In a recent column on Puerto Rico I argued that, depending on who you talk to, the United States’ 117-year-long experiment with colonialism is either an abject failure or on the verge of victory. But there’s another U.S. policy about which you can say the same thing: trickle-down economics.
For those unaware, trickle-down (or “supply-side”) economics is the notion that only the wealthy class engages in the kind of activity — buying, selling, hiring, investing — that strengthens an economy, and thus policies should be put in place to ensure that the rich are able to rise to the level of the super rich. The scheme usually implies the lowering of tax rates on the wealthy and businesses, among other things.
In Puerto Rico, the U.S. government — or, more specifically, the monied interests which it serves — has taken advantage of its colonial experiment to conduct a parallel experiment with trickle-down economics, lowering the corporate tax rate to a measly four percent and eliminating altogether the taxes on income earned through dividends, interest and capital gains. Such policies have produced in Puerto Rico a level of economic disparity greater than anywhere else in the United States. Puerto Rico’s debt is larger than Detroit’s was on the eve of the city’s bankruptcy, and the poverty rate on the island is twice that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the union. While five-star resorts were going up along San Juan’s beachfront last year, the colony of 3.5 million souls suffered a population loss of over 64,000, totaling over 200,000 since 2010.
Officials in San Juan seem unconcerned (perhaps even relieved) by the sight of Puerto Rican citizens leaving their homeland in search of better opportunities stateside, because instead of making sure the island’s burdened poor and working class are being cared for, the Puerto Rican government is committed to increasing the weight placed on the struggling masses by cutting social welfare spending, firing government employees and slashing the education budget. In that way, the present-day viceroys and hacendados hope to make Puerto Rico as welcoming to foreign exploiters as it is unwelcoming to the vast majority of the Puerto Rican people.
Sanctifying wealthy incomes and corporate profits by keeping them largely untouched has never resulted in such wealth trickling down to the people on whose backs it was built. For the most part, the rich do not share their wealth but horde as much of it as they can, while thinking up new schemes to siphon even more. We know this to be true. We’ve seen it happen not only in Puerto Rico but also in the United States, where economic policies begun in the Seventies — and increased in the Eighties, then continuing into the 2000s — created the greatest concentration of wealth in the upper one percent of society since the Gatsbian 1920s, culminating in the deepest economic recession since the Great Depression. Economic disparity means economic instability. No society is secure that allows one class to wield too much power or wealth (which tend to amount to the same thing).
As for the comments made by Puerto Rico’s secretary of economic development, who in a recent interview referred to critics of San Juan’s trickle-down policies as “born losers,” I can only agree wholeheartedly. Puerto Ricans are born losers: born at the starting line of a race already in progress, born into a system designed to ensure that someone other than them benefits from the human and natural resources of their homeland.
Taking its cue from neoliberalism, the trickle-down crowd lives in an imaginary world where every person is born on equal footing with everyone else, ignoring thinks like racism, sexism, as well as the difference in educational opportunities available to poor and wealthy children. In their alternative universe, greed hardly exists and the rich aren’t satisfied with simply increasing their wealth. In the real world, however, race, gender and class are solid predictors of educational achievement and professional success — not because the members of a single race, gender and class are better than all others, but because they have better access to the tools which help a person succeed and better opportunities to succeed. This is what’s meant when people describe the “system” as “rigged,” and that it is.
Still, a million dollars isn’t nearly as potent as a million people. The people of Puerto Rico may be born losers, but that doesn’t mean they must remain so.
Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.