Month: April 2015

Response to Romer on private cities

Paul Romer has commented skeptically on private cities in two recent interviews. Having written on private cities I thought I would take a second to respond.

First, in his own words “And my rule is that I will not support any public policy initiative for a new city if it is not the kind of place that I would be willing to go live or where I would want my children and grandchildren to live.”

I think this is the wrong criteria for judging public policy initiatives. A better way to judge public policy initiatives is whether they improve the lives of those who are targeted by the initiatives. There are many cities throughout the world that I doubt Paul Romer or his offspring would want to live in. However, those cities are inhabited by hundreds of millions of people who want better lives for themselves and their children.

Romer does argue for experimentation and does not seem wedded to a particular organizational structure of a Charter City. I agree that openness and experimentation is necessary in creating new cities. Unfortunately, Romer specifically contrasts his vision to that of private cities, suggesting private cities should not be allowed. Before specifically answering Romer’s critique I will offer a few comments defending private cities.

The basic argument is that profit encourages the effective provision of goods and services. A private city that fails to provide those goods and services would quickly go out of business. Romer correctly notes that this analogy is somewhat lacking. Moving to a new city is high cost. As such, exit in governance terms is always more costly than exiting a grocery store, as new grocery stores are easier to substitute.

One advantage of private cities is that the initial construction of a city is very costly. A private city would mean the cost of infrastructure would be provided privately, possibly saving a government billions of dollars.

Another advantage is the distinct organizational structure. One of the primary benefits of a new city, be it Charter or private, would be to create a new bureaucracy to escape corruption in the home country. A private city would have a strong incentive ensure the bureaucracy is entirely separated. Old bureaucratic influence would be more likely in a public vs. private partnership.

Romer’s primary critique comes down to police. I will quote him in full.

The track record of private police forces and private judicial proceedings is very bad. We have some of these in the United States run by private, but non-profit, universities. If the university has a sports program that generates lots of revenue and prestige, the university tends to protect athletes, typically men, who commit sexual violence, typically against woman. They do not offer anything like “equal protection under the law.” It is a telling illustration of how police and judicial proceedings can be bent to support the mission of the organization, even one like a university that we usually think of as being well intentioned, and fail to protect the people it is responsible for.

First, I think it is odd that in critiquing private, for profit cities, he uses the example of non-profit universities. However, I agree his point stands and must be thought about. Many informal sources I have read suggest similar things happen at hotels, petty crimes by wealthy patrons are somewhat ignored. That being said, I think Romer overestimates the police, in first world countries and especially in the developing world.

As the events of Ferguson and Baltimore illustrate, police have rarely lived up to the ideal of equal protection under the law. Freddie Gray likely died because of a nickel ride, a procedure where police do not strap a suspect in a police van and then drive recklessly. Chicago PD had a black site, and before that they literally tortured people. Stop and frisk, done by several major cities, but most prominently by New York City, is essentially the continual harassment of minority males. I would recommend Radley Balko’s excellent book if Romer is interested in modern policing in America.

However, Charter Cities and private cities can do the most good in the developing world. Unfortunately I am unaware of much literature on law enforcement in the developing world. That being said, it is assuredly worse than in America. Some friends from Honduras, which is the murder capital of the world, have told me stories which illustrate how bad law enforcement can get. I heard from several people that they fear the police more than they do the maras, the gang members. Other people have told me that women being arrested are usually sexually assaulted, if not raped.

Now, given the level of violence in Honduras, I imagine the police force there is more corrupt than average. However, when thinking about how to improve the world it is important to understand the world as it exists. And the world is currently filled with terrible poverty and predatory institutions. Private cities seem like they could reasonably be better than many of those institutions.

Romer then comments, “Unless someone is willing to specify whether there is a local police chief and how he/she is appointed and held accountable, any suggestion they make about private cities can be dismissed as frivolous.”

This question does not strike me as particularly difficult. The obvious answer is the police chief would be appointed by the owner of the city, though I imagine Romer would consider that a frivolous response. They would then be accountable to the owner of the city, who would be accountable to the residents to the extent the owner would want to maximize revenue.

