Opinion

Gregg Easterbrook

Make Puerto Rico a state: it’s good for business

June 14, 2011

As Barack Obama makes the first presidential visit to Puerto Rico in half a century, let’s cut to the chase: this island will be the 51st state, and the sooner the better.

Fifty is a nice round number for states, but prepare to kiss it goodbye. Puerto Rico will be 51st, and not necessarily the last. Alberta and British Columbia may join the United States someday; U.S. states named Sonora and Baja California are not out of the question. There will be more stars on the flag.

The United States has always been about the open door: arrivals make the country stronger. The boundaries of our great nation have always been in flux: until 1912, it was far from clear that Arizona belonged.

The time has come for those boundaries to change again. So let’s imagine what will happen after the island becomes a state:

A backward, feudal economy will begin to hum. Poverty will decline. Low education levels will be replaced education levels about the same as the U.S. average. Glistening office towers and condos will rise. Mainlander suspicion of the island’s residents will fade. Eventually one of the island’s sons or daughters will be elected president.

Wait — I’m describing Hawaii!

Peruse the history of Hawaii prior to its 1959 statehood, and you’ll think you are reading about Puerto Rico today. Hawaii then had an obsolete economic base and poor schools; its residents were viewed by the mainland as foreigners. Today Hawaii’s per-capita GDP, $49,000, exceeds the number for the mainland, and the very name Hawaii evokes a sense of paradise.

Once Puerto Rico becomes a state, its fortunes could arc upward. Right now the island’s murky status as a semi-autonomous “unincorporated territory” holds Puerto Rico back in economic development, and in global standing. Admit Puerto Rico into statehood and positive change will begin.

Some residents of Puerto Rico oppose statehood, advocating sovereignty. Some Walloons want independence from Belgium, some in Newfoundland want to return to being a British dominion — you can’t please everybody. Puerto Ricans who favor independence are a minority: many oppose an independence-or-statehood referendum, because they know their position will lose. (Details of possible referenda are in this recent White House report, which all but endorses Puerto Rican statehood — President Gerald Ford endorsed Puerto Rican statehood, and the elder President George Bush all but endorsed the idea.)

Here are important points for understanding the Puerto Rico issue:

* Since 1941, everyone born on the island has entered the world as a U.S. citizen. When commentators declared that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor had “emigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico,” they betrayed a common misunderstanding of the island’s confusing status. (Setting aside that Sotomayor was born in New York.) Average-height J.J. Barea of the Dallas Mavericks, improbable star of the NBA Finals, grew up in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. He didn’t “become an American,” as some sportscasters said. He was born an American.

* It’s not true that Puerto Ricans pay no federal taxes. Residents of the island do not pay federal income taxes. But then, since the three federal income tax cuts of the last decade (two under the younger President Bush, one under Obama), 45 percent of mainland Americans don’t pay federal income taxes, either. Puerto Ricans pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, which fund their federal retirement and health care benefits. (To the extent these benefits are funded, but that’s a separate question.) Statehood for Puerto Rico would cause its residents to pay federal income taxes.

* Companies doing business in Puerto Rico are nearly exempt from federal corporate taxes. Statehood would cause companies there to pay corporate taxes.

* Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections — they can vote in presidential primaries, which are run by the parties — and have no senators or true members of the House of Representatives. If Puerto Rico became a state its residents would vote for president and command approximately the same number of electors as Oregon. The new state would have two senators and four to five representatives. Membership of the Senate would rise to 102, while the four to five representatives for Puerto Rico would reduce representation of the other states by the same number.

* There’s no doubt Puerto Rican statehood would aid the Democratic Party, which may explain White House interest. (Democrats would benefit in the current generation: for all we know, by mid-century, Puerto Rico will be a Tea Party stronghold.) Two more Senate seats would be huge for the Democrats.

Nearly a million Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida, which has replaced New York City as home-away-from-home for those of Puerto Rican origin. “I know a boat you can get on” is now being grumbled by Floridians, not New Yorkers. Granting the vote to Puerto Ricans living in New York wouldn’t have short-term impact on presidential politics, since New York already votes blue. But with Florida a battleground state, enfranchising nearly a million additional people there, most of whom will vote Democratic, could determine a presidency.

* The Census Bureau projects that by 2050, the Hispanic (using that term loosely) share of the U.S. population will rise to 24 percent from 12 percent. Statehood for Puerto Rico could accelerate the rise of Spanish-speaking and Spanish-descended Americans.

