One of the nation’s geographic advantages — tens of thousands of miles of coastline and inland waterways — has been minimized by making it off-limits to foreign competition in transportation. Because of the Jones Act’s costly mandates, less cargo is shipped by water, merchant mariners have fewer jobs and more cargo is carried by truck, rail and air, which are more environmentally damaging than water transportation. Two of America’s most congested highways, I-95 and I-5, are along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, respectively. Yet the amount of cargo shipped by water along the coasts and on the Great Lakes is about half the volume of 1960. Since then, railroad freight volume has increased about 50 percent, and volume by intercity trucks — responsible for 75 percent of federal highway maintenance costs — has increased more than 200 percent.
A Hawaiian rancher flies cattle to West Coast feedlots and slaughterhouses to avoid Jones Act shipping costs. Although the United States is the world’s second largest producer of rock salt, Maryland and Virginia buy theirs for winter use from Chile because of Jones Act shipping costs.
The act’s likely annual costs to the economy (tens of billions) are too widely distributed to be much noticed; its benefits enrich a relative few, who use their ill-gotten profits to finance the defense of the government’s favoritism.
Spurious “national security” concerns tend to descend into slapstick (“The Audis are coming!”) as with this hypothetical horrible imagined by a U.S shipping executive defending the Jones Act: “I wouldn’t want North Korea moving barges and tugboats up and down the Mississippi River. If you don’t have this law, that could occur.” Huck’s raft crowded off the river by Kim Jong Un’s vessels? Make your blood boil? Or your ribs ache from laughter?