More ships arrive at Long Beach, the contiguous port behind the same breakwater that shares part of the man-made Terminal Island and competes ferociously for business from American and foreign shipping lines.
On the Los Angeles side, the China Pride is being loaded with coal at the Kaiser bulk facility. The cargo is eventually bound for power plants and factories in Japan. The Happy Buccaneer is loading a synchrolift--a huge piece of equipment for ship repair, which it will deliver to a shipyard in Singapore.
American shipyards, long in decline, aren't buying that kind of machine these days. Todd Shipyard, once a hub of activity in this port, is closed now and its berths are used for unloading containers of imports.
From the bridge of the Kennedy, it looks as though a ship is going up in dry dock at Southwest Marine on the south side of the main channel.
But Pearce, the pilot, explains that this is actually an aircraft carrier being salvaged for scrap, its massive flat-top already sheared off, processed and exported. Workers are dismantling the ship deck by deck, and buoyancy has lifted its long narrow hull so that it no longer bears any resemblance to the Bon Homme Richard, the mighty warship it once was.
Nearby, the Hau Guang has come from China and is loading scrap metal for Singapore. The Stork is at anchorage in the outer harbor, waiting for the Hau Guang to finish loading so it can come in to pick up a load of scrap to take home to China.
The port is the core of a giant trade machine. The Los Angeles customs district--including the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the cargo terminals at LAX and the other airports in the region--accounted for nearly $122 billion in two-way trade last year. That was second only to the New York district's $127 billion and more than 12% of the U.S. total.
But behind the dollar signs, the goods coming into and leaving the Port of Los Angeles make a telling statement about the changing structure of the U.S. economy, the shifting comparative advantage among the economies of the Pacific Rim and the lopsided trends in America's international commerce.
If a day in the life of this port is a reasonably accurate snapshot, one sees a picture of America exporting raw materials, natural resources and grain and importing finished goods from the newly industrialized nations of East Asia.
Cynics call this reverse colonialism. Economists call it free trade.
Consider the 332,262 foreign motor vehicles that landed on the piers of Los Angeles' port in fiscal 1992, the latest year for which such figures are available. Only 51,125 American-made vehicles were loaded on ships for the return voyage. Ships left port and sailed west with 886,000 tons of scrap that year.
Industries rise and fall--it's part of the time-honored American tradition of \o7 laissez\f7 -\o7 faire \f7 economics.
But Capt. Rath, master of the President Kennedy, worries that his job too may soon be on the blocks. He fears that the U.S. shipping industry cannot compete with foreign flag carriers, which have considerably lower labor costs, if the Clinton Administration follows through on its apparent decision to rescind the federal subsidies for the domestic merchant marine carriers in 1997.
"From where I'm sitting, we're at the crossroads," Rath says. "This port here could become a place where a lot of Americans will be losing their jobs. American shipbuilding is already pretty much gone. And now American shipping is on the edge."