs that are astronomical. Based on that type of criticism, the Jones Act seems so obviously costly that one might wonder how it is possible to defend the law in any way.

I reject this criticism. I do not reject this over some minor quibble with the numbers. In true Hendricksonian fashion, I reject this criticism because it gets the underlying economic theory wrong.

Let’s start by thinking about some critical issues in Coasean terms. During peacetime, the U.S. Navy does not need maintain the sort of capacity that it would have during a time of war. It would not be cost-effective to do so. However, the Navy would like to expand its capacity rapidly in the event of a war or other national emergency. To do so, the country needs shipbuilding capacity. Building ships and training crews to operate those ships, however, takes time. This might be time that the Navy does not have. At the very least, this could leave the United States at a significant disadvantage.

Of course, there are ships and crews available in the form of the U.S. Merchant Marine. Thus, there are gains from trade to be had. The government could pay the Merchant Marine to provide sealift during times of war and other national emergencies. However, this compensation scheme is complicated. For example, if the government waits until a war or a national emergency, this could create a holdup problem. Knowing that the government needs the Merchant Marine immediately, the holdup problem could result in the government paying well-above-market prices to obtain these services. On the other hand, the government could simply requisition the ships and draft the crews into service whenever there is a war or national emergency. Knowing that this is a possibility, the Merchant Marine would tend to underinvest in both physical and human capital.

Given these problems, the solution is to agree to terms ahead of time. The Merchant Marine agrees to provide their services to the government during times of war and other national emergencies in exchange for compensation. The way to structure that compensation in order to avoid holdup problems and underinvestment is to provide this compensation in the form of peacetime subsidies.

Thus, the government provides peacetime subsidies in exchange for the services of the Merchant Marine during wartime. This is a straightforward Coasean bargain.

Now, let’s think about the Jones Act. The Jones Act ships are implicitly subsidized because ships that do not meet the law’s criteria are not allowed to engage in port-to-port shipping in the United States. The requirement that these ships need to be U.S.-owned and fly the U.S. flag gives the government the legal authority to call these ships into service. The requirement that the ships are built in the United States is designed to ensure that the ships meet the needs of the U.S. military and to subsidize shipbuilding in the United States. The requirement to use U.S. crews is designed to provide an incentive for the accumulation of the necessary human capital. Since the law restricts ships with these characteristics for port-to-port shipping within the United States, it provides the firms rents to compensate them for their service during wartime and national emergencies.

Critics, of course, are likely to argue that I have a “just so” theory of the Jones Act. In other words, they might argue that I have simply structured an economic narrative around a set of existing facts. Those critics would be wrong for the following reasons.

First, the Jones Act is not some standalone law when it comes to maritime policy. There is a long history in the United States of trying to determine the optimal way to subsidize the maritime industry. Second, if this type of policy is just a protectionist giveaway, then it should be confined to the maritime industry. However, this isn’t true. The United States has a long history of subsidizing transportation that is crucial for use in the military. This includes subsidies for horse-breeding and the airline industry. Finally, critics would have to explain why wasteful maritime policies have been quickly overturned, while the Jones Act continues to survive.

The critics also dramatically overstate the costs of the Jones Act. This is partly because they do not understand the particularities of the law. For example, to estimate the costs, critics often compare the cost of the Jones Act ships to ships that fly a foreign flag and use foreign crews. The argument here is that the repeal of the Jones Act would result in these foreign-flagged ships with foreign crews taking over U.S. port-to-port shipping.

There are two problems with this argument. One, cabotage restrictions do not originate with the Jones Act. Rather, the law clarifies and closes loopholes in previous laws. Second, the use of foreign crews would be a violation of U.S. immigration law. Furthermore, this type of shipping would still be subject to other U.S. laws to which these foreign-flagged ships are not subject today. Given that the overwhelming majority of the cost differential is explained by differences in labor costs, it therefore seems hard to understand from where, exactly, the cost savings of repeal would actually come.

None of this is to say that the Jones Act is the first-best policy or that the law is sufficient to accomplish the military’s goals. In fact, the one thing that critics and advocates of the law seem to agree on is that the law is not sufficient to accomplish the intended goals. My own work implies a need for direct subsidies (or lower tax rates) on the capital used by the maritime industry. However, the critics need to be honest and admit that, even if the law were repealed, the cost savings are nowhere near what they claim. In addition, this wouldn’t be the end of maritime subsidies (in fact, other subsidies already exist). Instead, the Jones Act would likely be replaced by some other form of subsidy to the maritime industry.

Many defense-based arguments of subsidies are dubious. However, in the case of maritime policy, the Coasean bargain is clear.