Puerto Rico: Blame and the Debt of "the Other"
Recently, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the psychology of other people's indebtedness. I see parallels from this work and the way we think about Puerto Rican government debt. This thinking then tends to stand in the way of solutions.
An example is the psychological idea of the fundamental attribution error. This heuristic means we over-attribute other people's behavior to their personality rather than their circumstance. The guy speeding past me on the highway is a jerk instead of late for a meeting. Our neighbor who has filed bankruptcy is irresponsible rather than the victim of a job layoff. It is not that some people aren't jerks or irresponsible. Rather, we over-attribute behavior to personality rather than circumstance. If you don't see my point, there is probably something wrong with you. (Get it?)
I don't want to oversell the point because Puerto Rico is obviously not an individual person, and thus the fundamental attribution error is not directly applicable. Still, there seems to be in the zeitgeist the sense that Puerto Rico is largely to blame for its own financial situation, and therefore there is less of a moral imperative for the rest of the nation to act. As we consider what should be done, the lesson of the fundamental attribution error -- that you are usually wrong when you blame other people's character -- should serve as a cautionary principle about how Puerto Rico has come to this situation.
A second point has to do with the debt of the "other." A number of years ago, my colleagues and I did a study where we found differences in attitudes toward hypothetical African American and white debtors based on how they purported to handle their overindebtedness. To grossly oversimplify but to state succinctly, we found African American debtors were "less forgiven" for their debt problems. We have been following up on this work to study how people think about debts owed by "the other" -- that is, less privileged groups in society. We have been doing this work both in the U.S. and in other countries. It is still early days in our research, and our previous research was about resolution plans for debt. Thus, I cannot claim that our work speaks directly to the Puerto Rican debt problem. Still, it is not far-fetched to think that what we saw in our earlier work will generalize to other groups and across different sorts of indebtedness. Given the historical facts about the place of Puerto Rico and its people in the U.S. polity, we need to be careful that opposition to Puerto Rican debt relief is not simply a manifestation of hostility to debts of the "other."
As I read back over what I have written, I see that I have done it again. In her call for this mini-symposium, Melissa suggested we think about solutions. I have offered some potential hurdles that may be standing in the way of a constructive dialogue that moves us forward on the Puerto Rican debt crisis. The only solution I can offer to these hurdles is humility, to recognize that to think in the ways I have outlined is only human. But, it is also human to aspire to overcome them.