There are a number of other mechanisms which could be used for police. First, the police can be controlled by a non-profit. The board can be controlled by a mix of the owners, politicians, and other prominent individuals.

Another scenario, if there is a proliferation of private cities, is to unbundle the goods provided by each. Perhaps a firm dedicated to policing services will arise, and be contracted by the city itself. It has happened in Sandy Springs Georgia, among other places.

Another possible scenario is for an accreditation body to emerge which would rank various police departments. They would only give high scores to those police departments which taught best practices.

A private city would also likely lack sovereign immunity. It would be subject to lawsuits if it broke it’s founding charter. The charter could specify equal application of the law and due process procedures. Failing to follow these procedures would guarantee a loss in revenue.

Ultimately, I don’t know whether a private city would provide these goods and services or whether it would devolve into a corporate dystopia. I suspect Romer does not know either. Given our collective ignorance I would recommend, as Romer does, creating a set of meta rules for changing institutions on a local level. I would not limit the institutional experimentation, so long as the experimentation is not imposed on anyone. I would hope that Romer would not either.

Religious liberty does not apply to conservatives

From the 1660s until the revolution, American colonists burned effigies of the pope yearly. Loyalist officials were accused of promoting “the Popish religion.” Most colonists would have regarded the public display of crosses suspiciously.

There were Catholic signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as others who spoke out in favor of tolerating them; George Washington himself cracked down on “Pope’s Day” celebrations. But it’s equally important to note that the concept of religious liberty, especially in the context of the Southern colonies, mostly arose from the need for accommodation between the established Anglican Church and dissenting protestants. Religious liberty did not by definition extend to Catholics, because their loyalty to a foreign sovereign was a political matter as much as a religious one.

Many have written about how Catholic toleration during the revolution was due mostly to America’s alliance with France. That and the pragmatic need to put aside differences in a time of war forced New Englanders to moderate their rabid anti-Catholicism, which prior to the outbreak of hostilities used the king’s toleration of French Catholics in Quebec to inflame revolutionary sentiments, a radical point of view encapsulated by the slogan, “No king, no popery.” Even during and after the revolution, full rights of citizenship were not granted to Catholics; after 1776 in Georgia, the Carolinas, and New Jersey they could vote but not hold public office. Elizabeth Fenton has argued that Catholicism was the foil American liberalism needed to develop.

Along the same lines, T.H. Breen identifies anti-Catholicism as one of three major facets of British colonial identity, the others being constitutional monarchism and commerce:

The second element distinguishing the British Empire of the eighteenth century from its European competitors was Protestantism. Religious confession energized national identity. An English person assumed an obligation not only to uphold the constitution but also to resist the spread of Catholicism. Not surprisingly, the seeds of England’s dislike of Catholicism — an emotion that came close to mass hysteria — could be found in the history of the English Reformation. Henry VIII broke with the pope, and then his strong-willed daughter Elizabeth I turned back that Spanish Armada in 1588. The Spanish had intended to root out the religious heresy. Long after the threat of direct attack had receded, the English people still imagined dark conspiracies designed to weaken the Protestant faith. Such notions acquired greater credibility during the seventeenth century, as a succession of Stuart kings either married Catholics, compromised themselves by accepting large subsidies from Catholic nations like France, or, in the case of James II, converted to Catholicism. None of this pleased the ordinary people. In 1688 England’s ruling class sent James II packing — a defining moment known as the Glorious Revolution — and in his place invited William and Mary to accede the throne. The new monarchs’ major appeal was their unquestioned commitment to the Protestant cause.

