Travel

I would call the disappearance of Ringling Brothers a civilizational advance, except I am not sure we are living in a time that merits this phrase.  In any case, I found this 2013 article on circus economics interesting:

Gibson and Petrov travel with Ringling’s “gold unit” through smaller markets like Chattanooga, where the intimate one-ring circus seems more supportable than the the three-ring spectacle that tours big cities.

Gibson describes the economic impact on Chattanooga: 40 of the 120 circus employees stay at a local hotel; 24 travel in RVs that are parked in a nearby field.

Each day, truckloads of hay and produce are hauled to McKenzie Arena to feed the animals. The circus vet banned peanuts from the elephants’ diet for being too fatty but allows them an occasional loaf of unsliced bread or some marshmallows for treats. On performance days, a local caterer feeds the human employees, or they buy their meals in restaurants or grocery stores.

The circus carries its own washing machines and dryers, computers and props. It has a free day care center with two teachers for employees to use and a free, fully staffed school for K-12 students.

The gold unit hits 42 cities in an average year, which means 46 to 48 weeks on the road. Gibson said a lot of circus employees visit Ruby Falls and the Tennessee Aquarium when they get to Chattanooga.

But the schedule does not leave much time for socializing outside of the circus. Many performers are third- or fourth-generation Ringling employees who marry other Ringling staffers and raise their kids on the road. Petrov and his wife, Victoria, have a 17-year-old son who grew up attending the traveling school.

Maybe it was just a poorly run business, but might there be a more systemic read on the troubles of Ringling?  The company itself cited declining attendance and high operating costs as factors, but of course that can be made more specific.  Here are a few options:

1. It is now cheaper to bring people to spectacular events than to have the spectacular events travel around.  Maybe it makes more sense to build something more permanent into Las Vegas or Orlando.  Cirque Soleil is experiencing economic problems as well.  But note that “Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live,” among other endeavors, still will be up and running.

2. Kids get enough drama through social media.

3. Circus jobs stink, and it is increasingly hard to attract and retain the talent.  Might there be a visa/immigration issue as well?

4. Circuses are mostly boring, and some of the highlights can be watched, in one form or another, on YouTube.  Even as a kid I was bored by the circus I saw at Madison Square Garden, relative say to watching Fischer vs. Spassky on TV.  What’s the actual drama in a circus?

David Burge offers marketing comments: “Ringling Bros was mid-market brand killed by upscale competors like Cirque de Soleil, downscale knockoffs like Washington DC”

5. Fewer circus animals, including fewer or no elephants (none for Ringling since May 2016), hurts circus demand by a significant amount.

6. I don’t know if contemporary circuses still degrade women, the disabled, and other groups, but of course the contemporary world won’t sit still for that any more, not in any sphere of life.

Those are just speculations, what other factors might be operating?

I thought this was one of the very best of the conversations, Jhumpa responded consistently with brilliance and grace.  Here is the link to the transcript, podcast, and video versions.  In addition to discussing her books, we covered Rhode Island, Elena Ferrante, book covers, Bengal and Kolkaata and Bengali literature, immigrant identity, writing as problem solving, Italian authors, writing and reading across different languages, Indian classical music, architectural influences including Palladianism, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

TYLER COWEN: …You’ve written a great deal about not having a native country, about not having a language of your own that’s clearly yours, or even a culture. Having read or reread all of your work and surrounding works, and if I think, “How do I frame you?” I would say I think of you as a Rhode Islander because that’s where you grew up. You were born in England but came here when you were three, grew up in Rhode Island. How would you react to that?

JHUMPA LAHIRI: Uncomfortably.

[laughter]…

LAHIRI: I mean, with all due respect. It’s true.

LAHIRI: Well, I think what was helpful about it is that it opened up the setting of The Lowland, which is set in part in Rhode Island, but it’s the first of my books in which I can actually mention Rhode Island by its name. Whereas the other books, the preceding books, are set in these sort of fake Rhode Island slash Massachusetts, this area, this terrain that really is Rhode Island, just to boil it down. But I couldn’t mention it. I couldn’t name it as such. And I think that’s telling.

It was saying something, the fact that in the earlier books I was writing about the ocean. I was writing about this small campus, this little town, and describing these settings that I knew very well, the settings I had grown up in, but I couldn’t come out and say that it was Rhode Island. I kept calling it some suburb of Boston. So I think the writing of that piece unlocked something. Then in The Lowland, they’re in Rhode Island, and I don’t pretend anymore.