So how about the legislation that grants Puerto Rican its statehood including a clause that makes English the language of the United States, and bars official bilingualism? (Some states mandate English; there is no controlling federal law.) The melting-pot aspect of English has benefitted all Americans, including first-generation Americans: while the track record of official bilingualism in other nations is poor.

If the United States is to welcome Puerto Rico as a state, fully embracing its residents, English as the U.S. language should be part of the deal. That’s a future-oriented compromise with something for everybody.

Photos, top to bottom: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a welcoming event after arriving at Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in Puerto Rico, June 14, 2011. REUTERS/Larry Downing; A pro-statehood woman waits for U.S. President Barack Obama to pass by the House of Laws of the Caribbean Island of Puerto Rico, in San Juan June 14, 2011. This is the first official visit of a sitting U.S. President to Puerto Rico since President Kennedy visited in 1961. REUTERS/Ana Martinez; Students block Plaza Las Americas highway as part of a one day strike protesting against government layoffs, in San Juan October 15, 2009. More than 17,000 public sector employees have been dismissed since March 2008. REUTERS/Ana Martinez

Comments
24 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Amen. This is something either party could get behind. Advocating statehood even evokes the Lincoln-esque notion that the US should not have any second-class citizens. For example, while the island’s governor Luis Fortuño could run for President of the United States, he cannot, by law, vote for himself. That’s just not right. Similarly, Puerto Ricans fight in American wars, but they cannot vote for the commander-in-chief. These are is the kind of injustices Americans fight wars over. More at loststates.com: http://bit.ly/jKHMhc

Posted by loststates | Report as abusive
 

I think you just made one Glenn Beck’s lists. I really hope you don’t know Bill Aires.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

The topic of this article is interesting – too bad the author is so uninformed.

Let’s start with the fact that, Puerto Ricans in Florida are already citizens. Statehood does not make them eligible to vote for the US president. They already can. That the electoral college doesn’t allow US citizens who are residents of PR to have a voice is an embarassment.

Posted by Njonsey | Report as abusive
 

I really can’t tell if this a well thought out joke or serious.
The US is in an economic melt down so lets counter that by buying (and i use that word loosely) another country.

Posted by Dougiedoo | Report as abusive
 

There’s a fine line between reality and farce!

Posted by Gregg Easterbrook | Report as abusive
 

Actually, Puerto Ricans are American-born citizens since 1917. The present status of the island territory is good for advocates of corporate welfare and tax shelters.

Puerto Ricans are also increasing in numbers in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Most of the newcomers are professionals and have a college degree in contrast with traditional migration to the Eastern coast. They tend to favor the island becoming the 51st state.

Posted by Myrisa | Report as abusive
 

Mr. Easterbrook, I agree with you on almost everything, but I must clarify something. Opponents of statehood in Puerto Rico have used the language issue to discourage support for it, and a clause like the one you propose would take away chances for statehood in a referendum on status. Second, census statistics qualify persons as Hispanic based on origin, not on the language they speak. Many who are counted as Hispanics speak more English than Spanish, and many others are third-generation Hispanics that don’t speak Spanish at all or loosely, their first or only language is English, but they are still Hispanics. Sooner or later people adapt and speak English. For instance, Tony Danza is considered Italian, but he speaks English (probably he doesn’t even know Italian).

Posted by Parsec | Report as abusive
 

Mr. Easterbrook, I agree with you on almost everything, but I must clarify something. Opponents of statehood in Puerto Rico have used the language issue to discourage support for it, and a clause like the one you propose would take away chances for statehood in a referendum on status. Second, census statistics qualify persons as Hispanic based on origin, not on the language they speak. Many who are counted as Hispanics speak more English than Spanish, and many others are third-generation Hispanics that don’t speak Spanish at all or loosely, their first or only language is English, but they are still Hispanics. Sooner or later people adapt and speak English. For instance, Tony Danza is considered Italian, but he speaks English (probably he doesn’t even know Italian).

Posted by Parsec | Report as abusive
 

Opponents of statehood have used the language issue to discourage support for statehood, and a clause like the one you propose would take away chances for statehood in a referendum on status. Second, census statistics qualify as Hispanic persons by origin, not the language they speak. Even if English is made the official language of U.S.A., Hispanics will still be Hispanic.

