Sunday, June 27, 2010

Charter Cities

Sebastian Mallaby’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty (The Atlantic, July/August 2010) is an intriguing read on multiple levels. Here is the synopsis:

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.

Because it’s the key to Romer’s thinking, I will quote the Hong Kong example at length:

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.

The article’s other main example, about a similar story from 12th-century Germany, is an interesting historical nugget by itself. However, the examples are there to illustrate that Romer’s idea is based on what has worked. The politically incorrect part is the implication that uncle rich country needs to be in charge for success to occur.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. Maybe you know the story of the fisherman who encounters a hungry man? If the fisherman gives the hungry man a fish, the man will still be hungry tomorrow. But if the fisherman teaches the hungry man to fish, the man can get his own fish ever after.

If that sounds more like charity than colonialism, it is. Think of Romer’s idea as Foreign Aid 2.0—informed by the experience of traditional foreign aid, which despite efforts to the contrary often failed to get beyond giving fish. In contrast, Romer’s approach is to transplant the equivalent of a fishing infrastructure, including the laws and experts to manage it.

It’s an audacious idea, susceptible to criticism from all quarters. There is an army of devils in the details, so much so that the idea may never get a real try. But Romer deserves huge credit for tackling a hard problem from a new angle.

The article is a worthy read.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sizing Up Nicholson Baker’s The Size of Thoughts

The Size of Thoughts is an essay collection by Nicholson Baker, originally published in 1996. The book caught my eye during a saccadic browse of a local bookshop. (Saccadic browse is the kind of phrase Baker might use, although I think that was me channeling him, rather than him verbatim.)

The essays vary in topic and style: Here we have a brief, folksy wedding speech; there we have an expansive elegy to libraries’ disappearing card catalogs—not the books; rather, the physical index cards and their enclosures.

My favorite essays were about model airplanes and nail clippers.

On the B-2 Stealth bomber: “[It] is beautiful from a distance, although in a worrisome, Transylvanian sort of way.”

On nail clipping:

When I want a really authentic experience, I sometimes use a toenail clipper on my fingernails, shuddering with the thrill of fulcrumed power; and then, for my toes, I step up to Revlon’s veterinary-gauge Nipper, a parrot-beaked personal-pruning weapon that, despite its chrome plate, looks as if it should be stored in the toolshed. A dense, semiopaque shard cut by this nineteen-dollar piece of spring-loaded Brazilian craftsmanship recently rose from what was left of my ravished toenail and traveled across the room, landing in a box of tax records, where it remains.

Later, still on the subject of nail clipping, Baker invites us to, “Think of the fearful Norse ship of the apocalypse, Nagflar, made of dead men’s nails, which will break loose from its moorings during the Monstrous Winter, when the Wolf has swallowed the Sun.” In that same paragraph, he goes on to note the connections with “a related Finno-Urgic tradition” and Lithuanian folklore.

It would take a lot more quoting to accumulate a representative sample of this book’s eclecticism. So I’ll summarize this way: You know the stereotype of the brilliant, mad scientist? Baker is like that, except he’s the mad librarian. He haunts the crevices of human knowledge for lenses that refract topics in unfamiliar ways—unless you are one of those people already dialed into the Finno-Urgic aspects of nail clipping.

With his deep dives into curio, Baker can be earnest, mischievous, funny, and wise. His prose is a demanding delight, its sprigs of wordcraft jutting out and about. (There I go trying to channel him again.)

His challenge, especially with the longer pieces, is staying on the right side of “satisfyingly obscure” versus “tediously obscure.” It’s a sliding scale, depending on the reader. I confess that I repeatedly surrendered to fatigue by minutia, and that’s saying something given my threshold—c.f., postings in the Pseudorandom category of this blog.

So, I don’t know if this book is for you. I don’t even know if it was for me. Let’s just say I respected it, with particular affection for a few essays.

However, one thing is clear: For anyone who takes wonder in humanity’s diversity of knowledge, Baker would be an endlessly interesting person to be around, provided you could keep him within hailing distance of what you think is interesting.

If you give The Size of Thoughts a try, may you meet him somewhere on that terrain.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Square with Four Circles: More Interesting Than It Sounds ;)

The image below looks like an orange design is superimposed on a photo, right?

Actually, the orange design is superimposed on the real world. It is painted on the left alley wall, the right alley wall, and the parking garage further away. The three parts do not touch, but from the end of the alley where the photo was taken—off Chapel Street between College and Temple in New Haven, CT—the parts form a convincing whole.

For the full effect of walking down the alley, this article has a video (highly recommended), plus additional background about the piece, Square with Four Circles by Felice Varini. He just finished it this past week. It will be up until 2011.

Thanks to Greg and Nina for pointing it out as we passed by.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Give Data, Get Stuff: Always Present and Evolving

Last week The New York Times had an article, Web Start-Ups Offer Bargains for Users’ Data, that started like this:

As concern increases in Washington about the amount of private data online, and as big sites like Facebook draw criticism that they collect consumers’ information in a stealthy manner, many Web start-ups are pursuing a more reciprocal approach — saying, in essence: give us your data and get something in return.

The article cites relative newcomers like Mint and WeShop, yet it omits that The New York Times itself was a pioneer in this practice circa 1997. The email address I registered with is from then, and I distinctly remember the ask for demographic data at the time.

Here is a third party’s description from 1998 of the Times’ registration process and rationale:

Registration to the New York Times online is free, although you do have to give a valid email address and you are asked some demographic questions like your age, sex and household income. This service, and many thousands of others on the Net, is free because you have paid for it with information about yourself. Personally identifiable information is rapidly becoming “coin of the realm” of the online world. Those “free” registrations are a barter of your information for a product.

It’s true that newer services like Mint are more direct in their use of your data on your behalf, but the idea of “give data to get stuff”—and the attendant privacy concerns—is not so much a new trend as an ever-evolving constant of the Internet age.