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History of Future Cities

March 20, 2013


Daniel Brook recently published excepts from his book on four designed or somewhat cultivated cities–St. Petersburg,  Mumbai, Shanghai, and Dubai. Fascinating bit of history on Shanghai and how market reforms were introduced throughout China:

Two decades ago, when Shanghai’s leaders looked out over the new New China born of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, it seemed history had gone off the rails. It wasn’t Shanghai, the city that invented Chinese capitalism, but Deng’s new experimental instant metropolis, Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong, that was brimming with factories and drawing thousands of ambitious young people from across the country. It was as if Deng had held a great national casting call for China’s next business hub and upstart Shenzhen had gotten the part Shanghai assumed she was destined to play. Hoping to set things right, Shanghai officials lobbied their superiors in Beijing, urging them to reopen to the world China’s historic global gateway city and financial center.

Back then even Deng’s pro-market political allies were wary of Shanghai. Some officials worried that unleashing China’s cradle of cosmopolitanism and revolution could upend their rule. Others fretted that the symbolism alone would aid their ideological enemies. Deng was already beset by anti-market factions within the Party who warned that his new Special Economic Zones for international investment would become “foreign concession zones” reborn. Though Deng had been able to overrule them in creating Shenzhen, the symbolism of their critique would be much more salient in Shanghai, a city that had actually been a grouping of foreign concessions during China’s “Century of Humiliation,” from the Opium War through World War II.

But the Shanghai city government kept pushing.

Michael Huemer on Political Authority

March 4, 2013

If you haven’t yet, do pick up a copy of Huemer’s latest book, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the RIght to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. But for the short version, check out this month’s Cato Unbound. Here’s a typical Huemerian insight: 

Imagine that someone proposed that the key to establishing social justice and restraining corporate greed was to establish a very large corporation, much larger than any corporation hitherto known—one with revenues in the trillions of dollars. A corporation that held a monopoly on some extremely important market within our society. And used its monopoly in that market to extend its control into other markets. And hired men with guns to force customers to buy its product at whatever price it chose. And periodically bombed the employees and customers of corporations in other countries. By what theory would we predict that this corporation, above all others, could be trusted to serve our interests and to protect us both from criminals and from all the other corporations? If someone proposed to establish a corporation like this, would your trepidation be assuaged the moment you learned that every adult would be issued one share of stock in this corporation, entitling them to vote for members of the board of directors? If it would not, is the governmental system really so different from that scenario as to explain why we may trust a national government to selflessly serve and protect the rest of society?

“If America was a startup, we’d all quit”

February 26, 2013

Welcome to the competitive government movement Michael Arrington. He writes at TechCrunch

America is an unsolvable problem, a nation divided and deeply in hate with itself. If it was a startup we’d understand how unfixable the situation is, most of us would leave for a fresh start and the company would fall apart.

America is MySpace.

But leaving America means renouncing your citizenship, moving out of the country and leaving family and friends behind. You can retain your citizenship if you like, but you’ll still be away from loved ones and still be paying taxes. You lose all the good stuff about America and have to keep all the bad stuff.

I love this country but we have a management team that’s both evil and incompetent. And the way “stockholder rights” are implemented there’s absolutely no way to stop or even slow down the rush to misery. I wish people had the choice of voting with their feet. This tends to keep the individual states somewhat honest in their dealings with citizens because they have to compete against 49 other states. But there’s no escaping the fed. It’s like a startup where everyone is miserable but no one is allowed to quit.

Belen Fernandez, Please Come Debate Us

February 22, 2013

I want to be as charitable as I can to Al Jazeera, and Belen Fernandez, who wrote an impetuous rant against the “charter city” movement in Honduras. If she wants to have a reasoned debate about the ideas animating these projects, I’m willing to hear her out. Please contact me and we can arrange a public discussion. Ms. Fernandez, if you are reading this, here are some points from your article that might make for a thoughtful kaffeeklatch:

