During the war patriotic orators hailed with enthusiasm the construction of a huge merchant marine, with which, after the war, the nation was to secure the commercial supremacy of the seas. But the American fleet has failed to capture the trade routes from England and other European nations; while foreign tramp steamers are picking up cargoes here and there, sufficient to pay operating expenses, an undue number of United States ships are tied up at the wharves, a dead loss to their owners.
This condition results from two main causes: our ship owners insist on a large profit, and our operating costs are greater. For the first there seems to be no remedy until more of our owners are willing to take the four, or five, or six percent profit with which Europeans are content, instead of usually insisting upon the ten or fifteen percent which the same capital would bring in certain other businesses. As regards the second evil--high operating expenses--the usual proposal is to offset them by some form of ship subsidy. But experience testifies that a subsidy has never accomplished its purpose--except in England, where it was employed solely to encourage the building of large, fast vessels, such as the Olympic, which would be of use as naval auxiliaries in time of war. Most often it results in the loss of efficiency and initiative on the part of ship owners and captains; it thus begets the need for a larger subsidy, until finally the entire operating cost is paid by the government. Such was actually the case with the French merchant fleet; the subsidy finally became so large that a sailing vessel could be sent from Europe half around the world to San Francisco, without carrying a cargo either way, and return a profit to her owners.
Since this is the case, an actual reduction of operating costs is the only practicable solution. At present the greatest single item of expense is the insurance. If some scheme were devised whereby the government could provide insurance at a low rate, as was done for the army during the war, American ships would be enabled to operate on a more nearly equal footing with those of other nations, and would be prepared to take better advantage of any revival of foreign trade which occurs when the world is once more on a sound economic basis.