Architect of Honduran privatised cities drops out over lack of transparency

Paul Romer attacks Honduran government over its failure to ensure accountability of the new privately-run cities.

Honduras' plans for "model cities" – entire settlements managed by private corporations – already seem to be settling in to a pattern of secrecy and corruption worthy of the best dystopian futures.

The idea to create the cities – known as Regions Especial de Dessarrollo (Special Development Regions), or REDs – was suggested a year ago, but this month the first deals were signed, with US-based investment group MGK, to build one.

The Financial Times' Ron Buchanan reported (£):

The model cities are to be states within a state, with their own legal and law enforcement agencies, tax and monetary systems – “Hello US dollar”, “Adiós Honduran lempira”, presumably – and every conceivable facility to attract investment.

The concept sounds like a steroid-enhanced vision of a free-market enthusiast. Which it is. The US economist Paul Romer has dreamed up the idea of creating cities, along the lines of Hong Kong and Singapore, which have created poles of dynamic investment that have spilled over into their once impoverished hinterlands.

Even before the real problems began, there was already opposition to the plan. The Independent's Suzy Dean wrote, back in January, that:

What sets the REDs apart from other charter cities is the belief that in order for the cities to thrive they must suspend democracy. The unelected [Transparency] Commission will govern the new city, until they decide the population is ‘ready’ for democracy; only then will new local councils be set up. . .

The establishment of the Transparency Commission reflects the belief of the Honduran government that the public might ‘get it wrong’. The Transparency Committee will not engage with or respond to public demands.

The economist Paul Romer has been the guiding voice behind the plans, and was one of the five people originally slated to be on the Transparency Commission. But yesterday, he sent Marginal Revolution's Tyler Cowen a statement detailing his growing problems with the project. In short, the Transparency Commission has been shuttered, and Romer only even heard about the MGK deal from the press:

From recent newspaper reports, I learned that the Honduran agency responsible for public-private partnerships had signed an agreement about a RED with a private company. When I asked for information, I was told that I could not see this agreement.

This was a departure from the standards of transparency that the administration had led me to expect. It was also a departure from the role for the Transparency Commission outlined in the Constitutional Statute passed by the Honduran Congress.

So the model cities, which were going to have a transparency commission in the place of democratic governance, now have… nothing. Except the corporation that runs them.

Meanwhile, Antonio Trejo Cabrera, a lawyer who had helped to prepare motions declaring the the model cities unconstitutional, was murdered on Sunday, according to the Associated Press:

Antonio Trejo Cabrera, 41, who died early Sunday after being ambushed by gunmen, was a lawyer for three peasant cooperatives in the Bajo Aguan, a fertile farming area plagued by violent conflicts between agrarian organizations and land owners. The most prominent is Dinant Corporation owned by Miguel Facusse, one of Honduras' richest men. Thousands of once-landless workers hold about 12,000 acres (5,000 hectares) of plantations they seized from Dinant.

Trejo, who was shot six times after attending a wedding, reported threats in June 2011, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press, including photocopies of a BlackBerry message he received saying: "Trejo, you dog, you have 48 hours to get out or you're dead." . . .

MGK director Michael Strong said the company is "horrified" by Trejo's killing.

"We believe that Antonio Trejo, had he lived long enough to get to know us, would have concluded that our approach is 100 percent beneficial to Honduras and Hondurans. We are saddened for his family and understand what a tragedy this is for trust and goodwill in Honduras," Strong said in a statement to The Associated Press.

The plans to construct the first RED remain in effect.

A still from the dystopian future of the upcoming film Dredd 3D. Photograph: Lionsgate/Reliance Entertainment

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times