Thursday, September 28, 2017
Puerto Rican Crystal Ball
Imagine that we could collect up all the non-white, non-wealthy citizens of this country. Would it give us a better opportunity to make sure those folks were better served? Could we focus our attention social institutions like schools and health care? Would we concentrate on creating a strong and robust infrastructure? Would we provide ample opportunity for local voices to be heard and be important players in democratic self-rule?
Or would we treat those folks like second-class citizens? Would we treat the infrastructure and institutions of that community as important only as chances for investors to make a buck? And would we then demand that the investors' voices be the loudest ones, that local self-rule must take a back seat to making sure that investors have the final say (so that they can make their money, no matter what that means to members of the community)? Would we demand that they make their own needs secondary to the needs of investors and hedge fundies?
Well, if we look at Puerto Rico, we have to conclude that the second paragraph is the accurate one.
Puerto Rico is an instructive example because it is, as President Trump has wisely noted, an island in the ocean. We can't quite perform such perfect examples of non-democratic vulture capitalism to our mainland communities of non-wealthy non-white citizens because they aren't on an island. We can't quite-- but Puerto Rico is a sign that we'd like to.
We'd like to take the black communities of Chicago and cities like Detroit and the poor parts of LA and strip locals of democratic control, impose investor rule, and start strip-mining them for financial benefit, and in many such communities, the rich and the powerful have taken steps to do so. Schools-- public education-- are often a first target because they operate with the most democratic process to be swept away and the greatest pile of money to be swept up.
Put another way, Puerto Rico is an answer to the question, "What would privatizers and profiteers do if we collected the non-white non-wealthy in a single place, stripped them of political power, and removed all obstacles to doing as we wished." The answer is not a good or encouraging one, and it is put into starker relief in the current crisis, which presents us with a follow up question-- "What would we do if the place had been mostly hollowed out of its valuables, and then something Really Bad happened?"
Just a few days ago, Tyler Cowen wrote "Puerto Rico's American Dream Is Dead" for Bloomberg View:
The underlying reality is that the political and economic model for the island just isn’t working any more, and the dream of Puerto Rican economic convergence has been laid to rest once and for all. That in turn says something bad about the rest of this country, namely how quickly we will give up on the possibility of transformational change.
That's the depressing lesson here. Puerto Rico has been our little aspirational laboratory for how non-wealthy non-white folks are supposed to Make It Work in this country, but in fact, it has become a demonstration of how we stack the deck against them, and then stack that stacked deck on top of them to hold them down.
Watch carefully over the next year. We are going to learn something about ourselves as a country, as a people, by how we treat Puerto Rico, now that the island has been crushed by natural disaster. Early indicators are not good. We are slow to respond, reluctant to lift the Jones Act on shipping restrictions for any length of time (because it protects corporate interests), and have offered to give them more debt to pile on top of the already crushing debt.
Puerto Rico makes plain the expectations for non-white non-wealthy citizens-- not only do we expect them to rise by being smart, hard-working, and independent, but we expect them rise by doing all these things while larger powers work to hold them down. It's a stark reality in Puerto Rico, but once you see what it looks like there, it is mighty hard not to see it in the predatory exploitive treatment of non-white non-wealthy citizens on the mainland. We can see the future of many communities and their schools, and it is not a pretty one.