Paul Romer on charter cities in Prospect

Forget aid—people in the poorest countries like Haiti need new cities with different rules. And developed countries should be the ones that build them

Paul Romer: this short article for Prospect explains his charter cities proposal for the general public:

(…) When disaster strikes—as in the recent Haiti earthquake—the prime minister is right. Even small amounts of aid can save many lives. The moral case for aid is compelling. But we must also remember that aid is just palliative care. It doesn’t treat the underlying problems. As leaders like Rwandan president Paul Kagame have noted, it can even make these problems worse if it saps the innovation, ambition, confidence, and aspiration that ultimately helps poor countries grow.

So, two days later, I opened my own TED talk with a different photo, one of African students doing their homework at night under streetlights. I hoped the image would provoke astonishment rather than guilt or pity—for how could it be that the 100-year-old technology for lighting homes was still not available for the students? I argued that the failure could be traced to weak or wrong rules. The right rules can harness self-interest and use it to reduce poverty. The wrong rules stifle this force or channel it in ways that harm society.

The deeper problem, widely recognised but seldom addressed, is how to free people from bad rules. I floated a provocative idea. Instead of focusing on poor nations and how to change their rules, we should focus on poor people and how they can move somewhere with better rules. One way to do this is with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of new “charter cities,” where developed countries frame the rules and hundreds of millions of poor families could become residents.

How would such a city work? Imagine that a government in a poor country set aside a piece of uninhabited land. It invites a developed country to enter into a new type of partnership, in which the developed country sets up and enforces rules specified in a charter. Citizens from the poorer country, and the rest of the world, would be free to live and work in the city that emerges. It could create economic opportunities and encourage foreign investment, and by using uninhabited land it would ensure everyone living there would have chosen to do so with full knowledge of the rules. Roughly 3bn people, mostly the working poor, will move to cities over the next few decades. To my mind the choice is not whether the world will urbanise, but where and under which rules. Instead of expanding the slums in existing urban centres, new charter cities could provide safe, low-income housing and jobs that the world will need to accommodate this shift. Even more important, these cities could give poor people a chance to choose the rules they want to live and work under.

To understand why rules are the way to harness self-interest, and why such new cities could work where old cities have not, look again at the example of electricity. We know from the developed world that it costs very little to light a home—on average, less than one US penny an hour for a 100-watt bulb. We also know that most poor people in Africa are not starving. They could afford some light. Africans do not lack electricity because they are too poor. Indeed, reliable power is so important for education, productivity and job creation that it would be more accurate to say that many in Africa are poor because they don’t have electricity. So why don’t they?

Why the right rules matter

Consider development the other way round. US customers have cheap electricity mostly because rules channel self-interest in the right way. Some protect investments made by utilities, others stop these companies abusing their monopoly power. With such rules, companies win; efficient providers make a profit. But customers win too; they get access to a vital resource at low cost. It’s the absence of these rules that explains why many Africans don’t have electricity at home. It might seem a simple insight, but it took economists a long time to understand it.

I think Paul Romer understands economic growth better than just about anybody else on the planet.

(…) When I started graduate school in the late 1970s I was convinced economists underestimated the potential for new ideas to raise living standards. The body of work that grew out of my PhD thesis came to be called new growth theory, or post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory in Britain (when it was infamously taken up by new Labour in the mid-1990s). Initially I just wanted to understand how good ideas, like those which make cheap electric light possible, were discovered. But then another topic began to interest me: why didn’t ideas common in some parts of the world spread to others?

Put simply, some countries are better able to establish the type of rules that help good ideas spread, while others are trapped by bad rules that keep ideas out. The rules stopping cheap electricity, for instance, are not hard to identify. The threat of expropriation or political instability stops many western electricity companies moving into Africa. Those that do set up there can exploit their power as monopolists to charge excessive prices. Often they offer bribes to stop rules being enforced, or pay bribes themselves. Good rules would stop all this. So to unleash the potential of the marketplace, poor countries need to find a way to create good rules.

The challenge in setting up good rules lies in solving what economists call “commitment” problems. How can a developing country promise to keep the rules that govern investment fair? Nobel prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling illustrates this problem with the example of a kidnapper who decides he wants to free his victim. But the kidnapper worries that the victim, once released, will go to the authorities. The victim, eager to be free, promises not to—but there is no way for him to guarantee he will keep quiet. As a result, the kidnapper is compelled to kill the victim, even though both would be better off if a binding agreement could be made. Poor countries face similar problems: their leaders cannot make credible commitments to would-be investors.

(…) Other urban economists fear new cities will repeat the unimpressive history of government-planned ones like Brasília, or Dubai’s recent bust. But these are both extreme examples. The state was too intrusive in Brasília and almost non-existent in Dubai. Hong Kong is the middle ground, a state ruled by laws not men, but one that leaves competition and individual initiative to decide the details.

The experience in Hong Kong offers two further lessons. The first is the importance of giving people a choice about the rules that govern them. Hong Kong was sparsely populated when the British took over. Unlike other colonial systems, almost everyone chose to come and live under the new system. This gave the rules proposed by the British a degree of legitimacy they never had in India, where the rules were imposed on often unwilling subjects. This is why building new cities, rather than taking over existing ones, is so powerful.

(…) As billions of people urbanise in the coming decades, they can move to hundreds of new cities. The gains new cities can unleash are clear. Picture again the students studying under the streetlights. By themselves, political leaders in poor countries won’t provide cheap, reliable electricity any time soon. They can’t eliminate the political risk that holds back investment or ensure adequate regulatory controls. But working with a partner nation, they can establish a new city where millions of young people could pay pennies to be able to study at home. And as these cities seek out residents, the leaders and citizens in existing countries will face the most effective pressure for good governance—competition.

I can’t recommend the comments to the Prospect article. It seems that most do not bother to think about what they have read.