Eighteenth-century Americans wove anti-Catholicism into their own sense of being British. However deficient in charisma were the Hanoverian kings who for more than a century after 1714 held the British Crown, they defended Protestantism against its continental enemies. In America this commitment translated into a long series of wars against the French. When the British finally emerged victorious from the Seven Years’ War in 1763, the colonists assured themselves that a Protestant God had supported British troops in the battle for Canada. Within this imperial framework it did not mater much whether one attended a Congregational, Anglican, or Presbyterian service, nor to what extent the leveling spirit of evangelical revivalism had swept up an individual or community. All Protestants qualified as proper British subjects. And Catholics were implacable enemies. As the Reverend Jonathan Mayhew explained in a politically charged sermon delivered in Boston in May 1765, “Our controversy with her [Rome] is not merely a religious one … But a defense of our laws, liberties and civil rights as men in opposition to the proud claims of ecclesiastical persons, who under the pretext of religion and saving of men’s souls, would engross all power and property to themselves, and reduce us to the most abject slavery.”

Another relevant line from that sermon is “Popery and liberty are incompatible; at irreconcileable enmity with each other,” which would have been common sense to most of the Founding Fathers.

John Adams took the rhetorical architecture of anti-Catholicism and applied it to the Church of England and the protestant government in his Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law in 1765, referring to apostolic succession as a “fantastical idea” and praising Massachusetts’ founders for rejecting episcopal delusions. As a New Englander, he rejected bishops for theological and philosophical reasons; a century earlier, Virginia rejected them because a bishop would have threatened the gentry’s hold on parish vestries. The Anglican religion, defined by bishop and king — representing canon and feudal law respectively — has never recovered in America, after a revolution in opposition to both, and the leftward drift of American protestantism has continued unabated, through unitarianism on down to the gingham and well-oiled beards of the “emerging church.”

Religious liberty privileges more progressive-friendly kinds of religion, by design. That is the reason why the ACLU will support Religious Freedom Restoration Acts when they’re applied to Sikhs and Native Americans but not Christian bakers. If orthodox Christians, particularly Catholics, wonder why religious liberty no longer seems to apply to them, a large part of the answer is that it was never meant to.

Update: I’ve been meaning to link this piece by Mike Church about Patrick Henry’s support for the clergy and this seems like a good time.

(Image: A pope night celebration in Boston)

A House United


A castle which stands upon nothing at all
Seen by those walking quickly by
In a shadow of its great monstrance
They dare speak not ill, but fully serve
A meal given of our last substance
To the hungry birds, poor and ravenous
Men in lines and cues, black and white
Given without measure, Given without measure,
Men in lines and cues, black and white
To the hungry birds, poor and ravenous
A meal given of our last substance
They dare not speak ill, but fully serve
In a shadow of its great monstrance
Seen by those walking quickly by
A castle which stands upon nothing at all.

Image credit: Justin Brown (flickr).
Cross-posted at A Spy In The House of God.


Put down your phone and stop and smell the flowers

How I admire Andy Crouch. The Christian author recently took a vacation from the hardest thing to escape: the digital realm. For two months, he eschewed the screens that keep us permanently attached to the internet. He didn’t succumb to the fear of “missing out.” Rather, he was able to live more fully in the moment, enjoy himself, and focus on much-neglected hobbies. He even experienced a real rarity in the hyper-connected world: “just quiet and an absence of hurry to get to the next thing.”

I thought about Crouch’s sojourn away from modernity while paying visit to D.C.’s annual blooming of the cherry blossoms. Situated around the Tidal Basin, the springtime event is a tradition that goes back over a century when Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki gifted our country with prunus serrulata (Japanese cherry) trees to signify improving relations between the U.S. and Japan. Clearly, Franklin Roosevelt didn’t get the memo when he interned nearly 100,000 Japanese citizens and non-citizens following the Pearl Harbor attacks. But that’s neither here nor there.

Visiting the cherry blossoms trees is a pleasant experience if you can ignore one thing: rude, absentminded crowds. I can’t stand them. Running around without regard for rules, or basic decency, the typical tourist to the National Mall is the embodiment of modern America. Crude, self-centered, and wholly unconcerned with the well-being of everyone around them – this is the American ethos. Some call it a “me me me” pathology. I call it mass consumerism and individualism run amok.


