Who wants to be like, (Heyyy) who wants to be like the Jones’. (Well) Don’t want to be, Don’t want to be like the Jones’. Who wants to be like, (yeah oh yeah..) who wants to be like the Jones’. I don’t want to be like the Jones’. Who wants to be like, (Don’t want to be), who wants to be like (I don’t want to be) the Jones’. Don’t want to be, Don’t want to be like the Jones’. Who wants to be like, (Don’t want to be), who wants to be like (I don’t want to be) the Jones’. I Don’t want to be like the Jones’. Hey.
This song, written by Alton Stewart, was released on the Temptations rather forgettable album Milestone in 1991. While the Jones may be forgettable, the Jones Act (Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920) certainly is not. This 100-year-old regulation was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, and with virtually no changes, is still in effect today. We wrote before about the absurdity of the regulation, which restricts all shipping between US ports to vessels that were built in the US and manned by US crews.
But now, with the economy experiencing high inflation and shortages, in part due to the failure of the country’s infrastructure system, now might be a good time to look at modernizing this vestige of the Edwardian Era.
Currently, the demand for goods in the United States is growing rapidly due to the huge amount of federal money being dumped on consumers, businesses and governments. Many of these products are shipped from abroad, particularly from Asia. While demand is growing, the number of US flagged ocean-going vessels has fallen since the onset of COVID-19, and the number of Jones Act eligible vessels is down by about 3 percent. The worldwide fleet of deployed container and general cargo ships is also down according to the United Nations. All of this makes delays at ports inevitable. But the situation is made even worse by a freight transportation system that is stretched to its limits.
Data from the US Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the nation’s waterways shows that all cargo being shipped by water has been falling at a rate of about 0.3 million short tons per month since at least 2007. With less and less cargo moving by water, the country has had to rely more on trucks, railroads and pipelines to carry vital products like wheat, chemicals and petroleum. This has reduced capacity available to move general cargo like consumer goods, computer chips, automobiles and lumber, all of which are now in short supply.
Trucks are the mainstay of the US freight transportation network. According to the Department of Transportation, in 2018 (the last year for which data are available), 59.7 percent of all freight moved in the country was hauled by truck. Pipelines handle just 17.6 percent of cargo (mainly fuel), railroads 8.1 percent and ships only 5.5 percent, with nearly all of that hauled by barges on the Mississippi River.
The rail network in the US is hard pressed to handle more cargo. According to the Association of American Railroads, the number of carloads of cargo carried over the nation’s rail network has been falling since the middle of 2018, and even as the economy has begun to open up post-COVID, monthly volumes are still well below those of both 2018 and 2019.
Meanwhile, the recent shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline due to a computer ransom hack showed how reliance on a limited number of infrastructure connections can easily harm the economy. This pipeline carries up to 3 million barrels of fuel per day between Texas and New York, and is the major source for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel for the eastern part of the United States. Without a substantial merchant fleet able to carry petroleum between US ports, a simple hack led to huge price spikes in gasoline and other forms of fuel, and brought back gas lines not seen since the 1970s.
With the current system based on truck transportation, a range of long-term problems like deteriorated roadways and bridges, and a shortage of drivers due to Federal regulations that limit the number of people eligible for commercial drivers’ licenses, has frayed the overall transportation infrastructure.
By not allowing ships constructed in other countries (like those that actually build ships) to ply the waters of the United States, the Jones Act limits the ability to haul freight across the country. In times like these, when capacity is short, and demand high, the Jones Act increases shipping costs, leads to inflation, and exacerbates shortages. Rather than moving by ship, large amounts of oil must be transported by rail, increasing prices, and more importantly, reducing capacity for other cargo. The same is true of cargo like coal, steel, lumber, and grain, all of which demand large portions of the nation’s limited rail capacity, and often spill over into the trucking network.
Now, more than ever, the cost of the Jones Act to the American economy is clear to see. This regulation should be forgotten, just like the Temptations’ Milestone album. Simply put, who wants to be like the Jones.