Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Crisis on Ideological Grounds

“I never read the newspaper, it’s too depressing,” would say my students.

And my reaction?

“An informed citizenry is necessary to maintain a democracy, so you don’t have a choice. Your responsibility is to keep yourself informed.”

My students, by and large, loved me: They rarely, however, took me seriously. There was the time that I argued for ride sharing and car pools, but this, of course, was impossible, since what would happen if their child took sick, and needed to be taken from school?

“It’s precisely for you children, and their future, that you should give up your car!”

So the students continued driving to work, and listening to local radio, most of which were addressing the vital issues of what local star Maripily was currently up to, or speculating on what person infected local model La Taína with HIV.

But there were two or three subjects guaranteed to stir discussion: There was the fact that virtually everyone was scrambling to send their kids to private schools, since what happens when the teacher is sick? Well, they’re sent home, if there’s a home to be sent to, since most of the parents were working. So that means that the kids were on the street, and that was where you didn’t want them.

A sort of Stockholm Syndrome had overtaken them, those good students of mine, since how could they simply shrug, pay five or six thousand a year to a private school, all the while driving past a “free” public school? “Free” in quotes since they were paying for it via taxes. Shouldn’t they be pounding on the principal’s desk, demanding that he or she get a substitute teacher?

“I’d be shouting that if anything happened to my kids while they were out on the streets, I’d sue the pants off him or her,” I used to say. But no, there was no system of substitutes in Puerto Rico? Why? Well, there just wasn’t.

Nor was it the case that the principals were shouting, since for years I took the bus to Rio Piedras, home of the University of Puerto Rico, and went to the center of the city to take a bus to Caguas. Fine, but I had to leap over a drain that was spewing sewage, and had been doing so for months. The drain was immediately in front Hawthorne School, but where was the good New England outrage? Where were the parents, and where was the principal?

There can be no outrage without an implied belief in the system, and it has been that cynicism that has brought us to this default of more than 70 billion in municipal bonds.

Son todos pillos,” they’re all thieves, said my students of the politicians.

“Then it’s our responsibility to elect politicians who are honest,” I would say.

More shrugs!

We all accepted it—the government was never meant to provide services, it was meant to provide jobs to all of our relatives when the party they supported was in power. Right—if we were part of the ruling / technocrat class, the government was meant to be a siphon for kickbacks and corruption schemes. So everybody had a story about their father or mother, laboring fiercely in whatever government agency it happened to be, but the three or four people around them? Hah, just sitting on their….

So the government got huge, and that meant unwieldy, and nobody objected when there were three or four agencies doing or more like not doing the same thing. So in my infant years in Puerto Rico, I would ask Mr. Fernández stupid questions, like…

“So why does Puerto Rico have twice as many people as Wisconsin on the government payroll, even though Wisconsin has—roughly—twice as many people? Oh, and it’s a lot larger….”

Mr. Fernández would sigh….

So the government borrowed for years, and then the winds of the coming crisis began to be felt, and what was our response to that? ¡Qué paguen los ricos! Or Let the rich pay, but tell me, somebody, who are the rich? I had breakfast with a Cuban guy who came here at age 8, started his company, which now employs 200 people, and so is he “un rico?” You bet, but why should he pay? If a Cuban is providing jobs to 200 Puerto Ricans, well, shouldn’t we be thanking him and not sticking it to him?

So the last time we went to the bond market, didn’t we know perfectly well what we were doing? Bonds usually yield a 3 percent interest, ours were going for nine to ten. Why was that? Because they were high-risk, and that was the only was to sell them. And who buys high risk? Hedge funds, and their nastier cousins, the vulture funds.

If capitalism courses through your veins, you would point out that the vulture funds do what vultures do in the woods: clear out the dead and rotting flesh. Those of a more liberal bent would say that, well, usury is usury.

So hedge funds make up about half of our holders of debt, but the other half? Retirees, 401K contributors, and in the fight between the hedge funds and the ordinary investor, guess who comes into the ring fifty pounds heavier, and fifty fights more experienced? Which is why, of course, they forced us to promise various things—like any litigation be done in New York, not San Juan, and …oh, wasn’t there something about paying them first?

So it’s going to be long and messy, because the only sure thing is that the lawyers will have a merry day ahead, since there’s no orderly was to get out of this situation, which means that everything will get into the courts, and then have to be appealed.

Yes, long and messy, but who ultimately bears the responsibility? Isn’t blaming the vulture funds like blaming the pusher for your cocaine addiction? Yes, the cabotage laws that require us to use on US flagged cargo ships are unfair…but wait, are they? Caribbean Business doesn’t think so, and here’s the link. And yes, The Walmarts and Walgreen’s are the dandelions on our economic lawn, but do you do your shopping at Colmado Morales?

And certainly the United States hasn’t bothered to do anything about our political status, and so for 115 years or so, we’ve been a colony. But we’re here in the Caribbean, and we’re surrounded by former colonies from Trinidad / Tobago up to Cuba. So why has Puerto Rico not done through peaceful or violent means what all the other islands have done? Is it really up to the US to figure out what to do with us? Trust me, if the answer is yes, and statehood were imposed, well, as a gringo, I think I’d stay home that day. OK—month.

And now, we have only 40% of the population working, the rest being subsidized with food stamps and housing and the government health card. Most of it coming from the feds, and isn’t it time to say that the colonial relationship between the Congo and Belgium is hardly the same as ours with the US? Or is that pitiyankee?

V. S. Naipaul once wrote, if I remember correctly, that the tragedy of the Caribbean islands is that they never developed a national idea of what they represented, of their purpose or mission in the world. We are, most of us, descended from slaves or pirates, and how far have we travelled?    

I have questions, I have no answers, but what do I know?

The answers are coming and…

…I don’t want to see them.