Another take on the Jones Act

I’m in a contrarian mood these days. I disagreed with the tone of my blogging brother Joel Milton’s recent post and now I’m going to take a run at WorkBoat’srecent interview of Clayton Cook.

Cook, currently senior counsel at Seward & Kissel, served as general counsel of the Maritime Administration from 1970 through 1973. At Marad, he helped implement the Merchant Marine Act of 1970 and the drafting of the Federal Ship Financing Act of 1972, which governs Marad’s current Title XI program. Cook, interviewed by WorkBoat Senior Editor Ken Hocke at the WorkBoat Show, discussed issues relating to the Jones Act which, in my opinion, overlooked some arguably rational reasons for at least considering an amendment or repeal of the nation’s cabotage laws.

The typical arguments favoring the Jones Act sound so good to the ear that they sort of stun you into lining up against any modification much less a repeal. The Jones Act keeps jobs, and it protects domestic shipbuilding! I can almost hear the pitchman’s whine: “My God, don’t you see what happened with all that NAFTA stuff, it’s the same thing kid.” Well, I’m not so sure.

Now I don’t have a position one way or the other, but there are lingering questions that need to be answered before squaring off against a repeal or modification of the Jones Act. Let’s start with the obvious. Panama, Singapore and Hong Kong don’t have cabotage laws and they have bigger merchant fleets than the U.S. Also, the U.S. spends a tremendous amount of money subsidizing its merchant fleet, but my understanding is that U.S. ships are still much more expensive than foreign built vessels. And you can at least question whether collective bargaining produces wages that accurately reflect the levels you might achieve in an open market. Finally, there’s quite a bit of economic commentary arguing that repealing the Jones Act would cut shipping costs and benefit the economy.

Again, stay with me, I’m about as “Buy American” as you can get and will generally forego a cheaper foreign product in favor of something built domestically. So I’ve got nothing against keeping things stateside. I guess my problem is with those unwilling to even consider whether a law enacted in the 1920s is still helping us. Even the best old engine can benefit from some new rings, electronic ignition, etc., right? What’s the harm then in opening up the hatch and taking a look?

Underway and making way.

About the author

John K. Fulweiler

John K. Fulweiler is a licensed mariner and experienced admiralty attorney. He represents individuals and companies throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and has recently taken command of his own maritime law firm. He enjoys navigating the choppy waters of the maritime law, but readily admits to missing life on the water. He can be reached at john@fulweilerlaw.com . His website is www.saltwaterlaw.com.

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