Top 10 Reasons Why The US Merchant Marine Is Failing
by Capt. John Konrad (gCaptain) In 2018 politicians, presidents and corporate leaders spend a considerable amount of time in front of cameras and talking with journalists but this isn’t just a stroke of ego, it’s to garner political will. Conversely, the US Merchant Marine is drowning because it has no political will. The question is why?
“Merchant Mariners have written one of its most brilliant chapters of military history. They have delivered the goods in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and dangerous job ever undertaken. As time goes on, there will be greater public understanding of our merchant’s fleet record during this war World War II.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Historians agree that WW2 would have been lost without the overwhelming sacrifice of Merchant Mariners but FDR was wrong about public understanding. Few Americans today recognize the words “Merchant Marine” and this service was largely overlooked on Memorial Day.
The public’s understanding of the Merchant Marine and allied Merchant Navies, has dwindled to historically low figures while current world events (e.g. Gulf Wars, China’s restrictions on freedom of navigation, Russia’s growing icebreaker fleet and even inland wars like Afghanistan) have shown the growing importance of US sealift capability to global defense.
A national poll last week revealed that the American public considers the US Air Force the most important military branch but even the Air Force requires enormous amounts of ocean tonnage to fight and they too have ships manned by US Merchant Mariners on standby for war.
The Army and USMC are utterly reliant on Merchant Mariners. America’s war in Afghanistan, atop the Himalayas, was supplied via sealift, with cargo being delivered to ports in Karachi, Vladivostok, and Riga.
One out of five ships in the Navy are manned by merchant mariners and the nation’s most potent weapon, the aircraft carrier, would become little more than a floating target without aviation fuel supplied by ships manned by US Merchant Mariners.
What is “political will” and how do we get more of it?
Top lawmakers are concerned about the state of the US Merchant Marine, yet political will to boost American’s domestic shipping fleet is practically non-existent. But what is “political will” and how do we get more of it?
According to a study by Harvard Political will is the motive force that generates political action. In a democratic state that motive force is the general public. Voters.
gCaptain has conducted our own survey. Our sample size was small but included political, academic, military and shipping industry leaders. Here are their top 10 reasons:
10 – Media Influences Voters
“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth because they control the minds of the masses.” Malcolm X
Nearly every study of politics in the past few years lists the media as a primary influence on voters and Donald Trump himself has made it a daily crusade to eliminate #FakeNews. He does this because he fully understands the role media has influencing votes and gaining the political will to fund projects. Yet, MARAD (US Maritime Administration), the US government entity charged with advocating for the US Merchant Marine, has turned it’s back on the media.
When was the last time MARAD held a major media conference? When was the last time top Washington journalists walked its halls? When was the last time they took journalists and bloggers out to ride aboard ships? The Navy does it at great expense. Why doesn’t MARAD?
MARADs failure to keep information up to date on their webpage – press conferences, history, or just plain statistical facts – makes it difficult for journalists to write articles about shipping in the United States.
FAIL – MARAD
9) MARAD Ignores The Media
“Journalism will kill you, but it will keep you alive while you’re at it.” — Horace Greeley
“The true statesman is the one who is willing to take risks…. The media is risky.” – Charles de Gaulle
Inviting bloggers and journalists into the inner-sanctum of MARAD headquarters does come with considerable risk. The US Merchant Marine is failing and even MARAD’s crown jewel, The United States Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, has generated a large amount of negative press over the past decade. There is a lot that MARAD probably wants to hide from journalists but they are mandated to advocate for the merchant marine and any lawyer will tell you that advocacy always comes with risk.
King’s Point, the only national service academy for a specific industry, is a short train ride from the media capital of the world, New York City, and could be the go-to place for events, conferences, industry training. It could be a global hub of information and education.
FAIL – MARAD, USMMA
8) MARAD doesn’t share the good news
“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” William Randolph Hearst
Courting journalists is risky but MARAD is not even sharing the good news through safe channels.