Posted by Parsec | Report as abusive
 

Many Puerto Ricans are deeply disappointed with the visit of president Obama. I like many others expected the president showed a genuine concern for the problems of Puerto Rico and marginalization as American citizens. His four-hour visit far from official to file a busy schedule of campaign activities with nonprofit fundraising dinner for campaigns and advertising to local political favors in exchange for a substantial donation to his campaign. Unfortunately, what I offer less time and importance was the meetin with the governor and in turn to the difficulties facing Puerto Rico. his visit was to engage with the people was only to ingratiate himself with the Latin vote. As American citizens deserve equal rights and makes no sense to have the same obligations as any state, but our rights are lower. Mainly it is shameful that in 2011 comtinue perpetrating discrimination and marginalization, even with a president who will present an award with which it awards to individuals for their sense of justice. Hillary Clinton who always showed a greater interest in the problem of Puerto Rico. Obama only confirms their lack of commitment and this is unfortunate.

Posted by visionary123 | Report as abusive
 

Many Puerto Ricans are deeply disappointed with the visit of president obama. I like many others expected the president showed a genuine concern for the problems of Puerto Rico and marginalization as American citizens. His four-hour visit far from official to file a busy schedule of campaign activities with nonprofit fundraising dinner for campaigns and advertising to local political favors in exchange for a substantial donation to his campaign. Unfortunately, what I offer less time and importance was the meeting with the governor and in turn to the difficulties facing Puerto Rico. his visit was to engage with the people was only to ingratiate himself with the Latino vote. As American citizens deserve equal rights and makes no sense to have the same obligations as any state, but our rights are lower. mainly it is shameful that in 2011 comtinue perpetrating discrimination and marginalization, even with a president who will present an award with which it awards to individuals for their sense of justice. Hillary Clinton who always showed a greater interest in the problem of Puerto Rico. OBAMA only confirms their lack of commitment and this is unfortunate.

Posted by visionary123 | Report as abusive
 

The federal government cannot currently pay for the entitlement programs of its current residents. The last thing we need to do is add more people to the Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid time bomb while add more Democrat voters who will vote to expand entitlements. Using Hawaii as an example of why we should admit PR backfires fiscally. Per Moody’s Investors Service in January 2011, Hawaii has the highest per-capita debt burden in the nation at 16.2% of the state GDP ($7,987 per person). How long until we are forced to bail out Hawaii. Ah, paradise!

Posted by MickSmiley | Report as abusive
 

Another perverse aspect of the tax code: low income residents in PR also cannot claim the per child tax credit (CTC) and the earned income credit (EIC) – both of which are available to low income residents of the 50 states. It is not widely understood that most low-income residents of the 50 states (families below, say $45K yr) don’t pay any income taxes, but can claim the EIC and CTC. About 90% of families in Puerto Rico fall below this threshold – that means that because they are not “required” to pay US income taxes, they can’t claim credits that other low income families on the mainland can claim. Essentially, the US citizens of Puerto Rico have been sold a false bill of goods. They traded away their right to vote in exchange for living in a tax haven. What they don’t know is that 90% wouldn’t owe taxes anyway. So they essentially gave up their political rights and got nothing in return…unless of course they move to Florida, which has no state income tax either.

Posted by Sheckman | Report as abusive
 

I completely agree with the position argue by the article, however Puerto Ricans living in the mainland already have the right to vote in presidential and congregational elections. This proves that the current status of the island creates a loophole that makes island residents second class citizens. Puerto Ricans are Americans and we are proud of our special relationship with the USA. The island deserves statehood and it is my hope that the US Congress honors our decision if the residents do decide to join the Union. Viva Puerto Rico, 51st State!

Posted by mmartz5jr1 | Report as abusive
 

The visit of the U.S president was a great move for us all here on the island and a good move for Mr.Obama, who needs the Puerto Rican votes in the states, there is alot involved to become a new state not only here on the island but also in the U.S. mainland 2 senators and 6-7 house seats would make a big change in both houses,can the U.S mainland play by their own rules of justice and liberty for all and give us the equal respect that we should have, we are not asking for special treatment but our rights to fair treatment and not 2nd class injustice.

Posted by repairman | Report as abusive
 

Two corrections to the article:

1. Puerto Ricans were granted US Citizenship in 1917, not 1941. Yep, we’ve been US citizens for almost 100 years now.

2. the article states: “Granting the vote to Puerto Ricans living in New York wouldn’t have short-term impact on presidential politics, since New York already votes blue. But with Florida a battleground state, enfranchising nearly a million additional people there, most of whom will vote Democratic, could determine a presidency.”

There are 4 million Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states, and we *ALREADY* have the right to vote. PRs are US Citizens (see previous point), and we have full voting rights the moment we set foot on any of the 50 states.

Likewise, if anyone born and raised in the 50 states moves to PR, that person LOSES the right to vote for the President or Congressmen.

Posted by RSoto21 | Report as abusive
 

To MickSmiley:

regarding your statement:
“The last thing we need to do is add more people to the Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid time bomb”

Puerto Ricans *ALREADY* pay into Social Security/Medicare, exactly the same % as residents of the 50 states pay. Therefore, statehood would not affect the state of Social Security and Medicare in any way.