  • “Charter Cities: Neoliberal Viagra” Look, priapic snark may win solidarity from people who already agree with you, but let’s really deliberate and leave this claptrap to the next episode of Girls. 
  • “blantantly colonial charter city project in Honduras” Now this is a strong assertion. I can see how Paul Romer’s original version, which involved the participation of another sovereign and funding one of the top culinary schools in the world, may have led you to this judgment. You would not be the first to arrive at that conclusion. Still, if you had followed the developments closely, you would have known that the Hondurans rejected that model long ago in favor of something that would allay fears of giving up sovereignty.
  • “The gist of the project is the creation of free-market enclaves on Honduran territory that are unaccountable to national laws…” This isn’t correct at all. For one, the model cities that the Honduras proposed would still be under Honduran criminal law. Where they would depart from the rest of Honduras would be in commercial and civil matters. But, and this is important, whatever commercial laws were established for a model city would have to be approved by the democratically elected legislature.
  • “disingenuously suggests that Honduras is not already one big free-market enclave in the sweatshop tradition” What are you asserting here? That Honduras has a free market? The Index of Economic Freedom is a very reliable indicator for how much a of free market any country supports. You will see that Honduras currently qualifies as “mostly unfree” and is ranked 96th out of 177 countries. On top of that, and sadly, Honduras can be a very dangerous place. San Pedro Sula has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Oppression comes in many forms, sometimes from dictators, sometimes from violent criminals, and sometimes from disaggregated bands of drug lords masquerading as quasi sovereigns (a problem greatly exacerbated by the–ahem!–very unfree US drug war). Such conditions imply the opposite of freedom, and irrespective of what the Honduran state does, many human rights violations.
  •  “if Lobo really wanted to promote a democratic image of Honduras, he might refrain from presiding over an illegitimate regime” Given that the New York Times, the White House, and the United Nations also called Manuel Zelaya’s ouster a coup d’etat, I understand why you might leap to that claim as well. But it would help to examine the facts with greater care. In 1982, after years of military rule, Honduras established a constitution with certain sacred articles that would prevent the rise of a dictator. One of these articles imposes strict term limits on any presidency.  According to Article 239 of the Honduran constitution: “No citizen who has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or Vice-President. Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform [emphasis added], as well as those that support such violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years.” When Zelaya called for a national assembly to eliminate this article, he violated the constitution in a way that the people of Honduras are very sensitive to and thereby stripped himself of power. They have a phrase for this temptation: continuisimo. The very same Supreme Court that overruled the legislature on the first model city proposal ordered Zelaya’s arrest for disobeying the court orders requiring him to obey the constitution. The democratically elected legislature voted 123 to 5 to remove him from office. Since this event in 2009, there have been open elections where the people of Honduras have spoken. It’s time the media elsewhere in the world see the coup narrative as misguided at best or simply way off track.
  •  “the splicing of national territory into enclaves governed by international investors – who by definition are concerned with maximising profit rather than human rights” Crony capitalism destroys freedom. We are in agreement on that. But the motivation behind the model city reforms are specifically meant to protect human rights and to provide the grounds for all Hondurans to flourish. Start from the assumption that the people involved share the same ends as you: they want to see a better future for Honduras. If the disagreement is about the means, about the way to ensure greater protection of human rights, then let’s have that debate. Since you only seem to tear down and criticize in your article, I know what you’re against, but not what you’re for. Please let’s discuss history and why some countries have developed and why others haven’t.

Ms. Fernandez makes many other bald and unsupported assertions in the article, which I am happy to take up with her if she so chooses.

Belgians Propose Artificial Island to Store Energy

February 21, 2013

ImageTechnology Review reports: 

Belgian cabinet member, Johan Vande Lanotte, has introduced a planning proposal for a man-made atoll placed in the North Sea to store energy.

The idea is to place the island a few kilometers off shore near a wind farm, according to Vande Lanotte’s office. When the wind farm produces excess energy for the local electricity grid, such as off-peak times in the overnight hours, the island will store the energy and release it later during peak times.

It would use the oldest and most cost-effective bulk energy storage there is: pumped hydro. During off-peak times, power from the turbines would pump water up 15 meters to a reservoir. To generate electricity during peak times, the water is released to turn a generator, according to a representative.

The Belgian government doesn’t propose building the facility itself and would rely on private industry instead.

Hat tip to Bill Gates

Markets in Everything: Citizenship

February 15, 2013

The AP reports

Turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa has led to a surge of interest in programs that let investors buy citizenship or residence in countries around the world in return for a healthy contribution or investment. Most are seeking a second passport for hassle-free travel or a ready escape hatch in case things get worse at home.

