By Stanley Wlodyka Jiménez
“Everything is going to change because of this pandemic. Everything about life as we know it is going to change. Nothing is going to be the same. It will be a sharper break than many people realize from the life that was familiar to us a few months ago,” said 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics recipient Paul Romer in a recent interview with WestView News. “I’m afraid, frankly, in many ways it’s going to be a change for the worse.”
If that’s not a popular thing to say, then it won’t be the first time that Mr. Romer has ruffled some feathers. In October of 2016 he was chosen as the Chief Economist for the World Bank amidst much fanfare, only to resign in January of 2018 because he lacked “confidence in the integrity” of the World Bank’s relationship with Chile, as well as their self-governing ideology, about which he stated, “The worst word I’ve ever encountered [is] operationalization; this is used at the World Bank,” Romer shares as something of an explanation. “It’s a terrible way to communicate. It’s the worst type of bureaucratic jargon.”
By December of 2018 he married his fiancé (who teaches littérature française at Barnard College) and was awarded the Nobel Prize on the same day.
Now at New York University, as the founding director of the NYU Stern Urbanization Project, Romer much prefers clarity. “Clear communication is the heart of social life, and it’s the heart of economic activity.” Since the shutdown, Romer has been working every waking moment to clarify the situation, throwing his full weight into ringing the alarm: the United States should invest $100 billion per year on testing. With the shutdown costing $500 billion per month, he hopes that he isn’t actually sounding the economy’s death knell.
Romer feels that testing is the nation’s best hope of getting out of this unprecedented moment in history with the least number of wounds to lick. Test fast, test often, and test everyone! For some, these ambitions may bring up anxiety about a government with a license to kill, so to speak—Big Brother with a double-speak that extends beyond even operationalization. People are worried about their civil liberties.
“That’s one risk that we face right now. There can be incursions of civil liberties. There could be a further erosion of privacy,” Romer concedes, but asserts, “Just to be clear, my plan [for testing] is designed to make sure we don’t need any kind of digital tracking.”
Who said the road to hell is paved with good intentions? Paul Romer is perhaps best known for a 2009 TED Talk about his Charter Cities Proposal. Not long after that went viral, Romer put his plans into action as the chairperson of a Transparency Commission for the government of Honduras, then the most murderous nation in the world and embroiled in political turmoil due to a coup right around the time of the famous Ted Talk.
Criticized by some who viewed it as “neo-colonial,” the charter cities proposal called for developing nations to invite outside investors to build cities within their borders that would be exempt from the host country’s laws and constitution. The post-coup government of Honduras was keen on the idea. However, when investors were lured to snatch up some of that Central American country’s famously beautiful coastlines, it turned out that the Transparency Commission—supposedly an objective third party organization that would oversee the rollout of charter cities in Honduras—was a sham. Romer resigned as Chair when he realized, along with everybody else, the irony of a Transparency Commission formed for the sole purpose of obscuring the reality of how the deeply corrupt government was planning further oppress its citizens.
The devil was exposed in the details. Though post-coup President Lobo (who’s name, fittingly, is the Spanish word for “wolf”) signed a decree naming Romer and four other individuals to a transparency commission in 2011, the decree was never published in a Honduran newspaper. The revelation that the Honduran government failed to satisfy the public notice requirement for new legislation—a common enough legislative practice employed throughout the world, even in New York—and, more importantly, maliciously manipulated Paul Romer’s international celebrity to attract investor interest, led Romer to soberly report to the media at the time, “the Transparency Commission does not exist in the eyes of the law and the five named members have no legal basis for reviewing any agreements.”
Regarding the actions taken by authorities concerning the pandemic, Romer continues to take the risk of his big ideas getting hijacked by less-than-genuine partners, because of what he fears are stakes on the line that are just too high. “Our job right now is to defend the things that are important to us.” “When there’s a sudden loss…people tend to go in a couple directions. One is denial: you just can’t believe it’s happened. Another is recrimination: whose fault was this? Who should be blamed? Denial is keeping us from responding to the presence of this virus effectively. Recrimination is going to lead to attacks on strangers. At least, the discussion, the language, the discourse of hostility to strangers, to foreigners, to those who are not like us, those who are threats to us. That ugly side of human behavior, around us versus them, is going to get worse in the wake of this crisis.”