Secession lagniappe

The Economist thinks Kurdistan draws near and defends their right to secede while recognizing their already near-independent status.  Here is the bottom-line:

Iraqi Kurdistan exists, in whatever form, in dangerous and shifting surroundings. But that has been the case since 1991, when it first got extreme autonomy, thanks to the no-fly zone imposed by America and its allies. Since then, it has steadily entrenched itself as the rest of Iraq has fallen apart, especially after IS grabbed a chunk of it. Never before has Turkey been so friendly to Iraq’s Kurds. Never before has the government in Baghdad needed the co-operation of the Kurds in Erbil so badly. Now, surely, is the Kurdish moment.


The Kurdish distribution

“If we don’t decentralize, the country will disintegrate.”  Iraq.

Quotes from Artur Mas on Catalan independence.

Poroshenko thinks federalism for Ukraine is a terrible idea, but willing to put it to a vote.  Decentralize or perish.

SNP not ruling out a second referendum.  Cameron says no-go.  Is the SNP now trying to turn Brits against the Union?

The U.K., Spain, and Gibraltar

Do immigration and demographics put a time limit on Quebec separatism?

Secession talk in Western Australia is picking up.

Fantastic satellite photos of China’s continued island-building and Foreign Policy reports their airstrip is almost completed.

More Chinese warnings to Taiwan to stay put

Top Chinese official in Tibet wants temples and monasteries to spout propaganda, raise Chinese flag.

Vice with a great piece on the Yemeni conflict and with a focus on the southern secessionist role to-boot.  Recommended.  A piece:

This version of events fits into a popular narrative of a war in Yemen made up of two neat coalitions: on one side the Houthis, an Iranian proxy backed by Saleh, who hopes he can use the current conflict to restore his family to power. On the other, Sunni Yemenis from the north and south rallying around Hadi who are backed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and intent on restoring Hadi to the presidency. It’s a story that helps make a complex country easier to understand. The problem for the Saudis is that many of those doing the fighting in the south have long shared a single goal — one that Hadi has said, explicitly and repeatedly, he does not endorse: independence from the north.


Mike Gibson thinks technology will render governance models optional in the future:

The next 15 years will not pit the Washington Consensus against the Beijing Consensus — or other authoritarian models — but both of these against the Nakamoto Consensus. The diffusion of the smartphone, strong crytpography, and peer-to-peer decentralized public ledgers will weld individuals, networks and voluntary hierarchies into single units of sovereign power capable of opt-out and opt-in governance without precedent

Mark Lutter disagrees.  He is, however, bullish on competitive governance: The age of exit has arrived.  Some qualifying comments here

Thiel’s comments on peaking globalization from his conversation with Tyler Cowen:

If you want a long/short blue-state trade you want to be long California, short New York.  The long/short red-state trade by the way is you want to be long Texas and short Virginia…   Both Texas and California are actually sort of very inward-focused places.  California, both the Hollywood version and the Silicon Valley version are sort of very focused in on themselves and Texas is also a very inward-focused place.  And what D.C. and New York City have in common is they are centers of globalization.  Finance is sort of an industry that is fundamentally leveraged to globalization and D.C. is fundamentally leveraged to international geopolitics.  I would bet on globalization sort of slowly being in abeyance.  With the benefit of hindsight I think we will realize that 2007 was not just the peak year of the finance boom but also the peak year of globalization.

Arnold Kling on Thiel.  The Economist weighed in last December.  Trade as a % of world GDP has indeed stalled at 60% the last five years or so, although this has occurred a few other times in the post-war era.  Here is a chart I made using World Bank data.


Charles Murray’s new book thinks rolling back federal power through traditional means is futile and advocates civil disobedience and legal defense funds to litigate legislation to death.

Speculative thoughts on shareholder cities

Check out the Voice & Exit conference in Austin, TX in June

Musings on nations and national identity

Spontaneous order and traffic lights.  Video on the town of Poynton implementing a shared space intersection, as mentioned in the article:

How socialist were the Incas?

Anti-immigrant attacks are spreading in South Africa.


Newsflash:  The Southern states are still distinct.

Libertarian defenses of Confederate secession are incoherent.

Liberty Cities” in Texas

Tiny Caribou, Maine is making progress on a split

Independence or statehood for Puerto Rico?

(Image source)