“While Puerto Rico has failed to make debt service payments since 2017, government spending is up over 12 percent since then despite a drastic population decrease. Long says Puerto Rican officials are realizing “how easy it is to hide financial data, pretend austerity, and fool their creditors.” For its part, she adds, the U.S. government is creating all the incentives for Puerto Rico “to become a serial defaulter, like Argentina,” a country on the brink of its tenth default since 1816.
The comparison is ominous; Argentina’s longstanding practice of acquiring heaps of debt on the global markets before failing to repay it reflects the workings of its internal politics. As scholars Pablo Spiller (of the University of California, Berkeley) and Mariano Tomassi (of the Universidad San Andrés in Argentina) wrote in 2007, Argentina’s brand of federalism combines decentralized spending for the provinces with largely centralized tax collection and funding schemes. The system, which began to arise in the late 19th century, still motivates “subnational governments [to] adopt a lax fiscal stance in the expectation that they will be bailed out in the event of a fiscal crisis.”
In turn, they write, the top regional politicians tend to be the crony machine operators “who are best at the game of extracting rents from the common central pool.” Similarly, negotiating rescue packages with the International Monetary Fund has become a part of an Argentine president’s unofficial job description. Will governors of Puerto Rico assume the same role vis-à-vis the White House and Congress?
Certainly, U.S. taxpayers should consider the long-term consequences of their bailout of Puerto Rico, where children of politicians tend to be overrepresented as recipients of six-figure government salaries and seven-figure government contracts. The habitual debt busts of Buenos Aires is one Latin American export that is better left on the dock.”