Navarro Misses the Boat on the Jones Act

In a recent Philadelphia Inquirer opinion piece White House economic advisor Peter Navarro hailed the christening of a new transport ship in the nearby Philly Shipyard as evidence of the “United States commercial shipbuilding industry’s rebirth.” As is typical of Navarro’s pronouncements, the reality is almost the exact opposite. In fact, a closer examination of the ship’s construction reveals it to be symptomatic not of a rebirth, but of the industry’s long downward slide.

Named after the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, Navarro describes the 850-foot Aloha-class vessel as “massive” and notes that it is “the largest container ship ever built in the United States.” This, however, is somewhat akin to the tallest Liliputian. Although perhaps remarkble in a domestic context, by international standards the ship is a relative pipsqueak. Triple-E class ships produced by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering for Maersk Line, for example, are over 1,300 feet in length. While the Inouye’s cargo capacity is listed at 3,600 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units, roughly equivalent to a standardized shipping container), the Triple-E class can handle 18,000.

The only thing truly massive about the Inouye is its cost. The price tag for this vessel and another Aloha-class ship also under construction at the Philly Shipyard is $418 million, or $209 million each. The Triple-E vessels, purchased by Maersk Line, meanwhile, each cost $190 million. The South Korean-built ships, in other words, offer five times the cargo capacity for nearly $20 million dollars less.

But the story gets worse.

The Wall Street Journal reports that after the Philly Shipyard completes work on “two small ships”—a reference to the Inouye and its sister vessel—it has no more orders lined up. The shipyard is already laying off 20 percent of its workforce and the dearth of future work has prompted speculation of a possible shutdown. Sadly, the Philly Shipyard’s travails are hardly atypical of the U.S. shipbuilding industry, and even Navarro admits that the sector has seen its workforce decline from 180,000 in 1980 to 94,000 today.

And yet we are to believe that the Inouye’s construction heralds the pangs of an alleged rebirth? 

At least credit the White House advisor for assigning proper blame for this sad state of affairs (which he misguidedly presents as credit). The Inouye, Navarro says, is in large part the result of a protectionist law called the Jones Act. He’s not wrong. Formally known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the law mandates that ships transporting merchandise between two domestic ports be U.S.-built, U.S.-owned, U.S.-flagged, and U.S.-crewed.

The result is that instead of purchasing cheaper foreign-built ships, Americans are faced with enormous prices for relatively small ships. The cost of transportation, in turn, is higher than what it would otherwise be while the number of Jones Act-compliant vessels has gone down, along with jobs for mariners and shipbuilders. Those ships that remain, meanwhile, are far older than the foreign counterparts—no surprise given the cost deterrent to buying new ships. While the Inouye is brand new, the average Jones Act containership is 20 years old. The international average is 11.5.

Consistent with other protectionist misadventures, the Jones Act’s list of victims includes those it was meant to help.

Rather than recommitting to the Jones Act and other failed forms of maritime protectionism as Navarro is so eager to do, the United States should instead be aggressively seeking this law’s repeal. An increasingly untenable status quo demands nothing less. Learn more about Cato’s Project on Jones Act Reform.