Greece, Puerto Rico and the Jones Act

If you have read my previous blogs on the Jones Act, you know that my opinion (not necessarily WorkBoat’s) is contrary to most of you in the workboat industry. I want the act repealed or modernized.

The nation didn’t pay much attention when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently called for the repeal of the cabotage provisions of the Jones Act, and neither did his fellow senators.

They haven’t been listening for years as senators from Alaska and Hawaii have cried for relief from act’s prohibition on foreign-flagged, foreign-built, or foreign-crewed bottoms carrying cargo or passengers between U.S. ports, even those unconnected by land.

Arguments for and against the Jones Act’s cabotage provisions have been hashed and rehashed, ad nauseum, so the only worthwhile discussion now is political. Sen. McCain, being from a landlocked state and therefore having no dog in the hunt, spoke from a sense of fairness and reason, not from political motives. And he’s right: these provisions were enacted during the protectionist, trade-unionist 1920s and 1930s, when social engineering took precedence over rationality. It is serendipitous for the Jones Act’s survival that Congress, like the nation, has been drifting left.

So when the Hawaii Shippers Council urged Congress not to repeal the law, but instead make a nonsensical exception to it, no one listened. When others have tried the same approach, they’ve met the same result. But now Puerto Rico, going down for the last time in a sea of debt, is blaming the Jones Act for its misfortunes, and in a nice bit of irony, Democratic operatives have taken up its cause. (One of them, on MSNBC, referred to it as “the 1817 Jones Act.”)

The truth is that Puerto Rico, like Greece, has been battening off the labor of others for decades, and like the Greeks, Puerto Ricans don’t want to suffer the consequences. Having worked in several Puerto Rican ports over the years, it’s no surprise to me that the territory is in trouble. Puerto Rico is more like Venezuela than the U.S. Inefficiency, corruption, work stoppages, and disregard for the standards of international shipping are the norm in Puerto Rican ports, not the exception.

This isn’t to say that Puerto Rico isn’t being treated unfairly by the Jones Act, but no more so than, say, Houston or Seattle. Every U.S. port could benefit from its repeal, even if not to the same extent as Anchorage, Alaska, Honolulu or San Juan. Thus, pleas to carve out exceptions, lacking any reasonable basis, are counter-productive.

The only real answer is a coordinated, unified, and well-reasoned effort to persuade Congress to repeal or modernize this relic from a bygone century.

About the author

Capt. Max Hardberger

Max Hardberger is a maritime attorney, flight instructor, writer, and maritime repo man. He has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1995. His memoir, Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters, was published by Broadway Books in 2010. He’s appeared on FOX, The Learning Channel, National Public Radio and the BBC, and has been the subject of articles in Fairplay Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Esquire (UK), and the London Sunday Guardian.

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