Yet vital aid to the island is being slowed by the Jones Act, a 100-year-old example of protectionism and corporate welfare. The Jones Act requires that all cargo shipped to Puerto Rico is carried on ships built entirely in the United States, owned by a U.S. citizen, flying a U.S. flag, and staffed by a majority-American crew. Relatively few ships meet those requirements. And at a time when even a brief delay in getting assistance to suffering islanders could cost lives, the Jones Act is an unneeded impediment to that aid.
Yet despite the unfolding humanitarian crisis, the Trump administration has so far refused to waive the law’s restrictions.
Of course, even before the hurricane the Jones Act was an economic albatross around the island’s neck. Economists estimate that the law has driven up consumer prices for islanders by 15–20 percent, and reduces economic growth there by more than $500 million annually. One study showed that the Jones Act cost the island as much as $17 billion in economic growth between 1990 and 2010. (Hawaii and Alaska also take big hits from this law. Some estimates suggest that the Jones Act costs Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico a combined total of nearly $10 billion annually in lost growth.)