Michael Sean Winters: Previewing the USCCB meeting: the good the conference achieves

(NCR Online) Week after next, the plenary meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will be held in Baltimore. The conference has some clear choices: Will they follow the direction charted for them by Pope Francis when he spoke to them during his visit last year, or will the conference continue in cultural warrior mode, picking fights they do not need and damaging the causes the profess to care about.

Some more progressive Catholics have all but given up on the conference, but that is a mistake. I have not been shy about my criticisms of the conference, but the USCCB continues to do great good in many areas that do not make it onto the front pages of the newspapers. One such area has been the economic meltdown in Puerto Rico, about which I have written often this year. Puerto Rico has been having a sovereign debt crisis, complicated by the fact that Puerto Rico’s sovereignty is a matter of dispute. It is not a country, so it can’t go to the IMF. It is not a city like Detroit, so it can’t file for bankruptcy. It is most like a state, except that it has no representation in Congress and no electoral votes for the presidency, so it lacks the political clout to have gotten help in good time to prevent the crisis.

There is plenty of blame to go around. The island’s economy benefited from special tax breaks for pharmaceutical companies, but since these expired in 2006, there has been no new adjustments to spur manufacturing on the island. The Jones Act, which requires commerce with the island to be conducted by American ships with American crews, increases the cost of doing business on the island relative to other Caribbean islands. It is a bulwark in the fight against unregulated markets, so I am reluctant to see it expire, but if it is retained, it needs to be balanced by other governmental actions to level the playing field. In the late stages of the crisis, the government turned to junk bonds to finance itself. Hence, the sovereign debt crisis in which, like all such crises, hedge funds desire full repayment even if it means austerity measures that will further decimate the island’s economy. [More]


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