I’ve argued it before, and I’ll argue it again; I’d shout it from the rooftops if I thought it would help: We need to do something about the damned Jones Act before we strangle Puerto Rico’s economy for good.
Just… not today.
Right now, Puerto Rico is in rough shape. It’s an island in what we’re reliably informed is a big ocean, and there’s hurricanes and stuff in the way. A couple of those passed by pretty close not all that long ago, which is why we’re in this mess in the first place. P.R. is part of the U.S.A., so we need to send help. With me so far?
The Jones Act restricts commerce between American ports in order to reduce smuggling, aid the shipbuilding industry of the United States (“What shipbuilding industry?” we ask), and to streamline tariff collection. The effect of that combined with our other shipping laws is that (1) you can’t land cargoes from foreign countries without going to an official port of entry, and (2) you can’t carry cargo from one U.S. port directly to another unless your vessel meets a nearly impossible set of qualifications.
So of course the first thing we should do when Puerto Rico gets hit by a hurricane and needs thousands of tons of aid is, we should waive the Jones Act. Right?
Turns out, not so much.
Right now, according to a recent CNN article (one not released until after Trump caved), there’s 9500 containers full of goods sitting in the port at San Juan. They can’t be distributed because the local infrastructure was thrashed. Hurricanes, remember? So no matter how many ships you allow in and from where, it won’t matter; all we’ll accomplish is to stack up more and more goods at the bottleneck. And the port isn’t all that big.
We need to repeal the Jones Act long-term in order to remove the artificial restrictions we’ve placed on P.R.’s economy, but in order to do it we’ll also need to install a massive modern port facility. There’s just not enough capacity in San Juan to handle inefficient cargo vessels, and the present setup is incredibly efficient for goods throughput — it has to be, because the Jones Act restrictions make it unprofitable to be anything less than perfect.
Now, there are two other tiny ports in Puerto Rico, at Ponce and Mayagüez; there’s the former Roosevelt Roads and a thousand more small craft facilities. (It is, after all, an island.) It would be a lot more efficient to send small vessels there to offload goods than to try and drive tractor trailers along the washed-out highway system.
But what there isn’t is anything remotely resembling an efficient offloading or distribution network at any of these places. This means any aid that gets through is minimal — not a bad thing, but tiny compared to the need. And the other thing there isn’t is border controls.
Speaking purely for myself now: I don’t care if the cartels use this opportunity to smuggle in a decade’s supply of cocaine. Doesn’t hurt my feelings one bit; personally, I’d like us to end the war on drugs today. But without border controls, we can’t stop other things — some of which might be far more deadly. This is a moment of opportunity, and people who’d fly planes into a skyscraper won’t take a break just because there was a hurricane. They’d view this as a divinely made hole in our already porous defenses.
The benefit here is not worth the price.
Now, we do need to end the Jones Act, certainly — or at least punch enough holes in it that Puerto Rico can engage in profitable ocean trade once again. But even if we could do it tomorrow, it wouldn’t help unless there was some port security put in place and a truly massive area set aside to take advantage of it. We’re talking billions of dollars in investment and years of work to implement it.
And let me tell you: We’d be fools not to make it happen. This is a potential gold mine; heck, there’s a reason the island is called “Puerto Rico” — the rich port. We’ve spent a century screwing around, mostly spoiling what we touch (I’ve written about it elsewhere) and we need to stop. There’s so very much potential here, and these are Americans — just like the rest of us.