Posted by RSoto21 | Report as abusive
 

OK, let’s get the citizenship question right:

1917: Puerto Ricans got statutory citizenship.
June 27, 1952: President Truman signs law retroactively granting natural (14th Amendment) citizenship to all Puerto Ricans born in the island after 1941!

There! Those still alive today who were born before 1941 are statutory citizens, which means their American citizenship “could” be taken away by act of Congress. Those born after 1941 are NATURAL AMERICAN CITIZENS and the citizenship cannot be taken away.

Posted by JAPACS | Report as abusive
 

The lack of knowledge by continental Americans about PR is so gigantic that it is almost impossible to have a civil conversation about it.

Posted by LaVoce | Report as abusive
 

Obama is already backtracking on this. He transformed the Presidential Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status of Presidents Clinton and Bush from a status solving task to a a more federal government offers to keep the status quo going. In recent days he said that any plebiscite where statehood wins with 51% would not be considered a majority for asking for statehood.

Posted by LaVoce | Report as abusive
 

“The melting-pot aspect of English has benefitted all Americans, including first-generation Americans: while the track record of official bilingualism in other nations is poor.
If the United States is to welcome Puerto Rico as a state, fully embracing its residents, English as the U.S. language should be part of the deal. That’s a future-oriented compromise with something for everybody.”

These comments are vague and intellectually disturbing. Do you mean by poor track record? In what way would barring bilingualism be a compromise? Compromise is a lose-lose solution. In that “compromise”, what would the United States be losing?

Posted by justincharles | Report as abusive
 

Is Greg Easterbrook completely out of his mind?

Granting Puerto Rico statehood would be an economic disaster. Almost overnight, this Third World island off our coast would become a gigantic welfare state. The cost of public assistance, free health care, education, etc would rapidly drain our already strained resources.

One only needs to look at California to see what happens when you suddenly import large numbers of poverty stricken people. California is now approximately 23% illiterate and Hispanic children there have the highest drop out rates in the nation. Adding Puerto Rico to the mix will cause an immediate drop in our national education ratings.

Even worse – Puerto Rico is a hotbed of violent crime, drug running and political corruption. Puerto Rico is one of the most violent areas in the Western Hemisphere and it’s murder rate is TWICE that of New York City. But Greg Easterbrook says “come on in!”

And that is exactly what they’ll do. With full and sudden access to US citizenship, about half of Puerto Rico will simply decide to leave their dangerous, crime-ridden island and move right to Main Street USA – bringing all of of their crime, gangs and social pathologies with them.

The “state” of Puerto Rico would not be an economic net benefit to the United States, it would be a heavy ball and chain at our feet, perpetually dragging us down and draining our resources. We would forever curse the day that we made such a foolish, foolish mistake.

Posted by Bannister123 | Report as abusive
 

Bannister123, what are you talking about? You are so ignorant! You say: “And that is exactly what they’ll do. With full and sudden access to US citizenship, about half of Puerto Rico will simply decide to leave their dangerous, crime-ridden island and move right to Main Street USA – bringing all of of their crime, gangs and social pathologies with them.” Didn’t you know that Puerto Ricans are already U.S. citizens (for over 100 years) and they can move to the U.S. as they please? On the contrary, if Puerto Rico becomes a state, most of the Puerto Ricans in the mainland will move back to the island. By the way, as soon as they move to the mainland, they can also vote in presidential elections. At the same time, if anybody born in the U.S. moves to Puerto Rico, they also lose the right to vote in presidential elections. It doesn’t have anything to do with their citizenship. The point here is that a U.S. citizen can not vote if he/she is resident of a territory. You also mention the crime in Puerto Rico. Well, lately the U.S. has secured the Mexican border and the South American drug traffickers are now trying to pass the drugs that your people buy and consume through Puerto Rico. That is the main reason why the crime in Puerto Rico has increased. The U.S. should stop ignoring the other side of the border and dedicate more resources to protect the Puerto Rican waters. Oh, and by the way, that is their responsibility since they don’t allow the local government to do so claiming that only the federal government has jurisdiction. In the U.S. you also have a lot of cities with as much crime as in Puerto Rico, for example, Pompano Beach, FL, Nacogdoches, TX, Jackson, MI, Carbondale, IL, Albany, NY, Council Bluffs, IA, etc., etc. That’s just to mention a few and sometimes these cities’ population is Caucasian. So, What are you talking about?

Posted by NY1234 | Report as abusive
 

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