Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Charter Cities Considered

The Council on Foreign Relations held an event yesterday where Dr. Paul Romer laid out his idea for charter cities as places for those in the bottom billion to go to find employment and opportunity(audio/video, 60mins).  He lays out these tenets or starting points for charter cities:

- First, they would be founded and organized ideally by people outside of the country where the city will go.  The idea is to bring in new conceptions of law and social norms or rules that would under gird this new city.

- Second, people would be allowed to voluntarily enter and leave the charter city, though there may be requirements for entry and there may be subsidy to get a family moved.

- Third, the charter city would likely be run, not by someone elected by the residents, but by someone selected by this initial steering committee of people from outside the country.

Romer asks the question: What would we make a city into if we started from scratch?  The idea is analogous to a charter school.  The benefit, according to Romer, is being able to redefine the rules and relationships between the residents of the city, the governors of the city, and the companies that would invest in the city.  He cites Hong Kong in the 1950s, Singapore, and a new project in Honduras as examples.

I give credit for a big idea, but there are a number of things about this that I'm uncomfortable with.  First, it seems like cultural colonialism.  There is a hubris in thinking, well Western Europeans have some of this down, why don't they go take the model, unfettered, to poor people.  Second, there is an inherent lack of democracy in such a system.  Yes, people can vote with their feet and leave, but we're talking about the bottom billion here.  What will they leave to?  

This leads to number three: this has the potentially to be a highly exploitative endeavor as companies are given incentives to invest, the cities governors aren't elected by the people, and the target populace are some of the poorest, least advantaged people who might accept a job in this city regardless of work conditions or compensation.  And my final point, this is all so fanciful to me.  It's the big dodge.  If you could start from scratch, would you change things?  I think most people would say resoundingly yes, but is that realistic?  Is their the capital to do something like this and even if there is, how do you deal with all the pitfalls?

I took a class in college called "What is Good?" and part of the class explored planned utopias.  The one thing I remember was that none of them worked out as planned.  I don't think Romer expects these charter cities to be utopias, but I think he's wearing rose-tinted glasses if he thinks external agents can enter a country, design a semi-autonomous city-state, secure business investment, entice a populace to relocate, and then have the whole enterprise grow positively in both economic and social concerns.

Maybe we're at a point where we need to try something radical and new to try and deal with global poverty, but charter cities strike me as an idea full of good intentions, but you know what they say about the road to hell.