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Alejandro Garcia Padilla, the governor of Puerto Rico, has skipped out on a $422 million payment owed to private-sector creditors.
The missed payment, due on May 1, was just another scene in the slow-motion train wreck that has been termed “Puerto Rico’s economic crisis,” but to call the territory’s status a “crisis” understates the severity of the problem. Over 12 percent of the workforce in Puerto Rico is unemployed, and one out of every four employed Puerto Ricans works for the government, instead of contributing to the territory’s economy.
The job-sector universe—the raw number of jobs available and filled—in the territory is contracting as well. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 889,200 employed people working in Puerto Rico in October 2015. In March 2016, the most recent month for which BLS statistics are available, there were 893,300 people working, which means an average of 683 more people became unemployed every month for six consecutive months.
Puerto Rico’s territorial government is responsible for some of the problems its people are facing, such as its overly generous entitlement programs for workers, but Washington, DC lawmakers are ultimately responsible for the territory’s economic death spiral. As a territory, Puerto Rico exists at the pleasure of the U.S. Congress. Puerto Rico can elect its own governor, but Congress maintains most of the power.
One Washington, DC policy making things worse for Puerto Rico is called the Jones Act. The Jones Act, or the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, was passed nearly 100 years ago as part of the fit of anti-trade sentiment that led to the Great Depression. It was intended to require regions of the United States separated by the open ocean to be serviced by all-American crews and ships, built with all-American parts, thereby banning foreign vessels from transporting goods from the United States to states and territories such as Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.
Instead of promoting economic prosperity by tilting the playing field, protectionist trade policies such as the Jones Act disadvantage consumers and benefit businesses favored by the government.
A 2012 report issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRB-NY) studied the effect of the Jones Act on Puerto Rico and concluded increasing the cost of shipping goods to Puerto Rico from the mainland has resulted in fewer goods being shipped to Puerto Rico and less money available to Puerto Ricans.
According to the American Maritime Congress, a lobbyist organization representing the interests of the merchant marine industry, only 77 ships in the entire world comply with the requirements of the Jones Act. By artificially reducing the volume of shipping, the cost of shipping increases, making everyday goods more expensive for Puerto Ricans.
“It costs an estimated $3,063 to ship a twenty-foot container of household and commercial goods from the East Coast of the United States to Puerto Rico; the same shipment costs $1,504 to nearby Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) and $1,687 to Kingston (Jamaica)—destinations that are not subject to Jones Act restrictions,” the Federal Reserve Bank of New York wrote.
Although other factors have contributed to Puerto Rico’s financial ship of state running aground, Washington, DC lawmakers’ refusal to face the reality of a global economy, by removing protectionist policies and allowing the free market to determine the cost of shipping goods, has played a significant role in making life on the “Island of Enchantment” less enchanting and more miserable.
Instead of considering targeted big-ticket bailouts from the mainland’s treasury to patch over their past mistakes, national lawmakers should enact free-market policies, including repealing the Jones Act, to help make prosperity more readily available to everyone, regardless of whether they live in Chicago, California, or Canóvanas.