On the slow news days that bookmark tragic events every media outlet looks for positive stories to buoy readers and they turn to press releases to find stories. Press Releases are basically prewritten/premanufactured news articles that companies and organizations send out to media outlets. Media outlets love them because they contain all the photos, quotes and contact information needed to write a story quickly. Companies love them because they can control the message.
gCaptain mostly ignores premanufactured news because it’s highly susceptible to manipulation but some of our competitors print only press releases because they are so quick and easy to publish. Big media loves them too.
Everyday shipping companies and maritime organization flood gCaptain’s email with press releases yet we have yet to receive a single one from MARAD. The USCG, US Navy, IMO and every major shipping company has dedicated staff manning virtual newsrooms to pump out Press Releases and social media. Yet the organization tasked with advocating for the Merchant Marine has only a tiny two page newsroom that looks like 90’s internet and has no social media links.
Go visit this “newsroom” and you’ll find MARAD has only published four press releases and one media event in all of 2018!
Last year MARAD published just 12 articles. The USCG published more than 12 yesterday and the US Navy has published more than 12 articles, photos, videos, podcasts or social media links in the past hour. Yes, the USCG has a higher budget than MARAD but gCaptain also publishes over a dozen news, photos and social media post daily on a fraction of MARADs budget.
And what about videos? MARAD lists a grand total of 13 videos produced in the last 15 years! Put the search term MARAD into the world’s most powerful video search engine and what do you find? A list of Bollywood movies!
FAIL – MARAD
7) Budgets are spent on lobbyists.
“Most lobbyists and consultants are competing with other lobbyists and consultants in zero-sum games that take money out of one set of pockets and put it into another.” –Robert Reich
The shipping industry is slow to change and one old school budget item the industry still spends money on are lobbyists. According to open secrets the US maritime industry spent $5,673,756 on lobbyists last year and these are just the public disclosures which are a fraction of the total amount spent. This figure does not include the money spent by executives to travel and meet with leaders in smoke-filled rooms, donate to golf tournaments and otherwise influence the rich and powerful.
According to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan watchdog group, American Bureau of Shipping Lobbying alone spent $160,000. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) spent $500,000 despite having only a handful of US Flagged Ships. Seafarers International spent a total of $619,375 in direct contributions and $620,000 in lobbying in the 2016 election cycle.
Some Americans mariners are pleased to know that so much money is spent influencing politicians and many contribute directly via their unions to these funds. These numbers gratify some US Flag supporters but they don’t tell the full story. A few factors make this spending wholly ineffective:
- A significant portion of these funds are spent fighting among ourselves. For example, while the SIU (Along with MEBA, MM&P and most other unions) is hard at work advocating for the Jones Act, CLIA is spending money to undercut it.
- While campaign contributions and lobbying efforts may help get a certain politician elected, or get an issue front and center in the minds of an influential person, they do little to garner political will which comes from the people.
- Lobbyists have a long track record of success. Maritime lobbyist of yesteryear had a major effect on important elections and their efforts were rewarded handsomely. But that was before the internet was invented, before government was forced to be more transparent, that was back when the words “Merchant Marine” were recognizable to the general public. Lobbyist can still be effective today but real success comes when it is coupled with media attention and political will…. not when it operates in opaque smoke filled rooms.
FAIL – CLIA, Shipping Lobby, ABS, Unions
6) The USCG and MARAD need to cooperate
Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further but cooperation – between men and between departments – is what we must strive for today.” Franklin D. Roosevelt
In a 2009 interview with gCaptain USCG Commandant Thad Allen was asked about his role in promoting the US Flag and US Merchant Marine. “The USCG does not promote the American Flag” said Allen. “Competitiveness and the associated economic issues fall under MARAD’s statutory of responsibility.”
That was a clearcut answer from the USCG’s top Admiral but what is not clear is if it’s a good answer to the question. The USCG represents the flag at IMO but is not allowed to advocate for it? The USCG works closely with large American organizations like ABS and travels the world inspecting ships. Vice Commandant, Admiral Charles W. Ray brought numerous officers to CMA, the largest US conference of shipping industry leaders, this year (this is a good thing!) but Marad’s Admiral Buzby canceled at the last minute (not good). Why can’t the USCG help MARAD promote the flag?
