The Jones Act: It’s Worse than You Think

Ike Brannon’s recent post on the Jones Act is excellent, and those who have not done so already should give it a read. He notes some of the many economic hardships imposed by the law, which are shielded from proper scrutiny because its large costs are spread across the population and benefits concentrated among a relatively limited number of entities such as shipbuilders. 

Brannon’s concluding sentences, however, may be too kind to the political process:

[P]laces like Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Alaska would benefit most of all [from getting rid of the Jones Act], 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.

Such language implies that the elected representatives of Alaska and Hawaii are fully cognizant of the burdens imposed by the Jones Act, but are prevented from making headway toward its removal due to insufficient political sway. The truth is far worse. As I noted yesterday at USAToday.com, all four members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation—Sen. Brian Schatz, Sen. Mazie Hirono, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard—stand foursquare in support of the law. Among the three members of Alaska’s delegation, both Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young have touted their backing of the Jones Act (I have been unable to determine the position of Sen. Dan Sullivan, who has only held his current position since 2015). 

Why is this? While the definitive motivations of these politicians are known only to themselves, a reasonable guess can nonetheless be hazarded.

We can first dispense with partisan explanations, as Hawaii’s congressional delegation is comprised entirely of Democrats while Murkowski and Young are both Republicans. More relevant is the fact that according to the American Maritime Partnership, Alaska is ranked #3 among the 50 states for maritime jobs per capita. Hawaii, being the lone U.S. state comprised of an island chain which imports as much as 90% of its food, presumably has a significant maritime sector as well. Those engaged in such employment, and who profit most from the Jones Act’s concentrated benefits, are much more invested in its future than the consumers forced to bear its significant but relatively small individual costs. Commensurate pressures from constituents then win out over economic sense when politicians set their positions.

Further food for thought is to be found in the fact that the Senate’s most committed Jones Act critic, Sen. John McCain, hails from the landlocked state of Arizona. McCain’s legislation to grant Puerto Rico a permanent exemption from the Jones Act enjoys co-sponsorships from Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, also of landlocked states. As a result, these Senators are more likely attuned to the Jones Act’s net economic drag than benefits to maritime special interests. This may all be coincidence, but it fits perfectly with the public choice model of special interests

When it comes to protectionist U.S. policy, bitter experience has shown that the truth is often worse than we think. 

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