Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Will Occidents Happen?

"Urbanization" carries a connotation of deracination and oppressed flight from the country. At least in America we like to imagine rural farm cultures as our original, unspoiled society. But the truth is that the explosion of the world's urban population is beneficial to humanity. Subsistence farming is always perilously close to starvation, whereas 21st century cities will be rookeries of high-tech communications.

Environmentalists also insist on high-density urbanism as a more sustainable human lifestyle. Less space around you means less carbon output, more proximity to jobs and social activity, and more competition to overwhelm failures. Not living off the land also means less incentive to breed. This guy wants to bet you that global population in 2060 will be less than it is today.

So...cities. Paul Romer wants to build new ones in the developing world, and use the capital and political structures of the first world. These "charter cities" would provide a non-coercive lure to locals and offer Western-style prosperity to the teeming global south.

The way that Romer packages his concept is pedantic and unpersuasive. He leans heavily on the terms "rules" and "choices." Why does he make up a post-colonial British name for his protagonist? Why does he decline to mention the actual country Wilson (Nelson?) is from? Romer invokes China's rising "GDP per capita." This is a trick of the free market crowd that disguises discrepancies between rich and poor. There are lots of wealthy people in China today but many more who live under a toxic brown cloud.

Instead of syncretic, Romer's generalizations are vague. He would do better to come clean: he is a capitalist, and wants to undermine the power of developing world bureaucrats by entering their subjects into the global free market. His analogy to the British Empire is apt, but his struggle is to recast Charter Cities as different from colonialism, or even from the fiendish free-trade pacts.

Romer should be lauded for taking philanthropy out of its paternalistic mindset. And brand new, well-managed cities harnessing the frantic ingenuity of the third world seems like a promising marriage, if still very politically sticky.