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Charter Cities: Miller-McCune Gets It Wrong

+ Brandon Fuller

Miller-McCune recently interviewed Peter Liotta, co-author of a new book called The Real Population Bomb. The article gives the impression that Liotta sees rapid urbanization not as an opportunity for growth and development but as cause for Malthusian alarm. The piece goes on to suggest that Liotta is a proponent of Paul Romer’s charter cities proposal.

Unfortunately, both Miller-McCune and Liotta appear to have completely misconstrued the notion of a charter city.

The authors say that further consideration should be paid to economist Paul Romer’s controversial idea of “charter cities,” in which the a foreign body like the U.N. or even a university would take temporary control of governance in a failed city.

Minimal consideration of the idea of a charter city reveals that it has nothing to do with a foreign body taking control of governance in an existing city.

The idea of a charter city involves a country that voluntarily establishes a reform zone on a greenfield site, a site large enough to one day host a city. The country can then, if it chooses to do so, invite foreign partners to assist in the governance of the new city, perhaps through a treaty. The idea of starting greenfield is that people can then choose whether they opt-in to the new legal arrangement in the reform zone. The entire idea is built around preserving a dynamic of choice that avoids the imposition of new reforms on unwilling participants.

The idea of an external entity managing failing elements of city governance is intriguing. But only in a situation where an existing city asked for external assistance would this idea even remotely resemble the voluntary dynamics of the charter cities proposal – and even then, it would not be accurate to describe the arrangement as a “charter city” in the sense that Romer uses the phrase. (We’ve actually seen this idea of external management of an existing city in varying degrees of action—for example, with financial control boards in New York City and Washington, D.C. or in the Justice Department’s efforts to turn around a failed police force in New Orleans.)

When it comes to the ongoing wave of urbanization in the developing world, I am far more optimistic than Liotta and his co-author. I nevertheless understand their efforts to identify solutions to what they perceive to be a looming disaster. I only hope that in future exchanges Liotta (and Miller-McCune) will be careful to draw the very clear distinction between a charter city on the one hand and military occupation of an existing city on the other.

Addendum: I initially linked to a piece that was hosted on the Miller-McCune site. This link is now redirecting to Pacific Standard Magazine’s site. Apparently, Miller-McCune has become Pacific Standard in the interim.

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