Nowhere is it easier or faster than in the minuscule Eastern Caribbean nations of Dominica and St. Kitts & Nevis.

It’s such a booming business that a Dubai-based company is building a 4-square-mile (10-square-kilometer) community in St. Kitts where investors can buy property and citizenship at the same time. In its first phase, some 375 shareholders will get citizenship by investing $400,000 each in the project, which is expected to include a 200-room hotel and a mega-yacht marina. Others will get passports for buying one of 50 condominium units.

Who Cares?

February 5, 2013

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”
― Theodore Roosevelt

At least since Ancient Greece have men realized that a perception a person’s character and motivation is key to his ability to persuade. The wily Greeks believed that there were three keys to persuasion – ethos (character), pathos (passion) and logos (logic), only the last of which is strictly about who is actually, factually right.

So it is no surprise that our politics is dominated by arguments over intentions rather than results. Laws are enacted based on what they are meant to achieve – but never are they enacted with measurable goals, and after the fact, rarely does anyone bother to check if the intentions match the outcomes.

It is now early February, which means that we are well into the season of broken New Year’s resolutions. So it should be obvious to everyone that a person’s motivations are not a good predictor of their behavior: What is more likely to be the reason that someone broke their diet last night? Because they didn’t want it enough? Or because the dinner host plunked a big slice of chocolate cake in front of them, and it just sat there staring at them? And was this jovial person at the dinner table, with the randy jokes, the same “kind” of person they were that morning at work? Or at Saturdays lunch with the in-laws? Or the romantic dinner the night before? Does it even make sense to talk about what “kind” of person someone is without context? But we persist with our labels because they simplify life. We even do it to ourselves, we lose our phone and berate ourselves for being stupid for the rest of the afternoon, as if we had just discovered the true essence of ourselves. In our lazy, simplifying minds we ARE the phone loser, that is the “kind” of person we are – until something else distracts us and we are on to thinking about other things.

So does it really matter what “kind” of people we elect to congress, or what the motivations of the President are? Did the President not close Guantanamo Bay because “he didn’t want it enough”? Are our Congressmen unable to agree on a budget because their moral fiber is somehow suddenly inferior to the noble ethics of all previous sitting houses?

Perhaps we need a system that is able to function even if the voting public is unable to pick the saints out from the sinners. A system where a person’s character, motivation or even intelligence is not a deciding factor. Do we have an example of such a system?

Yes. Yes we do. Science doesn’t care how much a scientist cares or about their background, wealth or personality. It doesn’t even care about their relative intelligence! We don’t decide which scientific theory is correct by giving scientists an IQ test and then choosing the theories of whoever got the highest score. Science would even work, albeit more slowly, if theories were scribbled out by monkeys and then picked out of a hat. What science does care about are results. Theories are tested by experiments. Whichever theory is better at predicting the results is king, until a new experiment comes along or it is replaced by a theory that conforms even more tightly to the results. Yes, this is often a messy process, with petty politics sometimes descending into full-scale nerd fights. But because the results speak loudest, the politics is kept in the background, not center-stage.

In science, mankind has discovered a methodology to consistently generate progress, instead of just change. Theories get better, they don’t just switch around. Likewise, in our politics, we need more progress we can rely on and less change we can believe in. If we want to be able to consistently improve our societies, instead of having them lurch from good times to bad, from free to totalitarian, from growing to stagnant, we need to stop basing our choice of government on gossip and start basing it on facts.

We need to experiment. We need some experiments to fail and some to succeed. And we need to build on those successes with more experiments. And what is success? Success is whatever kind of society people want to live in – because that is what governments are for – creating the types societies that people want to live in.

Today we have practically all the governments of the world conforming to just two main methods of government, representative democracy and totalitarian rule. And they all conform to one single model of what a society should look like – a nation state, centrally ruled. Most people can’t even imagine alternatives. But before science, pretty much every society looked the same as well – agrarian and superstitious – and nobody could imagine an alternative to that either.

We can do better. We need a thousand different countries, all experimenting with some theory of good society and we need anyone who wants to leave them and try a different one to have that opportunity. We need to give people the same freedom that we have given our cell-phones, and pop songs and other merchandise, the freedom to go anywhere in the world. We need a thousand different societies competing with each other for the right to please people. And may the best society win… until a better one comes along.


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