Will Paul Romer Be the Cat Among the World Bank Pigeons?
By Shlomo Maital
Paul Romer – New World Bank Chief Economist
The World Bank was created in July 1944, at Bretton Woods, NH, and has as its goal spurring growth among poorer countries by helping them borrow capital for infrastructure projects. Repeatedly, the modern relevance of the World Bank has been questioned, when, in a globalized world, nations that run their economies well can access world capital markets by themselves – and nations that do not won’t get World Bank funding anyway.
The relevance of the World Bank depends on understanding what are the underlying factors that drive growth. For years, economists simply did not know. Here is what The Economist says:
Prevailing models of growth assigned an important role to technological change, but lacked a convincing explanation for how it came about. Instead, the models treated new ideas a bit like manna from heaven, arriving in a mysterious and unpredictable manner.
Prof. Paul Romer had a different theory.
Mr Romer sought to change that. His work made the development of new ideas “endogenous”, meaning that it sought to account for them, rather than writing them off as “exogenous” surprises. In his “endogenous growth” theory, new ideas materialise as firms invest in physical capital or research and development, creating knowledge that spills over to the rest of the economy. That suggests that open economies, with institutions that encourage investment in physical and human capital, ought to do best.
The importance of the quality of institutions and of the dissemination of innovation led Mr Romer to focus on urban areas, which are often hotbeds for the creation and transmission of ideas. That focus, in turn, sparked a radical notion of economic development oriented around “charter cities”. Poor countries, he argued, should create new cities and give them leeway to experiment with daring economic and political reforms.
I know Romer is right. Israel has startup cities, like Tel Aviv, that are vibrant entrepreneurship ecosystems. Berlin is one; so is Silicon Valley (a region, not a city); Research Triangle (N. Carolina); Cambridge, UK, and so on.
Will Paul Romer change the thinking of that Old Lady, World Bank, with its old-fashioned stodgy theories? Will he leverage the World Bank’s lending power to foster entrepreneurship in poorer nations?