Whether and how to change the flag

July 2, 2010

Even since I first heard of Puerto Rico when I was a child, I’ve heard arguments about whether or not it should become our 51st state. As with other complex and controversial topics, the arguments I hear or read often sound convincing – until someone else presents a contrary view.

On the whole, I tend to lean toward agreeing with the proponents of statehood, both for reasons of principle and pragmatism. As to principle, why should citizens of this country not have the same kind of voting rights and elected representatives at the federal level? The practical reasons have to do with the economic boost that statehood proponents believe would occur, as it has with other states that entered the Union.

Trying to predict economic outcomes, of course, is difficult at best. But I do think that statehood proponents have a point when they point out the flaws in the economic arguments of opponents to statehood. The latter group claim that since rates of poverty are so high in Puerto Rico, having Puerto Ricans pay federal income tax would generate little revenue, while more tax dollars from the existing fifty states would flow into Puerto Rico.

The question is whether the current state of the economy in Puerto Rico would persist. The opponents of statehood seem to assume that it would. The proponent of statehood point to studies that purport to show that the island’s economy would experience a significant boost. People who know far more about economics than I do can’t agree on the matter, so I’m not going to try to render an opinion. But I do know that the economy is so complex, influenced by so many interdependent factors, that you can’t change a few factors and expect the others not to change also.

The purpose of this post isn’t to argue for or against statehood, however. If the subject interests you, there are a variety of website that discuss the matter. The U.S. Council for Puerto Rico Statehood is – as the name says – for statehood. No Statehood for Puerto Rico and ProEnglish oppose it. This one gives a fairly balanced view, I think, of the issues from both perspectives.

What I found interesting this evening was a far easier question: How could we rearrange the stars on our flag to add in one more? Fifty-one is three times seventeen, but it would hardly work to have three rows of seventeen stars. You could split seventeen into eight and nine, and have six rows of eight and six row of nine, but then you wouldn’t have the nice symmetry of today’s flag, with longer rows of stars at both top and bottom.

Of course, if Puerto Rico became a state, might there be other territories desiring the same status? How would you make a flag with fifty-two stars, or fifty-three? Fortunately, a mathematician and a computer can offer practical solutions to these questions far more easily than economists and politicians can answer the thornier questions regarding statehood.

Check here for an interactive flag calculator that lets you see possible configurations for anywhere from one to one hundred stars – with three exceptions for which there are no valid patterns (at least not using the six most common star configurations). Many numbers offer two or more possible patterns (try clicking on the long, short, alternate, equal, wyoming, and oregon buttons when they are not grayed out).