No Country for Old Men

Published Jan 4, 2013 2:49 PM by Tony Munoz

A recent S&P credit-rating report on the end-of-life of the U.S. merchant marine fleet over the next few years read more like an obituary than a financial analysis: “Weak credit quality, challenging capital market conditions and reduced access to government-guaranteed loans could spell doom for many U.S. shipowners,” said S&P analyst Funmi Afonja. This particular report was particularly poignant because, while it is common knowledge that Capitol Hill is completely apathetic about the existence of the U.S. maritime sector, facing the sobering reality of mortality has never been easy.

Most U.S. industries have failed against foreign competitors because of lower wages overseas and the cost of health and retirement benefits at home. Yet Washington has always stepped in to level the playing field with low-interest loans or direct subsidies – with the exception of the U.S. maritime industry, which has not been assisted in any manner since the Reagan era. Today, even basic protections like Cargo Preference laws have been attacked by exporters, including the agricultural industry, which get billions of dollars each year in subsidies.

As the superpowers China and Russia continue to grow economically and militarily, the threats from aboard have left the U.S. in harm’s way because it cannot support its military operations and supply lines with its own ships. Moreover, advocates of foreign owners with reflagged ships supporting U.S. military and humanitarian operations are encouraged to think these operations will go on forever.

The disappearance of the U.S. merchant fleet on the high seas will severely impact U.S. influence abroad and national security. More importantly, Jones Act operators with coastwise and inland vessel operations are also in jeopardy because, once the U.S. deepwater fleet is removed from protection, it won’t be long before all U.S. operators come under attack as too costly and undeserving of government support.

Shipyards and commercial fleets are the foundations of strong economies and to allow U.S. assets to be compromised to protect a handful of exporters and consumers is ludicrous. It is time to restore America’s industrial base and put Americans back to work. The U.S. Merchant Marine kept the supplies lines open in every conflict the nation has been involved with. To witness the demise of the U.S. maritime sector, along with strong middle-class values, products made in America and a nation gainfully employed, is no country for old men.

The Maritime Executive is hosting “Revitalizing the Maritime Industry: A Maritime Forum” at the Maritime Institute in Baltimore on May 7 and 8. Please join us in demanding that our shipyards and fleets get the support that is needed to maintain our national security and put Americans back to work. You can sign up for the conference HERE.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.