Despite the news coverage of Puerto Rico’s debt and slow hurricane recovery, what you might not know is that the low-quality data and statistics available in Puerto Rico are at the heart of Puerto Rico’s woes.
As an unincorporated territory, the archipelago of Puerto Rico sits uneasily within the federal statistical system, the close network of federal statistical agencies that make possible some of the highest quality official statistics in the world.
Excluded from both the population total of the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as from the National Income and Product Accounts of the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, many federal statistics do not cover Puerto Rico. In order to fill the void of information the government of Puerto Rico has traditionally seen upon itself to produce the official statistics that the U.S. government is unable or unwilling to produce for Puerto Rico: this includes its national accounts and its basic labor market statistics, amongst others.
The approximately $70 billion value on debt, plus the other $50 billion unfunded pension obligations, together with the triple whammy of the $90 billion estimated hurricane damage, make Puerto Rico a quagmire for the United States municipal bond market, bankruptcy courts, and disaster recovery system. In all potential scenarios, all stakeholders will need an inordinate amount of data transparency and validation, if Puerto Rico is going to be able to come out of this mess.
As a former Federal Reserve economist, I returned to Puerto Rico to start the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS) in 2007 to provide public research because I knew that high-quality data was an essential tool for Puerto Rico to deal with its economic and fiscal crisis. Through this experience, I have personally observed and identified all sorts of shenanigans when it comes to the production of official statistics by the government of Puerto Rico.
The American taxpayer deserves to have her investments in Puerto Rico be protected from manipulation. Unfortunately, for decades, the government of Puerto Rico has lacked any sort of credibility when it comes to data and statistics. Hurricane fatality statistics are just the latest example.
In 2016 the bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth, created under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stabilization Act (PROMESA), called PRIS a “highly professional, autonomous, and apolitical organization that is bringing greater transparency to economic, financial and fiscal conditions on the island.”
As a commitment to transparency, PRIS publishes its entire general accounting ledger on our financial transparency site. The rest of the government of Puerto Rico has however dragged its feet in the current and previous administrations.
Unfortunately, this past summer, the current administration aimed to discredit the work of PRIS. Subsequently, they attempted to fire four members of PRIS’ Board of Directors of PRIS without due process, in order to detain and intervene in the recruiting process of a new PRIS executive director. Finally, they proposed to consolidate PRIS with the Puerto Rico Department of Economic Development, where it is expected to be externalized to the federal government or the private sector.
In the coming weeks and months, the federal government will evaluate how much and which mechanism to use to fund the recovery of Puerto Rico. Adequate governance, transparency and accountability will be essential features of this plan.
PRIS stands ready to serve as a gateway of information between Puerto Rico and the rest of the world, which guarantees transparent and clear information on all sorts of conditions on the island, including public financial information. The government of Puerto Rico must desist from its attempts to dismantle this important institution and the support of those that believe in transparency.
Mario Marazzi is the executive director of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics.