As we approach the 102nd anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, I am reminded of the singular impact the Mississippi River and its tributaries have had on shaping American culture and undergirding American success. Moving things around by water is less than 1/10th the cost of moving them on land. The 12,000 miles of active inland and intracoastal waterway maintained by the U.S. Corps of Engineers not only have a replacement value of more than $125 billion, but ship cargo worth more than $73 billion already. Even better, most of the waters of the Mississippi and its tributaries flow through the grain belts that produce over 90 percent of the United States’ agricultural exports. This singular factor provided the United States with the economic stimulus and financial capacity to become the global superpower.
The strategic and economic centrality of the Mississippi is as vital to America’s well-being now as when Andrew Jackson defended New Orleans from the British in 1815. As with all things, however, there’s a fly in the ointment — two, in fact.
First, America’s infrastructure across the board is old, and our maritime infrastructure is no exception. Many of our locks and dams now date back to the Second World War or before. Fixing national infrastructure is an expensive affair: Just getting America’s roads back up to their nameplate capacity — to say nothing of expansion — would run $3.6 trillion. But the best thing about water transport is that it is more or less free. For just 6 percent of the road-refurbishment cost, you could rebuild from scratch every lock on every American river.
The second problem is far more political.
In 1920 the United States adopted the Jones Act, which bars any vessel that is not American-built, -owned, -captained and -crewed from transporting any cargo between any two US ports.
The cost of American water transport roughly quadrupled. Over the decades, American supply chains shifted away from relying upon water, as shippers found it more reasonable to use road and rail. Places like Puerto Rico and Guam (yes, we own Guam) became mired in poverty. Hawaii was reduced to being a tourist-fueled dependency. Increased costs for regional supply chains helped turn the steel belt into the Rust Belt. The cities of the Greater Mississippi River — sitting on the world’s greatest natural transport system — watched their greatest economic advantage turned to ash.
But the Big Muddy and its network of related corridors are still there. The fastest, easiest, cheapest, simplest way to revitalize everything from New Orleans to Tulsa to Sioux City to St. Paul to Chicago to Pittsburgh to Louisville to Nashville to the Quad Cities to St. Louis to Memphis?
Timing is important. A crushing trade war with China is already brewed and about to be served. The European financial crisis is about to enter its second act — one that will eviscerate the near-entirety of the European banking sector. Both events will be catastrophic. Both will shatter local supply chains. Both will force manufacturers the world over to relocate capacity within the only growing, rich market in the world: the United States. The only question is where within the United States?
If we can change the way we regulate our waterways — if we can ditch Jones — it is hard to see any part of the country benefiting more than the river cities that powered America’s rise to greatness in the first place.
Geopolitical Strategist Peter Zeihan is a global energy, demographic and security expert. His first book, The Accidental Superpower, was published in 2014, and forecasts the coming collapse of the global order. His newest project, The Absent Superpower, was published in December 2016. It highlights what comes next.