Cities of Refuge

When I first met Paul Roemer a few years ago a few years ago he was promoting an idea he called “Charter cities.”

The basic idea is that, under contemporary economic conditions – in particular the astonishingly low cost of transporting freight by water – economic activity doesn’t require much in the way of natural or even human resources: just a piece of land with access to ocean transportation, a little basic urban planning, the rule of law, and the absence of intrusive and kleptocratic government.

Alas, those last two are sufficiently rare in the worst-off countries that hundreds of millions of people, deprived of industrial opportunity where they are, want to leave and go somewhere else. The problem is that “somewhere else” mostly doesn’t want to take them in.

Romer’s proposed solution flows directly from this analysis: find an empty space with the requisite transportation access, get the national government out of the way, and build a new city, attracting economic migrants from around the world. At first the charter city would be governed by an international board, with housing and industrial plant built by private actors and infrastructure and public-services financed by ground leases: in effect a Henry George single tax.

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The too sane negotiator

Like you, I’ve been watching at a safe distance the bitter wrangles and brinkmanship in Europe over Greek debt. It is horribly reminiscent of August 1914. Could the disaster have been avoided?

Europe’s financial establishment has been complaining that their Greek negotiators are childishly obstinate. Why don’t they just give in to the astonishingly detailed neocolonial prescriptions they have been mailed?

You don’t win a negotiation by being conciliatory. Possibly, the Greeks have been rather too sane. A proper mad negotiator would have threatened not just partial but complete default if forced out of the euro. What would Greece have to lose? Better wipe the slate of odious governmental debt clean, which would reassure new private lenders (cf the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Argentina). To protect German taxpayers, the correct strategy for Berlin and Brussels at this point would then be surrender on the terms already offered. This gets most of what they want and already more than Greek voters can stand.

Either you have the institution of debt bondage or that of bankruptcy. International law does not provide for the former. The attempt by France to enforce Germany’s Versailles reparations in 1923 by occupying the Rhineland did not turn out well, even from the narrow viewpoint of French taxpayers.

It’s true that Grexit would have costs for Greece too. In the short run it would be even worse for Greeks than the austerity hair-shirt, though it offers better prospects for growth a few years ahead. The non-cooperative bad payoffs still look asymmetric. However, my speculation is unrealistic. Tsipras campaigned on a promise to keep Greece in the euro, not to threaten to take it out. So Grexit is up to Germany, not Greece.

Why empirical political scientists and political theorists talk past each other

The latest issue of Perspectives on Politics, which just went up, includes my article “The Two Cultures of Democratic Theory: Responsiveness, Democratic Quality, and the Empirical-Normative Divide.” I’m always behind the times when it comes to paywalls, but here’s my best shot at a link for “blogging”:

The Two Cultures of Democratic Theory: Responsiveness, Democratic Quality, and the Empirical-Normative Divide

This is for professional political scientists, and admittedly harder going than the book review I blogged about a couple of days ago. The basic idea is that empirical political scientists very often use as their assumed measure of democratic quality “responsiveness”: the extent to which changes in public policy reflect changes in the preferences of the public, or the median voter. Political theorists, on the other hand, almost never define democratic quality this way: there are a host of other things that democracy is supposed to be about. I try to hash out where the disjunction came from; why it matters; what each side can learn from the other; and why there’s still room for legitimate differences and a division of labor. (Teaser version: we should expect people who measure political phenomena for a living to seek rough agreement on how to define what they’re measuring. We should also expect people who study political concepts and political values for a living to be legitimately dissatisfied with the inevitable simplification this entails.)

Academic readers should be able to download the full version easily as an .html or .pdf. Anyone else whose interest is piqued by the abstract should email me at my academic email address (not hard to find) and I’ll send you a version within a few days.

Update: The article, along with the rest of what looks like a great issue (I’ve been on vacation and have lacked the time to read it), is now ungated through the end of July, courtesy of Cambridge Journals. The link is: