Kedrosky: Conversation with Paul Romer

Paul Kedrosky interviews Paul Romer for his Kaufman Foundation Infectious Talk podcast (33 minutes). There is also a transcript. The topic is how Charter Cities can exploit the “startup dynamic”:

In this episode, Paul talks with Paul Romer, Senior Fellow at the Stanford Center for International Development and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. They discussed Romer’s path as an academic turned entrepreneur, who returned to Stanford to explore how the startup dynamic could potentially be applied at the level of developing countries.

Charter Cities: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty

Image credit: Mark Ostow

Sebastian Mallaby launches his Atlantic article on Paul Romer by recounting the success of the Baltic coastal city of Lübeck, a 12th century Charter City founded by the Germanic prince Henry the Lion.

(…) Henry the Lion’s would-be heir is Paul Romer, a gentle economist at Stanford University. Elegant, bespectacled, geekishly curious in a boyish way, Romer is not the kind of person you might picture armed with a two-handed flanged mace, cutting down Slavic marauders. But he is bent on cutting down an adversary almost as resistant: the conventional approach to development in poor countries. Rather than betting that aid dollars can beat poverty, Romer is peddling a radical vision: that dysfunctional nations can kick-start their own development by creating new cities with new rules—Lübeck-style centers of progress that Romer calls “charter cities.” By building urban oases of technocratic sanity, struggling nations could attract investment and jobs; private capital would flood in and foreign aid would not be needed. And since Henry the Lion is not on hand to establish these new cities, Romer looks to the chief source of legitimate coercion that exists today—the governments that preside over the world’s more successful countries. To launch new charter cities, he says, poor countries should lease chunks of territory to enlightened foreign powers, which would take charge as though presiding over some imperial protectorate. Romer’s prescription is not merely neo-medieval, in other words. It is also neo-colonial.

I strongly object to Mallaby casually peppering this piece with terms like neo-medieval and neo-colonial. Especially using the term “colonial” in this context is going to cause Paul trouble because this is exactly the sort of fears that are being nurtured by status quo defenders attempting to block the Charter CIty initiative.

Anyhow, read the whole article, see what you think. My bottom line is that the publicity value outweighs the writing slips. And Mallaby offers useful summaries of the political problems that will continue to harry Romer’s effort. E.g. it looked like Madagascar would be the first test of charter cities, until the president was overthrown:

Even as Romer was meeting with Ravalomanana, the president’s main political opponent was sniping at the proposed lease of farmland to Daewoo, and the idea of giving up vast swaths of territory to foreigners was growing increasingly unpopular. The arrangement was denounced as treason, and public protests gathered momentum, eventually turning violent. In late January 2009, protesters tossed homemade grenades at radio and TV stations that Ravalomanana owned; looters ransacked his chain of supermarkets. In February, guards opened fire on marchers in front of the presidential palace, killing 28 civilians. At this, units of the army mutinied. Soon, Ravalomanana was forced out of office.

The first action of the new government was to cancel the Daewoo project, and Romer’s plans in Madagascar were put on hold indefinitely. But the larger question was what, if anything, this disappointment signified for Romer’s whole approach. The riots appeared to demonstrate the explosive sensitivities surrounding sovereignty and land—sensitivities that are not confined to Madagascar. Indeed, versions of the Daewoo story have played out elsewhere. In the late 1990s, for example, Fiji’s government decided to bring in a British nonprofit to manage its mahogany forests, and an indigenous leader launched a revolt under the slogan “Fiji for the Fijians.” The rebellion was hypocritical: as the Oxford economist Paul Collier recounts in his book The Bottom Billion, the indigenous leader had himself backed a rival foreign bid to manage the mahogany. But the venality of the rebels’ motivation didn’t change the fact that a demagogue could easily attract support by railing against territorial concessions to foreigners.

(…) But the largest obstacle Romer faces, by his own admission, still remains: he has to find countries willing to play the role of Britain in Hong Kong. Despite the good arguments that Romer makes for his vision, the responsibilities entailed in Empire 2.0 are not popular. How would a rich government contend with the shantytowns that might spring up around the borders of a charter city? Would it deport the inhabitants, and be accused of human-rights abuses? Or tolerate them and allow its oasis to be overrun with people who don’t respect its city charter? And what would the foreign trustee do if its host tried to nullify the lease? Would it defend its development experiment with an expeditionary army, as Margaret Thatcher defended the Falklands? A top official at one of Europe’s aid agencies told me, “Since we are responsible for our remaining overseas territories, I can tell you there is much grief in running these things. I would be surprised if Romer gets any takers.”

Please read the whole thing. Paul Romer has a few comments on the article here.