Skip to main content

Peter Zeihan has convinced me that there are certain attributes that make a country (or any geographic area, no matter how governed) consistently great. Countries lacking them are consistently desperate.

Most essential among those attributes is one called continuity. Think of continuity in terms of network effects. The more stable and large a community (network), the more useful it is and the more synergies there are. The more people can consistently communicate with others via language and culture and commerce, and the more they can therefore cooperate with each other, the faster ideas are exchanged and the faster society progresses.

Consequently any country that successfully fosters continuity over long periods of time will generally prosper. Those that don’t almost invariably languish in comparison.

Why? 

Without continuity the fragile networks created a year or a decade ago are disrupted or destroyed (by invasion, by famine, by Civil War, by cultural revolutions) the next, and this repeats over and over. In the worst cases (such as pre-Pax Americana China) this can result in uninterrupted centuries of war, famine and pre-industrial, subsistence living.

Alas we can’t just will continuity into existence. Failure to achieve continuity is sometimes a political or cultural failure, but far more often it's a geographic and demographic limitation.

The simple fact is that some places are more innately capable of continuity than others. To be capable of sustained continuity, a given geography must have all or nearly all of the following:

  1. Easily defensible borders and/or neighbors who are not capable of invasion
  2. Navigable oceans and/or rivers that facilitate interaction among groups, thus creating commonalities of culture and facilitating the uber-cheap transportation of goods and ideas around the area
  3. Energy independence (ideally the area is a net exporter of energy)
  4. Food independence (capable of feeding itself without having to import meaningful amounts of food or agricultural inputs like fertilizer)
  5. Economic independence (capable of functioning mostly as a closed loop economy without needing to import large quantities of raw materials or export large quantities of finished goods in order to sustain its standard of living)
  6. A growing or at least stable population (from fertility and/or immigration)
  7. Adequate internal capital or the ability to attract large quantities of outside capital

Therefore, any country lacking one or more of the above must generally do one of the following as a result:

  1. Suffer decades/centuries of economic depression, war, famine and/or a subsistence-level standard of living;
  2. Colonize other territories in order to (a) achieve more defensible borders (e.g., what Russia is trying to do now, what Germany tried to do in WWI and WWII, etc.) and/or (b) to ensure access to energy, food and/or raw material inputs (what the UK and France and Spain and much of the world did prior to the 80 year Pax Americana that ended this practice);
  3. Cover any shortfalls in food, energy and raw material inputs by engaging in free trade with other geographies (this only became possible at global scale thanks to the Pax Americana, which is now ending)
  4. Make yourself useful to a sponsor who has A through E above and who will reliably protect and subsidize you for selfish reasons of its own.

We can take the above ideas and apply them to essentially any country or geography and get a reasonably accurate feel for both the nature of its pre-Pax Americana history (what things were like there prior to the post-WWII American enforced order) and the nature of its coming post-Pax Americana future, as well as and the geopolitical survival strategies (one or more of 1 through 4 above) it’s likely to employ as the Pax Americana quickly ends.

In the past I’ve been neutral on the issue of Puerto Rico’s status. I’ve supported whatever outcome (continued colonial status, statehood or independence) the Puerto Rican people decide they want. And…I still do.

But I would be remiss if I failed to point out in all caps that AN INDEPENDENT PUERTO RICO WOULD LACK C THROUGH G ABOVE. It has no natural energy sources other than the potential of green energy (which isn’t really a viable possibility anytime soon due to issues of competence and other practicalities).

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

Puerto Rico can grow food, but likely not a sufficient amount and variety to make the island self-sustaining, and only then by importing large quantities of inputs like fertilizer. Consequently it can never be food independent except maybe at a subsistence level with a population a fraction of its current size.

Puerto Rico’s economy has for decades been built around exporting manufactured goods (such as pharmaceuticals), but this business model requires an ability to reliably import large quantities of inputs and thereafter to export large volumes of finished goods. The island can likely do that at reasonable levels indefinitely so long as it is US territory, but its ability to do so without the US cooperation, assistance and even tax subsidies that come along with being a territory, or as a US state, is highly questionable at best. Without US sponsorship and PR’s special tax status (something is lost if its granted statehood), its import/export economy will collapse quickly in a post-Pax Americana world.

Puerto Rico has among the very worst demographics in the world. Its population is shrinking very fast, and it has aged past the point where it can sustain a population via more births. Without massive amounts of net in-migration, and soon, Puerto Rico will transform into little more than an impoverished island nursing home within a single additional generation. By the year 2050, the median age will be 50. By 2100 the median age approaches 60(!!) at current trend.

To make matters worse, independence would probably only accelerate this unhelpful demographic trend as hundreds of thousands of working age Puerto Ricans who prefer US citizenship and/or a closer relationship with the US abandon the island for the states as the winds of independence blow near.

Lastly, Puerto Rico’s declining population ensures that it will never have sufficient capital (absent outside subsidies from a sponsor like the US) to maintain its present infrastructure (which is already archaic and fragile).

In other words, an independent Puerto Rico lacks nearly all the things necessary for a country or geographic area to rise above subsistence-level standards of living. Like other similarly situated countries, it has managed to do so since WWII only because of the Pax Americana and/or American sponsorship.

Consequently, in a post-Pax Americana world, and as is about to happen with many of other independent countries similarly situated, Puerto Rico would likely revert to a relatively impoverished subsistence farming culture within a decade of true independence from the US.

So…what about statehood?

Well, that’s a mixed blessing for sure. A great state of Puerto Rico would have essentially ZERO competitive advantages over any other US state (save maybe Hawaii in limited instances). The people of Puerto Rico are far less educated than in the states, the cost of energy is far higher here, construction costs are far higher here, transportation to/from Puerto Rico is much more difficult and expensive, crime is much higher here, the work ethic and sense of urgency is island-ish, the infrastructure is far worse here, the language barrier is a major obstacle here, etc., etc., etc..

To state it plainly, the only reason that Puerto Rico has been able to attract the outside business, talent, capital despite its lack of C through G above is precisely because it is not a US state. Its non-state status offers those doing business or taking up residence in Puerto Rico opportunities that they can’t otherwise find in any US state. In some cases those advantages are so significant that they are willing to suffer the massive trade-offs of coming here to obtain them.

But grant Puerto Rico statehood and it forfeits even those limited opportunities. Anyone moving here would suffer the trade-offs of doing so but with little or no compensating advantages. That would be appealing to essentially nobody. An island already on life support then simply flatlines.

In short, I’m personally fine with whatever path Puerto Rico chooses. But it should make informed decisions that are based on the reality on the ground rather than upon the pipe dreams of locals and the self-interested lies of politicians. The fact is that there are few to no examples of countries or geographies that lack A through F above enjoying a prosperous peace for extended period of time without colonizing others (something Puerto Rico has no capacity to do), without having some competitive advantages in free trade (which Puerto Rico lacks without US sponsorship) or without finding a sponsor (something Puerto Rico has already but risks alienating). To expect Puerto Rico to be an exception to this rule is probably a pipe dream.