One of the easiest and most doable things to lower our cost of living in Hawaii is an esoteric act passed by Congress almost 100 years ago and is called by an innocuous name that makes people’s eyes glaze over when they hear it, i.e. “The Jones Act.” This 1920 law makes the cost of shipping 4 to 5 times more expensive than it has to be because it eliminates any competition in our shipping industry between here and the mainland.
Exempting Hawaii from the Jones Act could lower our cost of living by 25%-35% by not requiring that ships delivering goods to Hawaii from the mainland to use ships built, owned, crewed, and flagged by Americans. In other words, let the thousands of ships that dump their cargo on the West Coast and then bypass Hawaii empty, carry their goods to Hawaii on their way back to Asia at a fraction of the cost we now pay for this service – and we must import over 85% of everything we consume.
Lowering the cost of living in Hawaii is really that simple. Instead the people of Hawaii are paying thousands of dollars more per family to subsidize this act. We need what the Congress gave to American Samoa, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands, who were given exemptions, but we have to ask for it first.
Opponents cite national defense and play the fear card on how this act protects us from not having to rely on foreign ships during a time of war. What they fail to mention is that taking Hawaii out of the shipping equation will not weaken America’s defense poster and the biggest threat to Hawaii’s supply chain has always been shipping strikes, not wars.
The reality is that America is pretty much out of the maritime business with over 90% of our ship building facilities having been closed and the only new ships we produce are military vessels. The bottom line is that the Jones Act still exists unmodified because of a quintessential lack of political will. Our leaders know its downsides but have gotten away with not asking for an exemption because they know few people have heard of the act and even fewer understand what it is doing to them. But times are changing and every time we pay $5 for a gallon of milk or gas, and then read our electrical bill, we know something has to be done.
As citizens awaken to how anti-Hawaii and damaging this law is, the cries of national defense will weaken and be seen as a disguise for the invisible hand that keeps taking an increasingly large portion of the food off the table of our poor and our senior citizens.
Representative Gene Ward, Ph.D., Minority Leader Emeritus, is a member of the House Finance Committee and Co-Chair of the Small Business Caucus and has worked as a small business expert with the United Nations International Labor Office.