Help for Puerto Rico
How can a government survive when it faces mountains of debt? What obligation does it have to pay back what it owes in full when doing so would place a great burden on poor and middle-class families?
These questions, which have been discussed in Europe for some time, now confront lawmakers in the United States. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is $72 billion in debt and missed its first debt payment this summer. Much of the debt is held by U.S.-based “vulture” funds, which are demanding full payment, while the archbishop of Puerto Rico, among others, is advocating debt restructuring in order to provide a measure of relief for the Puerto Rican people. Poverty rates are high on the island, and many people are choosing to leave for the United States rather than face job layoffs and cuts in social services.
Democrats in Congress have proposed a bill that would allow Puerto Rico to file for bankruptcy, but Republicans are hesitant to back it. On Oct. 21, the White House proposed an ambitious plan to create a new bankruptcy process for U.S. territories, but it too would require Congressional support. With the support of Jubilee USA, Archbishop Roberto González of San Juan is pushing for international bankruptcy protections. A U.N. committee is also working on a global bankruptcy process, which could provide stability for financial markets and help developing countries focus on reducing poverty rather than paying down onerous debt. It is a sound idea that deserves U.S. support. Puerto Rico is not the only place in the Western hemisphere that would benefit, and a fair system of debt repayment would help drive down economic inequality worldwide.
In May attorneys from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Inc. filed a civil rights case on behalf of six mothers who attempted to obtain birth certificates for their children from the Department of State Health Services Vital Statistics Unit by presenting their foreign passports and matriculas (a type of identity card). They were denied the documents. The attorneys say this violates the constitutional rights of the children. On Oct. 16, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman ruled in favor of the department.
In his decision Judge Pitman wrote that Texas has “a clear interest in protecting access” to birth certificates. He added that other agencies, including the Department of Justice, have doubted the authenticity of the matriculas. The Mexican government has criticized Judge Pitman’s decision, saying that it undermines the dignity of these families.
This judicial discord comes at a time when Congress seems to have given up on immigration reform. In 2013, the Senate approved a bipartisan bill. Two years later the number of detention centers and deportations has risen, but there has been no reform. Most recently, Representative Paul Ryan, in a bid to become speaker of the House, said he would not bring an immigration bill to a vote. Decisions like the one in Texas marginalize our immigrant brothers and sisters and demonstrate how crucial immigration reform is for the United States. Unfortunately, President Obama’s executive orders on immigration remain tied up in court.
Privacy and Profit
Early in October, transfers from European to American data centers, which had been a standard practice for companies like Google and Facebook, fell into a legal limbo. The European Union prohibits the export of personal information unless it is protected according to E.U. standards, and U.S. privacy laws fall short. For the last 15 years, this privacy gap has been bridged by a framework called Safe Harbor, by which companies could self-certify that they abided by an enhanced set of protections in order to move data across the Atlantic.
On Oct. 6, the European Court of Justice invalidated this framework, in part because it did not establish any limit on the U.S. government’s ability to access personal data. European privacy regulators have set the end of January as a deadline for cracking down on data transfers if no new agreement is in place. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s chief legal officer, has called for a new agreement and updated regulations, saying, “Privacy rights cannot endure if they change every time data moves from one location to another.” In other words, data needs to be protected in relation to persons rather than geographical location.
While we can and should clarify the legal landscape, such reforms will not be enough by themselves. One reason our government invests such extraordinary resources into surveillance is that technology companies collect such an extraordinary amount of data in order to profit by personalizing advertisements. In addition to an upgrade of our legal regime for protecting privacy, we also need an evolution of the market structures that make collecting all this data so attractive in the first place. Technology companies could take the lead by running cloud services that collect less data to begin with and should try to demonstrate that sufficient profit is possible without exposing us all to Big Brother’s gaze.