While Greece is now dominating the debt default stage, the real tragedy is playing out much closer to home, with the downward spiral of Puerto Rico. As in Greece, the Puerto Rican economy has been destroyed by its participation in an unrealistic monetary system that it does not control and the failure of domestic politicians to confront their own insolvency. But the damage done to the Puerto Rican economy by the United States has been far more debilitating than whatever damage the European Union has inflicted on Greece. In fact, the lessons we should be learning in Puerto Rico, most notably how socialistic labor and tax policies can devastate an economy, should serve as a wake up call to those advocating prescribing the same for the mainland.
The U.S. has bombed the territory of Puerto Rico with five supposedly well-meaning, but economically devastating policies. It has:
1. Exempted the Island’s government debt from all U.S. taxes in the Jones-Shaforth Act.
2. Eliminated U.S. tax breaks for private sector investment with the expiration of section 936 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code.
3. Required the nation to abide by a restrictive trade arrangement.
4. Made the Island subject to the U.S. minimum wage.
5. Enabled Puerto Rico to offer generous welfare benefits relative to income.
While passage of such politically popular laws seems benign on the surface (and have allowed politicians to claim that their efforts have helped the poorest Puerto Ricans), in reality they have deepened the poverty of the very people the laws were supposedly designed to help. The lessons here are so obvious that only the most ardent supporters of government economic control can fail to comprehend them.
By exempting U.S. citizens from taxes on interest paid on Puerto Rican sovereign debt, Washington sought to help the Puerto Rican economy by making it easier and cheaper for the Island’s government to borrow from the mainland. As a result, Puerto Rican government bonds became a staple holding of many U.S. municipal bond funds. As with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds a decade ago, many investors believed that these Puerto Rican bonds had an implied U.S. government guarantee. This meant that the Puerto Rican government could borrow for far less than it could have without such a belief. However, this subsidy did not grow the Puerto Rican economy, but simply the size of the government, which had the perverse effect of stifling private sector growth.
In contrast to the tax-free income earned by Americans who buy Puerto Rican government bonds, those with the bad sense to lend to Puerto Rican businesses were taxed on the interest payments that they received. Businesses could have used the funds for actual capital investment (that could have increased the Island’s productivity), but instead the money flowed to the Government which used it to buy votes with generous public sector benefits that did nothing to grow the Island’s economy or put it in a better position to repay. That problem was left for future taxpayers who no politician seeking votes in the present cared about.
This dynamic is almost identical to what happened in Greece, where low borrowing costs, made possible by the strong euro currency and the implied backstop of the European Central Bank and the more solvent northern European nations, permitted the Greek government to borrow at far lower rates than its strained finances would have otherwise allowed.
Taxing Private Investment
Perversely, as the U.S. government made it easier for the Puerto Rican government to borrow, it made it harder for the private sector to do so. In 2006 the government ended a tax break that exempted corporate profits earned on private sector investment in Puerto Rico from U.S. taxes. As a result, U.S. businesses that had been making investments and hiring workers on the Island pulled up stakes and moved to more tax-friendly jurisdictions. The result was an erosion of the Island’s local tax base, just as more borrowing (made possible by triple tax-free government debt) obligated the remaining Puerto Rican taxpayers to greater future liabilities.
The Jones Act
The Jones Act, a 1920 law designed to protect the U.S. merchant marine from foreign competition, has had a devastating effect on Puerto Rico, and should be used as a cautionary tale to illustrate the dangers of trade barriers. Under the terms of this horrible law, foreign-flagged ships are prevented from carrying cargo between two U.S. ports. According to the law, Puerto Rico counts as a U.S. port. So a container ship bringing goods from China to the U.S. mainland is prevented from stopping in Puerto Rico on the way. Instead, the cargo must be dropped off at a mainland port, then reloaded onto an expensive U.S.-flagged ship, and transported back to Puerto Rico. As a result, shipping costs to and from Puerto Rico are the highest in the Caribbean. This reduces trade between Puerto Rico and the rest of the world. Since a large percentage of the finished goods used by Puerto Ricans are imported, the result is much higher consumer prices and fewer private sector jobs. Even though median incomes in Puerto Rico are just over half that of the poorest U.S. state, thanks to the Jones Act, the cost of living is actually higher than the average state.
The Federal Minimum Wage
In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act subjected Puerto Rico to a federal minimum wage, but it was not until 1983 that a 1974 act, which required that the Island match the mainland’s minimum wage, was fully phased in. The current Federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is 77% of Puerto Rico’s current median wage of $9.42. In contrast, the Federal minimum is only 43% of the U.S. median wage of almost $17 per hour (Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), May 2014). The U.S. minimum wage would have to be more than $13 per hour to match that Puerto Rico proportion. The disparity is greater when comparing minimum wage income to per capita income.
The imposition of an insupportably high minimum wage has meant that entry level jobs simply don’t exist in Puerto Rico. Unemployment is over 12% (BLS), and the labor force participation rate is about 43% (as opposed to 63% on the mainland) (The World Bank). A “success” by the Obama administration in raising the Federal minimum to $10 per hour would mean that the minimum wage in Puerto Rico would be higher than the current medium wage. Such a move would result in layoffs on the Island and another step down into the economic pit. I predict that it could bring on a crisis similar to the one created in the last decade in American Samoa when that Island’s economy was devastated by an unsustainable increase in the minimum wage.
It will be interesting to see if our progressive politicians will have enough forethought and mercy to exempt Puerto Rico from minimum wage increases. But to do so would force them to acknowledge the destructive nature of the law, an admission that they would take great pains to avoid.
In 2013 median income in Puerto Rico was just over half that of the poorest state in the union (Mississippi) but welfare benefits are very similar. This means that the incentive to forgo public assistance in favor of a job is greatly reduced in Puerto Rico, as a larger percentage of those on public assistance would do better financially by turning down a low paying job. Because of these perverse incentives not to work, fewer than half of working age males are employed and 45% of the Island’s population lived below the federal poverty line (U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey Briefs issued Sep. 2014). According to a 2012 report by the New York Federal Reserve Bank, 40% of Island income consists of transfer payments, and 35% of the Island’s residents receive food stamps (Fox News Latino, 3/11/14).
In other words, Puerto Rico’s problems are strikingly similar to those of Greece. Its government spends chronically more than it raises in taxes, its economy is trapped in a regulatory morass, and its economic destiny is largely in the hands of others.
The solutions to Puerto Rico’s problems are simple, but politically toxic for mainland politicians to acknowledge. Puerto Rico must be allowed to declare bankruptcy, the Federal incentive for the Puerto Rican government to borrow money must be eliminated, Puerto Rico must be exempted from both the Jones Act and the Federal Minimum wage, and Federal welfare requirements must be reduced. Puerto Rico already has the huge advantages of being exempt from both the Federal Income Tax and Obamacare, so with a fresh start, free from oppressive debt and federal regulations, capitalism could quickly restore the prosperity socialism destroyed. With the current incentives provided by Acts 20 and 22 (which basically exempt Puerto Rico-sourced income for new arrivals from local as well as federal income tax – see my report on America’s Tax Free Zone) and with some additional local free market labor reforms, in a generation it’s possible that Puerto Ricans could enjoy higher per capita incomes than citizens of any U.S. state.
If Washington really wanted to accelerate the process, it should exempt mainland residents from all income taxes, including the AMT, on Puerto Rico-sourced investment income, including dividends, capital gains, and interest related to capital investment.