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In Maria’s Wake, It’s Time To End The Jones Act


In times of crisis, such as that facing Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, our national conversation turns to obscure laws and acts we normally ignore. With Harvey and Irma, the Jones Act was waived and people were free to keep their outrage focused on trivial matters. In the wake of Maria, however, an almost 100-year-old example of protectionist nonsense will not be waived.

To understand why this matters, we have to start with the act itself. The Jones Act, part of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, stipulated that people and goods being moved between two U.S. ports be carried on “U.S.-made ships, owned by U.S. citizens and crewed by U.S. citizens.” While the percentage of crew that must be U.S. citizens has been reduced to 75 percent, this is still a stupid regulation that becomes more obviously stupid in the face of a humanitarian crisis.

American citizens need materials, supplies, medicine, food, clothing, and all the other things that they had before a category five hurricane decimated their island. Normal protocol following a hurricane is to let agencies and organizations bring them such things unencumbered by an idiotic protectionist law that serves no purpose, unless your thing is crony capitalism. If so, you’re a bad person, but that’s an issue for another day.

Yet that’s not happening this time, so people who previously had no idea that such an act even existed are discussing it on social media. In this case, unlike basically everything else going on in the nation, there seems to be fairly broad agreement between the Left and Right that the act should be waived. This should be a layup for the Trump administration, except the president seems more concerned with discussing football than shipping regulations from the early twentieth century.

Don’t Suspend It, Kill It

The Trump administration is correct, albeit not for the reasons it gave for keeping the act in place for Puerto Rico. The Jones Act shouldn’t be waived. It should be sent to a watery grave. It’s a relic of a bygone era that should cease to exist. It should have ceased to exist sometime in the early twentieth century. Honestly, it never should have existed in the first place, but it does and now it should be destroyed. Given our elected officials’ complete inability to get anything done, though, this won’t happen anytime soon, so a waiver is the best hope for Puerto Rico.

Our fellow citizens are suffering, and while there are governmental and humanitarian efforts being directed toward Puerto Rico, we need to make sure there are absolutely no impediments to getting aid and supplies to the island. As Puerto Ricans rebuild and the country recovers, they should be free to do so with the benefit of lower prices and increased competition for the goods they will need for the foreseeable future.

It’s not just in the present that the Jones Act hurts Puerto Rico. The act is a constant source of economic trouble for the territory. As Nelson Denis writes in The New York Times:

Thanks to the law, the price of goods from the United States mainland is at least double that in neighboring islands, including the United States Virgin Islands, which are not covered by the Jones Act. Moreover, the cost of living in Puerto Rico is 13 percent higher than in 325 urban areas elsewhere in the United States, even though per capita income in Puerto Rico is about $18,000, close to half that of Mississippi, the poorest of all 50 states.

This is a shakedown, a mob protection racket, with Puerto Rico a captive market. The island is the fifth-largest market in the world for American products, and there are more Walmarts and Walgreens per square mile in Puerto Rico than anywhere else on the planet.

In other words, Puerto Rico has needed relief from the Jones Act for decade. Right now, though, it needs immediate help. The entire island is without power, critical medical supplies are in short supply, and people are running out of food. FEMA is on the case, but Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rosselló says “We need more resources.”

We’ve got those resources and, as we’ve learned with Harvey and Irma, we tend to provide them when our fellow countrymen are in need. It’s time to stop providing them to protected industries and instead get them to the people who actually need them. Then, we need to continue to stay out of the way and let Puerto Ricans enjoy the benefits of freer markets rather than using them to enrich crony capitalists.