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U.S. Ships Act

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It’s not often that I agree with industry spokescritters, but I have a lot of trouble finding fault with the president of the American Maritime Partnership here about the need for a real American supply chain policy. My interest here is a bit less in the national security stuff that frames the article, though quite obviously China presently holds tremendous power over the U.S. in a conflict with Taiwan since we are completely reliant on them for both manufacturing and shipping. Rather, my concern is that the supply chain strains we saw in the pandemic means that it is time to take these issues seriously and have a real industrial policy that decenters any single nation from controlling this much of the world’s economy. One upside of such a thing is that it also helps build an American industrial employment and that is a necessary thing for an economically stable working class, which is also a politically stable working class that is less likely to go all in for racism and fascism.

The CHIPS and Science Act — passed by Congress in July to diversify America’s global sources of semiconductors and support U.S. manufacturers — showed what can be done when there is bipartisan recognition of the risks the country faces.

America needs a “U.S. Ships Act” that sets a clear national maritime strategy, channels investment into developing the country’s shipbuilding industrial base and includes financial and other supports to help American shipbuilders and shipping companies reclaim lost ground in international markets. The United States also needs to replace its fleet of mostly obsolete ships that are kept on standby to carry military supplies in an overseas conflict, as was done successfully during the Persian Gulf war and which may be necessary in a conflict over Taiwan.

All of this must be accompanied by a push to recruit, train and retain the tens of thousands of skilled American workers who will be needed for this industry revival. The United States has a strong basic infrastructure for maritime education in place, with the federal merchant marine academy, six state academies and various other programs. But shipbuilding is hard work, and working on commercial vessels can mean weeks away from home. Aggressive recruiting programs are needed starting at the high school level, with the sincere message that building and operating ships can be a safe, rewarding career choice that helps make America stronger.

The broader regulatory outlook needs to change too, starting with the current system for international shipping that allows ships registered in “flag of convenience” countries like Liberia to carry American cargo, competing directly with U.S.-flagged vessels. Those countries often have minimal safety, labor and environmental standards, allowing ships to operate with lower costs, putting more heavily regulated U.S. ships at a disadvantage.

I really don’t disagree with anything here. That includes the massive flag of convenience problem. There’s no reason that this should be allowed to exist. The Seaman’s Act of 1915 provides a strong precedent for fixing this by setting minimum standards on any ship docking in the United States, creating a sort of race to the top in the working conditions. It’s true enough that the Supreme Court invalidated much of this law in the 50s and the Court today is monstrous. But you can’t let that stop you. Congress can do a lot here and it should do so.

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