Sunday, December 20, 2015

Once upon a time, Puerto Rico had a New Deal. Today, it has finanical predators, regressive taxation, Republicans, and the Tea Party.

(A new public water fountain, funded through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), ca. 1934. Photo from a FERA report.)
During the New Deal, great investments were made in Puerto Rico. The CCC reforested the land, the WPA offered jobs to unemployed men & women, the National Youth Administration (NYA) helped young Puerto Ricans graduate from high school & college, and agencies like the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA) built up Puerto Rico's infrastructure. With respect to the latter, a researcher at the City University of New York recently concluded that the PRRA "made lasting contributions to local social and economic life" and that it increased life expectancy, improved the "built environment," and limited "the private corporate control of Puerto Rico's natural resources." The president of a business consulting firm in Puerto Rico recently noted "that the island's [now-crumbling] infrastructure was one of the factors that led to Puerto Rico's economic growth for most of the 20th century..."
But, in an amazing display of collective amnesia, U.S. citizens and the U.S. government have completely forgotten that any of these things ever happened. And that amnesia (plus a large dose of public apathy) has dire consequences for the island. As Puerto Rico struggles with heavy debt, crumbling infrastructure, and high unemployment, a New Deal is nowhere to be found. For the island today, there are only financial predators, regressive taxation, Republicans, and the Tea Party.
Financial Predators:
There are a lot of super-wealthy people using Puerto Rico as a tax haven. At the same time, there are a lot of super-wealthy people demanding that middle and low-income Puerto Ricans pay more taxes, and receive less education & medical care, in order to pay off debt to scavenging financial firms - firms that bought up the island's debt on the cheap, or lent money on usurious terms, but are demanding full payment. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren summed up the situation. She highlighted that these super-wealthy people "want Puerto Rico to raise taxes, cut health care, fire teachers, cut pensions, sell off $4 billion worth of government buildings, privatize public ports, close neighborhood schools and cut support for the University of Puerto Rico, all so these vulture funds can squeeze out more profit."

Regressive Taxation:

To a large degree, the Puerto Rican government has complied with the wishes of the financial predators. A clear example of this can be seen by the islands decision to raise its sales tax, its fuel tax, and its public transportation fares. These are all forms of regressive taxation that disproportionately impact the middle-class & poor.
One thing that would greatly benefit Puerto Rico is a chance to restructure some of its debt through the same bankruptcy tools available to the states. But, in a recent spending bill, Congress refused to grant this equality. Puerto Rico's nonvoting representative in Congress said: "Despite our best efforts, the omnibus does not include language empowering Puerto Rico to restructure any of its debt, as every US state is empowered to do. Honesty requires me to note that the objections to this provision came exclusively from Republicans."
The Tea Party:
Ah, and now we come to the Tea Party - that great misinformed organization that the super-wealthy love to use as a shield against increased taxation, common sense regulation, and law enforcement. The super-wealthy have reached out to the Tea Party on the Puerto Rico issue and have asked them for propaganda assistance. And the Tea Party, knowing that their creation and continued existence was/is reliant upon selfish millionaires & billionaires, are only too happy to comply. As recently highlighted in the New York Times, "To block proposals that would put their investments at risk, a coalition of hedge funds and financial firms has hired dozens of lobbyists, forged alliances with Tea Party activists and recruited so-called AstroTurf groups on the island to make their case."
So, in speaking out against bankruptcy protection equality for Puerto Rico, the national coordinator of the "Tea Party Patriots" said that it was "nothing but a backdoor, taxpayer-funded bailout for Puerto Rico." But when asked what taxpayer funds she was referring to, she gave the typical Tea Party response: "I don’t know that I can answer that."
Cruelty & policy discrimination, based on misinformation. That's what the Tea Party has to offer Puerto Rico. Oh, how the hedge funds must be crying tears of joy and thanking the heavens, "Oh, thank you! Thank you for these pawns!"
(A WPA poster promoting tourism in Puerto Rico. New Deal policymakers saw Puerto Rico as a beautiful place, and saw Puerto Ricans as a people who just needed a helping hand. Unfortunately, many millionaires & billionaires today--in a pathetic display of human relations--view Puerto Rico as a place to financially exploit, the people be damned. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)
Puerto Rico Needs A New Deal:
Puerto Rico could use some of the same type of assistance that President Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow New Deal policymakers gave it back in the 1930s and 40s. Unfortunately, as long as Americans remain in a state of amnesia and apathy, the island will only get more financial attacks from cold-blooded millionaires & billionaires, more regressive taxation, more mean-spirited Republicans, and more Tea Party foolishness.

Perhaps, one day, Americans will say "enough is enough" and demand a New Deal. Because it's only a matter of time before the financial industry comes for the rest of us too - and even more voraciously than they did the last time.

"The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism... We believe in a way of living in which political democracy and free private enterprise for profit should serve and protect each other - to ensure a maximum of human liberty not for a few but for all." 
--FDR, April 29, 1938

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