The Intercept fails at examining Biden claims in SOTU

March 3, 2022

By Tim Worstall

The Intercept tells us that in the State of the Union address, President Joe Biden hit at the shipping monopolies that are raising prices for American consumers.

Sadly, the Intercept then goes on to fail in that journalistic task of examining that claim. The monopoly that Biden was complaining about was in fact an American union. Not something the president said, but one of those things journalists are supposed to do. You know, examine political statements, not just repeat them?

It is true that there are these costs, these rises in costs in shipping.

“In a statement released February 28, the White House especially criticized foreign carriers for charging importers and exporters higher fees when their containers remain stuck at ports due to congestion,” the piece said.

It’s true, the White House did say that:

“Oftentimes cargo owners are charged fees—known as ‘detention and demurrage’ fees—even when they can’t get access to their containers to move them. The FMC estimates that from July to September of 2021, eight of the largest carriers charged customers fees totaling $2.2 billion—a 50% increase on the previous three-month period.”

This is where that difficult part of the job, journalism, comes in. Because demurrage fees (detention is when the goods are still in the container, demurrage for an empty one) stem not from the actions of the shippers, but from the port. American ports tend to be owned by the local cities they are in. Further, all the West Coast ports (where this is a significant issue) have one single longshoremens’ union which controls staffing and thereby operations.

Those West Coast ports are alarmingly inefficient by rich world and global standards. Precisely and exactly because of that monopoly by that one single union and the insistence on delaying the introduction of new technology. Indeed, it was only just last year, in the face of the massive delays being faced, that they agreed that the ports could run 24/7.

The demurrage fees are because of the inefficiency of the port, nothing to do with the shippers themselves. But of course, the president of “good union jobs” isn’t going to tell us this. Which is his right, there’s nothing that says politicians must alert us to uncomfortable issues at all. But that is rather the job of journalism – that speaking truth to power thing?

The Intercept is a self-organizing trust set up with money from Pierre Omidyar’s eBay earnings. It gains some 3.5 million visits a month at present and is thought of as how journalism should be funded in the future. We’ve no objection to the funding or structure of course but think the journalism could do with a little sharpening.

When dealing with politics the main journalistic task is not to support or push political boats but to hold politicians and their stories to account.

Yes, great, let’s reduce shipping costs so as to reduce the costs to American consumers. Journalism requires pointing out that this will have to include doing something about that longshoremens’ union. We understand why a Democratic President might not want to emphasise this but that just makes the journalistic necessity that much stronger.


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