Ahhh! Another “Death of the U.S. Merchant Marine” post! Perennial mainstay of Gcaptain! Like walking into the digital equivalent a South Philly bar, the old duffers, beers in hand, yelling at CNN on the TV, with the sound turned off. And just as useful. If you want a vibrant, numerous, and powerful U.S. merchant marine you’re going to have to raise your hand as a taxpayer and say “I want to be taxed, Baby! Bring it on!”. And convince your fellow citizens that they want it, too. I just don’t see that happening.
Here’s the thing: the animal we all knew and loved as the U.S. Merchant Marine, this fantastic rampaging beast that won World War 2, was planned by the government and paid for, in part, by taxpayers, for a specific purpose. The Roosevelt Administration, as part of the New Deal, and with an eye towards unavoidable involvement in WW2, decided to put billions of taxpayer dollars into creating everything we call a vibrant U.S. merchant marine. Ships, shipyards, academies. The taxpayers were, at first , glad to pay for it, because the plan put them to work in the midst of the Depression, and because they understood the needed to prepare for war. Society was taxed so that a subset of taxpayers (mariners, shipyard workers, and company owners) could profit from it—and coincidentally defend the U.S. of A. Later, with the wars over, the congressional mood towards the merchant marine changed.
As we shout at the digital TV at the virtual bar, we need to be asking ourselves this: Do we as a society want to tax ourselves again to support a reinvigorated USMM? Because nothing else will do it. I’ve heard the same duffers yell the same tirades, in galleys, wheelhouses , and ECRs, at real bars and at trade meetings, in print, on TV, and online, for 32 years and rarely does anyone pose the question in concrete terms: Are we willing to put our money where our mouths are? I'm all for it, but those guys yelling in the bar are suddenly quiet. i don't see many hands going up.
At the turn of the last century the U.S. had about 3,000 vessels of 100 tons or greater. 3,000 . OK, so a lot were small, coastal schooners and the like, analogous to tugboats today. But a lot were big deep-sea ships too. And yet, when WW1 broke out, the USA still found herself woefully short of ships to supply our forces in Europe. So the government began a program of shipbuilding and training seamen: paid for by taxes. When our involvement in the WW1 was over (which was quick) we dumped it. But the system worked great.
When storm clouds began building over Europe a generation later, the Roosevelt Administration used the experience of WW1 as the template for a new program (Merchant Marine Act of 1936) with much greater scope. Not only would the U.S. build a lot more ships, the government would design many of them, and subsidize the shipyards, too. It would create an academy and training program to churn out officers and crew. It created an administration to coordinate all this (MARAD). Taxpayers would nurture this beast with differential subsidies and cargo preference rules. The New Deal birthed the animal we revere as the U.S. merchant marine, not market forces. It was conceived, built, manned, and nurtured to a specific plan for a specific job: give people jobs and win the war.
It worked magnificently. We buried our enemies in materiel. For every U.S. tank they destroyed on the battlefield two more were on the way, courtesy USMM. Then, when the war was over, and the U.S. was the last man standing over a bombed out and starving world, we used this magnificent animal to transport the food and goods to rebuild the world, goods built in U.S. factories because the European and Asian factories were largely rubble.
But Europe and Asia rebuilt in a generation. And we Americans went all around the word saying “Hey! Be like us! We’ve got it good! Be like us, and you’ll be rich like us!” People listened. Countries we used to despise became good capitalists in all but name, and began to do as we do, at about 1/6 of our labor costs. Oddly enough, our factories began to fold. The USMM began to dwindle, too, but the Korean War and the Vietnam War made sure the beast got fed. But when this period of ersatz-WW3 came to an end, taxpayers (us) were increasingly loath to feed the hungry, expensive animal called the USMM.
The root need for it—commercial transportation and mechanized war-- dwindled. Following the Vietnam War the U.S. wasn’t making and exporting as much stuff as it used to. The rest of the world was making and exporting their own stuff on their own ships, thank you very much. So our congressional representatives said, ““What use our merchant marine? We’ve got other things to pay for.” In the late 1970’s we started having things called “Taxpayers Revolts” (shorthand for “I have mine now, buddy, screw you…”) Paying taxes to subsidize industries got a bad name. A subsidized merchant marine standing by ready to support Word War 4, on the backs of the taxpayers, was a no-go. That would be too 1940. That would be too socialist (patooie! <spit!> washing my mouth out with soap now). No, we wanted a robust, powerful “freemarket “merchant marine”, which we would create by platitudes, vigorous flag waving, non-costly magical thinking and stacks of white papers. Creating a pig with wings would be more realistic (and tastier, too).
So, once again "Who's willing to tax themselves to do i?! I'm in!! Hey, where are you guys going?" Screw it. Come on Embrobu, let's grab our beers and slouch to a booth at the back of the bar, where it’s a lot quieter…