America’s Un-Greek Tragedies in Puerto Rico and Appalachia

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by Paul Krugman,

from The New York Times,

On Friday the government of Puerto Rico announced that it was about to miss a bond payment. It claimed that for technical legal reasons this wouldn’t be a default, but that’s a distinction without a difference.

So is Puerto Rico America’s Greece? No, it isn’t, and it’s important to understand why.

Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis is basically the byproduct of a severe economic downturn. The commonwealth’s government was slow to adjust to the worsening fundamentals, papering over the problem with borrowing. And now it has hit the wall.

What went wrong? There was a time when the island did quite well as a manufacturing center, boosted in part by a special federal tax break. But that tax break expired in 2006, and in any case changes in the world economy have worked against Puerto Rico.

These days manufacturing favors either very-low-wage nations, or locations close to markets that can take advantage of short logistic chains to respond quickly to changing conditions. But Puerto Rico’s wages aren’t low by global standards. And its island location puts it at a disadvantage compared not just with the U.S. mainland but with places like the north of Mexico, from which goods can be quickly shipped by truck.

The situation is, unfortunately, exacerbated by the Jones Act, which requires that goods traveling between Puerto Rico and the mainland use U.S. ships, raising transportation costs even further.

Puerto Rico, then, is in the wrong place at the wrong time. But here’s the thing: while the island’s economy has declined sharply, its population, while hurting, hasn’t suffered anything like the catastrophes we see in Europe. Look, for example, at consumption per capita, which has fallen 30 percent in Greece but has actually continued to rise in Puerto Rico. Why have the human consequences of economic troubles been muted?

The main answer is that Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. fiscal union. When its economy faltered, its payments to Washington fell, but its receipts from Washington — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and more — actually rose. So Puerto Rico automatically received aid on a scale beyond anything conceivable in Europe.

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