July 03, 2015
Since several commentators have raised questions about the similarities between the debt situations of Greece and Puerto Rico, it is worth pointing out some important ways in which they differ. Puerto Rico gets the benefit of several important federal government programs which will continue regardless of the finances of its own government. This means that if its own government ceases to exist due to financial paralysis, the people of Puerto Rico can still count on their monthly Social Security checks, their Medicare payments for their health care, and food stamps for low-income families. The people of Greece do not receive any comparable benefit from the European Union.
The banks and financial system in Puerto Rico is also supported by the FDIC, the Fed, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This means that if every bank in Puerto Rico goes belly up because its economy is a wreck, all the depositors can still count on getting their money back up to the FDIC limit. If the housing market collapses, people will still be able to buy homes because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are prepared to buy up the mortgages.
The bulk of aid to Greece has taken the form of the I.M.F., the E.U., and the E.C.B. making payments to Greece’s creditors. This was initially the banks who were bailed out of their bad loans and more recently to themselves. It has not gone to help the Greek people. If the Syriza government were offered terms comparable to those Puerto Rico now has, the only fight would be over how quickly they could get a pen to sign the deal.
This doesn’t mean Puerto Rico doesn’t have very serious economic problems as a result of being tied to the U.S. dollar, but it has a range of supports that are beyond the dreams of the people of Greece.