If your Uncle Louie can’t handle his money, giving him more money is probably not a good idea. A better idea would be to help Louie learn how to handle his money.
Same goes for Puerto Rico.
The prospective 51st state is headed toward skid row on an epic scale: $72 billion in debt — and an unemployment rate pushing 15 percent —the direct result of decades of big government spending programs that continue unabated.
A default appears imminent.
Clearly, the government needs help.
But more money is what Puerto Rico wants. Unlimited, no strings attached.
And President Obama is itching to oblige — probably not coincidentally because of Puerto Rico’s politics, which are predominantly Democrat-leaning. Even though Puerto Rico’s not yet a state, its citizens can vote. And while Obama may be a lame duck and not up for re-election, he is still the titular head of the Democratic Party and very much invested in the outcome of the 2016 presidential race.
One hand washes the other.
It’s not so much that Puerto Ricans will be more inclined to vote the party line (they already do so, overwhelmingly) but that Puerto Ricans who’ve moved to Florida will do so. The state’s decision is key to the presidential race and a handful of votes, literally — remember the 2000 election? — could be all the difference.
According to exit polling data, Puerto Ricans — whether actually in Puerto Rico or not — are highly motivated, with extremely high turnout rates (approaching 80 percent in some elections vs. the typical voter participation rate of less than 50 percent of those eligible to vote).
Thus, Obama has an interest in motivating them.
He has proposed a “territorial bankruptcy regime” that would enable the territory to skip out on its debts rather than honor them, paying perhaps pennies on the dollar. This would end-run current law, which forbids Puerto Rico from dealing with its debt by walking away from it.
If Obama has his way and Puerto Rico skips on its debt, not only would current stakeholders such as holders of municipal bonds be left holding the proverbial bag, it would reduce incentives for potential future potential stakeholders to even think about investing in Puerto Rico. A short-term infusion of taxpayer cash is no more a solution to this problem than covering Uncle Louie’s latest losing bet on the ponies.
Obama also wants to extend the egregious Earned Income Credit Tax to Puerto Rican residents who’ve paid no taxes at all — a bribe in all but name.
Another danger — to the country, not the territory — is that if Puerto Rico is allowed to declare bankruptcy, actual states (Illinois, for instance) will follow suit. Mismanagement would be rewarded rather than punished.
Ask any parent of a five-year-old what usually follows from that.
Senate Republicans have therefore proposed a kind of intervention. Rather than no-strings-attached handouts and open-ended bailouts, the proposal includes incentives for prudent behavior such as a 50 percent FICA tax break (worth $3 billion, so not chump change) for working Puerto Ricans and the establishment of an independent control board that could borrow funds to deal with the current crisis — but without taxpayers guaranteeing the note. The proposed authority would bypass the notoriously corrupt government of the island, which is ultimately responsible for this mess and needs to be held accountable — or at least, have its feet held to the fire.
Senate finance Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah says that Congress has been “unable to to receive audited financial statements from Puerto Rico” or “adequate information” about the state’s public employee pension funds. The latter, along with skyrocketing welfare costs and a business unfriendly environment, are responsible for much of the debt load threatening to collapse the island’s economy like a tottering Jenga castle.
Throwing money at the problem isn’t a fix. It’s a sop.
Structural reforms — not bailouts — are needed. Chief among these would be an honest assessment/accounting of the financial situation — including the financial obligations of the government to pensioners — such that credit/borrowing by the government could be based on real numbers rather than under-stated ones. A more business (and work) friendly environment is essential. Money may come off the printing presses, but it doesn’t grow on trees. It is necessary to work and produce before you spend — or eventually, you have nothing to spend.
Well, except for other people’s money. Which is what the president and congressional Democrats are angling for. And some conservatives have fallen for the trap. They have argued that it is better to let Puerto Rico walk away from their debts rather than giving them a direct bailout. Make no mistake about it; bankruptcy is a bailout.
The story is not receiving the national attention it ought to be getting, given the stakes involved. What happens to Puerto Rico will almost certainly affect what happens in Florida come November.
And that will affect who moves into the White House come next January.
It’s important to do the right thing by Puerto Rico and its people. But it’s even more important to do what’s right for the country by not allowing the president and Democrats in Congress to use the Puerto Rican crisis as a way to buy the next presidential election.
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