Back when MARAD was better funded and under the stronger and more influential Department Of Commerce and the USCG was part of the weaker Department of Transportation (DOT) they may not have needed the USCG’s help. But today the USCG is in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), MARAD has been demoted to the DOT and their respective levels of influence have changed 180 degrees.
Considering the mission is so vital to homeland security… why isn’t MARAD part of DHS? Would this move not help the USCG and MARAD work more closely together saving taxpayers money while strengthening the Merchant Marine?
FAIL – USCG, MARAD, DOT, DHS
5) Republicans Have Sent A Mixed Message
“Politicians are the same everywhere and on both sides of the aisle. They promise to build ships and bridges where there is no water” –Nikita Khrushchev
Considering the influence of today’s media, what the top politicians say and do carries considerable weight. While Clinton made some effort to buoy the Merchant Marine, President Obama mostly ignored maritime matters by filling the top post at MARAD with a junior congressional aid and an O6 US Navy submarine officer.
Conversely the Republicans have put strong leaders in charge at MARAD. While gCaptain recently criticized Rear Admiral Buzby for his lack of visibility in the industry, he is well qualified for the job, a strong leader, determined and has been well received by the (small percentage) of US mariners he’s met (he just needs to get out in front of mariners more often). George W. Bush’s top man Sean Connaughton was widely admired and traveled constantly to meet with and support mariners. Nixon’s top man, Andrew Gibson, was highly influential and continues to advocate for the Merchant Marine long after his death via his writing.
But Republicans have also done considerable damage. Reagan is possibly the most infamous president in this regard having shuttered seaman’s hospitals and rarely does a week pass without John McCain swinging a punch at the Jones Act but it is Newt Gingrich who did the most damage when he led Republicans in abolishing the Merchant Marine and Fisheries committee in Congress.
President Trump has continued this trend by calling for a 355-ship Navy with scant mention of the Merchant Marine and by sending a very mixed message by giving one cabinet seat to a strong and capable pro US Merchant Marine voice and another to Wilbur Ross, an American ship owner who’s Greenwich, Connecticut based Diamond S Shipping operated under the flags of Hong Kong, the Marshall Islands and Malta.
And what about carrying American shale and LNG? How many Republicans have joined the recent attack on cargo preference?
America first? How is that possible while the US Merchant Marine continues to slide towards last place?
FAIL – Democratic AND Republican Parties
4) US Merchant Mariners are ineffective at spreading the message
“Enthusiasm — real grassroots enthusiasm — trumps money, trumps endorsements, trumps everything we can do in congress.” — Eric Garcetti
It is difficult to find a US Merchant Marine officer who hasn’t written his congressman in support of the Jones Act or US shipping policy. I have written a few myself but they are mostly returned with a reply thanking me for my support of Navy sailors.
The truth is that even if every person sailing on a US Flagged ship today wrote Congress our numbers would not be significant enough to be heard.
But if that time was spent talking to school groups, engaging with local government to honor merchant marine veterans, speaking at local events and groups, badgering big media journalists to write articles on topics you learned about here at gCaptain. If we stood up to be counted at Veterans Day events and marched the flag in memorial day parades… we’d have a chance.
If you want to influence Congress you need to influence the people congressman care most about… and in 2018 that is the media and voters (i.e. neighbors and friends). Today we do a poor job at engaging either.
FAIL – American Mariners
3) We honor and promote the wrong people.
“Without continual growth and progress awards and signs of achievement mean nothing” –Benjamin Franklin
The nations Maritime Academies are our nations future but what example do they set? Authors of pulp fiction, leaders of failing shipping companies (e.g. TOTE and Overseas Shipholding Group), Generals who stood watch over a weakening Merchant Marine and long serving Academy trustees who failed to find replacements for a 50+ year old trainings ship get praised with honorary degrees and important seats on academy foundations.