And:

COWEN: If you compare Interpreter of Maladies to your other short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, do you think of the latter, more recent work as being more about reconciliation and there’s a greater role for children or families in at least some of the stories? Or do you think, overall, your fiction with time is moving in the direction of Hardy and becoming darker?

LAHIRI: I think it’s becoming darker and I think that’s usually the case as we get older, right?

Jhumpa on Kolkaata:

…it’s a city that believes in its poets, that believes in its politics, believes in humanity in some sense. And life is so extreme there, in so many ways. People are put to the test, and you see life being put to the test constantly around you. There’s nothing you can really accept easily or take for granted about yourself or about the universe if you’ve been there. It’s a jolt to your consciousness, but a fundamental one, an essential one, to shake us out of this, whatever takes over, if you protect yourself.

Do read (or listen to) the whole thing.  Jhumpa’s last two books are excellent and highly underrated, both were written in Italian (!) and then translated.  One is on writing and reading in a foreign language, the other is on book covers.

How about calling the series “Lonely Planet”?

Years before penning Metamorphosis, considered by some to be the greatest short story ever written, Franz Kafka hoped to make his fortune writing a series of budget European travel guides.

Kafka conceived a business plan for the books, dubbed “on the cheap”, while travelling across the continent with his friend Max Brod in the summer of 1911. This detail was revealed in volume three of Reiner Stach’s biography, Kafka: The Early Years, published in translation (by Shelley Frisch) last month.

The ahead-of-its-time idea (considering the popularity of budget travel tips today) sought to take on the traditional Baedeker travel guides, which then consisted primarily of hotel and restaurant listings, but lacked the insider knowledge Kafka felt was truly valuable to a traveller.

Questions that his guides proposed to address are ones that tourists still seek answers for now. On which days do museums have reduced fees? Are there any free concerts? Should you travel by taxi or tram? How much should you tip? There was also a suggestion to include advice on where to find erotic and sexual entertainment for a fair price.

Stach writes: “Kafka and Brod were convinced that a travel guide that answered all these questions candidly and supplied a select few reasonable and reliable recommendations would instantly beat out the competition … With a series of this kind, they could earn millions, especially if it was published in several languages.”

Yet it seems they were a wee bit clueless on their own travels:

For example, after discovering that Zurich’s city library was closed on Sundays, the pair believed they could still gain entry by asking at the tourist office.

And:

…the pair were so afraid that their idea would be stolen that they wouldn’t reveal the full details of their pitch to a publisher without first securing an advance.

I would have enjoyed hearing the Swiss travel office response.  Here is the full story, via Ted Gioia.

In the United States, if I am trying to accelerate and enter the road from say a parking lot, I try to minimize the number of misleading movements my car might make.  I don’t “edge out” just for the heck of it, for fear this may spook the other drivers and cause them to suddenly switch lanes in a dangerous (for them) fashion.  Furthermore, I might misjudge and move the car out too far into the lane, leading to a collision.

In Lagos, it seems the practice is to announce your intentions with as many little forward “nudges” of your car as possible.  They seem to mean “I am thinking of going sometime soon.”

After enough such nudges, the oncoming cars either go far away into the left lane, or perhaps they stop for you altogether and let you go.  Or maybe they slow down a bit and you decide you can beat them and so you pull into the lane.

A higher discount rate (for entering the road) is one way to rationalize this behavior, but in a variety of other contexts I have noticed Nigerians who were not massively upset at being ever so slightly late.  So might there be some other explanation?

Maybe there is greater variability in rational assumptions about the other drivers.  You may not know how well their cars can brake, accelerate, and perhaps their lane-switching plans and propensities are harder to predict.  So by nudging your car out in successive bits, you may be “taking the temperature” of the other drivers on the road.  Keep in mind that they, too, may not have a good sense of how well your car can accelerate (furthermore some of the vehicles are tuks-tuks, not cars).  A willingness to make more nudges may be telling the other drivers that your engine is pretty good and your will is strong.

So they read your nudging pattern, and you draw inferences from their lane-switching and stopping responses.  Ex post (one hopes), everyone has a better sense of what the other cars and drivers are capable of doing.

