In Re: Puerto Rico

The only surprising thing about the total catastrophe in Puerto Rico is that it took so long for the “Trump-Is-A-Bigot-Who-Hates-Brown-People” refrain to get cranked up to eleven, Concerning which, a few observations.

First, people are calling the federal response “Trump’s Katrina.” What do we know of Katrina? First of all, it wasn’t enough for the left to attack the Bush Administration for slowness or incompetence. They had to call Bush a racist. Remember Kanye West: Bush doesn’t care about black people, he said. (Of course this was not new; recall the infamous James Byrd TV spot in 2000, which implied that Bush was somehow complicit.) The media was happy to go along with this narrative, and failed utterly to report on the criminal incompetence of state and local government in Louisiana that inhibited the federal response, because it would have reflected badly on Democrats. Only years later did Donna Brazile, former chair of the Democratic Party, admit that “Bush came through on Katrina.” The narrative is in place, however, and won’t change now.

One difference today that is Bush was too much of a gentleman to respond to the demagogic attacks from the left. And one thing we know about Trump is that he is no gentleman and won’t take these attacks. Hence his tweets yesterday attacking Puerto Rico’s political leadership, which would be appalling in the abstract, but given the way the left operated after Katrina, what does he have to lose? And maybe the left, having called Bush a racist after Katrina, might want to re-read the old fable about the boy who cried wolf?

I don’t trust media reporting on Puerto Rico any more than any other subject. But the exceptions should be noted, such as the Bloomberg story “No, Trump Didn’t Botch the Puerto Rico Crisis.” The story is mostly an interview with retired Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix, who has extensive experience in disaster relief operations. This particular comment jumps out:

Puerto Rico is an island that suffers from its position in the middle of the Caribbean and its physical separation from the U.S. Its roads were in disrepair and its electrical grid was antiquated prior to the hurricane. The island has also suffered for years from ineffective local government and rising local territorial debt.

If anything this is an understatement. I’ve seen one report that dockworkers in Puerto Rico are either striking or refusing to unload and distribute supplies unless they are paid first. Beyond this, Puerto Rico’s effective bankruptcy has been the talk of the public finance community for a while now. (We’re covered the story here, for instance.) Puerto Rico has more than $70 billion in public debt it has no chance of paying back, accumulated through the usual blue-state governance model. The weakness of its electricity grid may be related to skewed spending for public employee pensions and the usual liberal boondoggles instead of physical infrastructure. Even before the hurricane, it was clear that bondholders were going to take a large haircut in any restructuring; now I suspect Puerto Rico may default completely.

Prediction: The end result of the Puerto Rico disaster will either be statehood, or independence. I prefer the latter.

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