Regimental commanders continue to be hired who harass students. A relatively junior ranking Army officer is promoted to Rear Admiral and put in charge of our nation’s maritime future for six years, fails on multiple fronts and is stripped of his job in a press release that makes him sound like a hero.
Those with real moral courage, like Horizon Lines whistleblower John Loftus get ignored when it’s time to bestow honors and those who advocate for change, like MARAD sexual harassment whistleblower Denise Krepp, get pushed out.
While China pumps out brand new training ships at a fever rate, MARAD and State Maritime Academy leadership have allowed the average age of American training ships to reach an alarming 35 years of age!
And the fact that Admiral Buzby (through no fault of his own having spent his entire career in the US Navy) has zero corporate shipping experience should not necessarily prevent him from becoming Maritime Administrator… but it does need to be acknowledged.
Yet the background story, the truth, is rarely honored today.
FAIL – MARAD, USMMA, Texas A&M, SUNY Maritime, Cal Maritime, Mass Maritime, Maine Maritime
2) Nobody Advertises The Merchant Marine
“Running any organization without advertising is like winking at a pretty girl through a pair of green goggles. You may know what you are doing, but no one else does.” –Cyrus McCormick
gCaptain is funded almost entirely by advertisers and we have no shortage of companies wanting to display their ads here because advertising works.
For this reason the Navy, Army and Marine Corps have HUGE advertising budgets. These ads not only convince more young and talented kids to join up but spread the importance of service and national defense to the American public.
In the past when gCaptain has asked the USCG to advertise on gCaptain their response has always been the same “Everyone knows about us already” they will say or “Those white and orange helicopters flying overhead is all the advertising we need.” If that’s the case then why do the other branches of the service advertise? Why do the fireman advertise on TV and call my house every week asking for donations despite the fact they have bright red trucks with sirens and lights? Why does the most well known brand in the world, Coca-Cola, spend over 1 billion dollars in brand building initiatives in 2016?And if product visibility were enough then why can’t I turn on the TV, open a magazine or surf the internet without seeing an Android or iPhone ad?
Nearly every american literally has one of these phones in their pocket yet billions are spent by Verizon, Google, AT&T, Apple, TMobile and Samsung. Zero is spent by MARAD or the USCG here on gCaptain or on the pages of our top competitor.
Some will say “Yes John, but consumers have a choice to pick between devices and carriers.” Yes they do but… so do shippers. So do the best and brightest students who have never heard of the Merchant Marine. So do voters.
FAIL – USCG, NAVY, MARAD
1) Those Who Need The Merchant Marine Most Also Have The Political Influence and Funds To Support It.
“Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power.”
George Bernard Shaw
No war or even large scale defense of our Homeland can take place without the merchant marine. Without enormous quantities of aviation fuel being moved around the world both huge Air Force Bombers and Carrier based strike groups cannot fly. Armies cannot move without tanks, bullets, clothing, tents and food all of which needs to move around the world on ships.
Yet the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, written by the USCG, USN, and USMC, fails to incorporate the role of commercial shipping into their definition of seapower and, in doing so, they fail to support us.
The US Merchant Marine is essential to national defense yet funding of even a few new MARAD ships or a USCG icebreaker to allow those ships to transit the Arctic is seemingly impossible. But the Pentagon could do it today. Transferring funding from one $4.24B per unit Zumwalt class destroyer and one $2.1B B2 bomber would literally give us billions of dollars worth of sealift capacity.
Not only does that not happen today but Admirals and Generals can’t even do the things that would cost them nothing… like working closely with, promoting, advocating for American shipping in Congress and inviting Merchant Mariners to memorial day events across the nation.
FAIL – US Navy, US Army, US Air Force, USMC, USCG, DHS, MARAD.
Author’s Note… A CALL TO ACTION
If you believe this topic is important please share this article with friends, classmates and colleagues.
If something in this article made you curious, angry or just peaked your interest please remember that it’s your right as an American to ask questions!
Here are links to the direct email contact information for US Merchant Marine leadership in Washington. Start at the top, work your way down and feel free to tell them that I sent you.
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