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Wealth of Nations July/August 2010

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty

In the 1990s, Paul Romer revolutionized economics. In the aughts, he became rich as a software entrepreneur. Now he’s trying to help the poorest countries grow rich—by convincing them to establish foreign-run “charter cities” within their borders. Romer’s idea is unconventional, even neo-colonial—the best analogy is Britain’s historic lease of Hong Kong. And against all odds, he just might make it happen.

To drive home the importance of good rules to economic growth, Romer sometimes shows a photograph of Guinean teenagers doing their homework under streetlights. The line of hunched, concentrating figures presents a mystery, Romer says; from the photo it is clear that the teens are not dirt poor, and youths like these generally own cell phones. Yet they evidently have no electric light at home, or they would not be studying by the curbside. “So here is the puzzle,” Romer declares: Why do these kids have access to a cutting-edge technology like the cell phone, but not to a 100-year-old technology for generating electric light in the home? The answer, in a word, is rules. Because of misguided price controls in the teenagers’ country, the local electricity utility has no incentive to connect their houses to the power grid. Their society lacks the rules that make technological advance meaningful.

For much of the 1990s, development economists built on Romer’s insights, so that laws and the institutions needed to enforce them became central to the mainstream view of what drives human progress. But then, having transformed academic economics, Romer shocked the profession once again—this time by abandoning it. Starting in 2001, he began to channel his energy into a start-up software company that he named Aplia. “I was extremely disappointed to lose Paul as an academic colleague,” Easterly told me. “By walking away from research, he no doubt ignored the advice of anyone he might have talked to.” But Romer shrugged off such complaints. “When I was young, there were too many old economists who were getting in the way,” he explained. “So after 10 years I wanted to get out of the way, and not stifle the next generation.” Besides, Romer’s father, Roy, a former governor of Colorado, had just begun running the Los Angeles school system. As a proponent of technology, the younger Romer was embarrassed that educators such as himself had barely used computers to boost their own productivity.

Like Romer’s research, his company was radical. It created teaching materials that could be accessed online by collegiate economics students, challenging the dead-tree model of the textbook-industrial complex. At first, Romer was told that his approach was crazy. Students were used to paying a fortune for textbooks and then getting the accompanying homework problems at a trivial cost; Romer’s little start-up presumed to invert custom. Sooner or later, Romer insisted, textbooks would be electronic, at which point they would be copied and shared. By contrast, access to online homework problems could be metered successfully on the Web, because the sale of the homework could be bundled with automatic, online grading. Professors would be drawn to the system, and to assigning Aplia’s online texts. And those who had stinted on handing out exercises because of the grading time required would now feel free to assign more, with the result that students would make faster progress. By the time Romer sold Aplia in 2007, students had submitted 200 million answers to its online problems, and the venture had made its founder independently wealthy—not rich enough to be invited to Silicon Valley’s fancy charity galas, but plenty rich enough to live without a salary. At 52 years old, he began to look for a new challenge.

Romer was not inclined to go back to academia. The World Bank sounded him out for the job of chief economist, a perch previously occupied by stars such as Stanley Fischer, Lawrence Summers, and Joseph Stiglitz, but Romer was not interested in that, either. What he wanted, he told me, was to draw on the intellectual creativity of his university days and the entrepreneurial initiative he had shown at Aplia—and above all, to be maximally ambitious. When he made his choice, in 2008, it was suitably bold. He gave up tenure at Stanford and set out to make his mark in his own way: with the help of three assistants, he launched his charter-cities campaign, operating partly out of the small office he retained at Stanford and partly out of a friend’s house or a local Peet’s Coffee. He also began to shuttle back and forth across the world, meeting with any developing-country leader who would grant him an audience. Especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a surprising number proved ready to do so.

When Romer explains charter cities, he likes to invoke Hong Kong. For much of the 20th century, Hong Kong’s economy left mainland China’s in the dust, proving that enlightened rules can make a world of difference. By an accident of history, Hong Kong essentially had its own charter—a set of laws and institutions imposed by its British colonial overseers—and the charter served as a magnet for go-getters. At a time when much of East Asia was ruled by nationalist or Communist strongmen, Hong Kong’s colonial authorities put in place low taxes, minimal regulation, and legal protections for property rights and contracts; between 1913 and 1980, the city’s inflation-adjusted output per person jumped more than eightfold, making the average Hong Kong resident 10 times as rich as the average mainland Chinese, and about four-fifths as rich as the average Briton. Then, beginning around 1980, Hong Kong’s example inspired the mainland’s rulers to create copycat enclaves. Starting in Shenzhen City, adjacent to Hong Kong, and then curling west and north around the Pacific shore, China created a series of special economic zones that followed Hong Kong’s model. Pretty soon, one of history’s greatest export booms was under way, and between 1987 and 1998, an estimated 100 million Chinese rose above the $1-a-day income that defines abject poverty. The success of the special economic zones eventually drove China’s rulers to embrace the export-driven, pro-business model for the whole country. “In a sense, Britain inadvertently, through its actions in Hong Kong, did more to reduce world poverty than all the aid programs that we’ve undertaken in the last century,” Romer observes drily.

Presented by

Sebastian Mallaby is the Paul A. Volcker Senior Fellow for International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite.

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