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Puerto Rico, its Control Board and the "Two-Step Plan" Story

posted by Mitu Gulati

It is rare that the ideas in academic articles fundamentally change the world. A package of pieces by Clay Gillette and David Skeel (starting with "Governance Reform and the Judicial Role in Bankruptcy" in 2014, followed by a NY Times Op Ed in 2015,  and concluding with "A Two-Step Plan for Puerto Rico" in 2016) have arguably done just that though. The context, as many slipsters have written about, was the enormous financial crisis that Puerto Rico has been mired in for multiple years now. The three Gillette-Skeel articles were the foundation for the institution of a federal control board to displace the local elected authorities in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and, in their place, run Puerto Rico's debt restructuring.

Oversimplifying, the idea is that there are occasions when an electoral system becomes so dysfunctional in its running of the local government's operation that a more command-based system needs to be put in place temporarily. Clay has an aptly titled piece "Dictatorships for Democracy" that also explicates this idea. In political economy terms, the problem that Clay and David attack in their pieces is the one where the local competition among electoral candidates is, for whatever reason, consistently delivering severely sub-optimal local governance -- a consistently bad electoral equilibrium that eventually produces a severe government bankruptcy. And the way to get out of the bad equilibrium, they argue, is a temporary dictatorship (aka control board) that is not beholden to the kinds of political interests that were causing the dysfunction.

The question of why the local government system in Puerto Rico produced such immense fiscal mismanagement is a complicated one.  I am inclined to put a big portion of the blame for bad governance on the fact that Puerto Rico has not been allowed to meaningfully govern itself in the same fashion as the states for over a century ("foreign in a domestic sense" and all that). That said, it is hard to argue with the observation that, whatever the reason, Puerto Rico seems to be stuck in a bad governance equilibrium that it needs to be pushed out of. And Clay and David have provided one solution that might just work. (My preferred solution would be that Puerto Rico be allowed meaningful governance rights at the federal level, but no one in Washington DC seems to be willing to give them that).

Two things got me thinking about their idea over the past few days, and induced me to write this post.  First, the hearing on the legal challenge to the constitutionality of the control board is coming up soon (based on a challenge from a NY hedge fund).  Second, there was an interesting article Simon Davis-Cohen of The Nation (a lengthy piece about Clay and David and their ideas) that appeared about a week or so ago. Davis-Cohen's article, to my mind, manages to be both admiring of the ideas and goals that Clay and David have and also question the whether they are appropriate in the Puerto Rican context.

Slipsters, who almost all know a great deal more than I do about these ideas, would probably trace these ideas back further to Mancur Olson's classic APSR piece in 1993, and to the bigger literature on optimal governance mechanisms. Joseph Blocher and I describe some of this literature here in an article on the "Market for Sovereign Control". The basic "bad governance equilibrium" question/problem Joseph and I were tackling there was similar to the one Clay and David take on, albeit in the sovereign context (and it is safe to say that no one is going to adopt our proposals anytime soon).  Slipsters, Anna G and Mark W, in a couple of superb pieces, point to flaws in our analysis here and here.

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