Of course this is speculative.  The key point here is that greater variability in potential performance creates a case for sending more and smaller bits of the signal in advance.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The reports of Boko Haram and terror killings are well known, and they reflect the interlocking and sometimes deadly combinations of regional, religious, sectarian and ethnic identities in the country, not to mention extreme inequalities of income and opportunity. Yet Nigeria has about 180 million people and is larger than Texas. The violence is the most frequently reported story in the West, but the underlying reality is far more complex and shows positive features.

For instance, the city of Lagos is in many regards a marvel of religious tolerance. Nigeria is about 50 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian, and the area surrounding Lagos is also highly mixed in terms of religion. That may sound like a recipe for trouble, but in matters of religion Lagos is almost entirely peaceful. Religious intermarriage is common and usually not problematic, as is the case in many (not all) other parts of Nigeria as well. Many top Nigerian politicians have married outside their religion, kept two separate religions in the family and enjoyed continued political success.

Consider the scale and speed of this achievement. Lagos, with a population of about 20 million, is larger than many countries. It is the most commercially oriented part of Nigeria, and it grew so large only in the last few decades, as it attracted entrepreneurially minded people from many parts of Nigeria and other African countries. By one estimate, 85 new residents arrive every hour. That may sound chaotic, but in essence Nigeria has in a few decades created an almost entirely new, country-sized city built on the ideals and practice of religious tolerance. The current president, Muhammadu Buhari, is a Muslim who was supported in his election by many Christian leaders, on the grounds that he would fight corruption more effectively. His running mate served as a Pentecostal pastor.

There are several other points, including an assessment of on the ground safety (better than you might think), do read the whole thing.

Much of the food is good but not excellent.  For the very best, I recommend two places in particular:

The Yellow Chilli: All the dishes seem to be quite good, but arguably the jollof rice and the seafood okra are standouts.  Simply coming here for each meal probably beats doing a lot of search that will fail to find equal quality.

Sappor Cuisine: That’s if you are looking for street food and eating on the run.  It’s set in Freedom Park (worth visiting in any case), just get the weird Nigerian dishes you’ve never heard of before, plus some fish.  I’ve had four dishes there, and with not the slightest rumble in my stomach, in case you were wondering.  You might not think that steamed yam powder can be transcendently good, but it is.  At night there are worthwhile concerts in the park, so you can eat from here while you sit and listen.  The best suya I had was on the beach.

The test

by on January 1, 2017 at 12:43 am in Economics, Education, Travel | Permalink

I arrived at the Lagos airport and knew I needed to change some money.  And there is in fact a famed “airport market” for exchange.  At the baggage claim, an earnest young man came up to me and asked how much I wanted to change.  “$200,” I said.  He said “Give me the money, I will be back in five minutes with your Naira.”

I paused, and gave him the money.

He came back.

Happy New Year!

Addendum: Samir Varma sends along this interesting piece on global stereotypes.

“Surge Pricing Solves the Wild Goose Chase” is the title of the new paper by Juan Camillo Castillo and E. Glen Weyl, here is the abstract:

Why is dynamic pricing more prevalent in ride-hailing apps than movies and restaurants? Arnott (1996) observed that an over-burdened taxi dispatch system may be forced to send cars on a wild goose chase to pick up distant customers when few taxis are free. These chases occupy taxis and reduce earnings, effectively removing cars from the road and exacerbating the problem. While Arnott dismissed this outcome as a Pareto-dominated equilibrium, we show that when prices are too low relative to demand it is the unique equilibrium of a system that uses a first-dispatch protocol (as many ride-hailing services have committed to). This effect dominates more traditional price theoretic considerations and implies that welfare and profits fall dramatically as price falls below a certain threshold and then decline only gradually move in price above this point. A platform forced to charge uniform prices over time will therefore have to set very high prices to avoid catastrophic chases. Dynamic “surge pricing” can avoid these high prices while maintaining system functioning when demand is high. We show that pooling can complicate and exacerbate these problems.

Perhaps it is an analogy to suggest movie theaters might use more surge pricing if a low valuation buyer took up the seat for several showings of the movie rather than just one.

Those are the topics of my latest Bloomberg column, with side remarks on sex tourism, the Pulaski Skyway, and the Ruhr-Gebiet as well.

Yup, I’m here.  I made this list before setting off:

1. Popular music: Few from any country come close to Fela Kuti, the main question is how many you should buy, not which ones.  Most of them!  On the CD medium, that old series of “two albums on one CD” was the best way to consume Fela.  On streaming, you can probably just let it rip.  And rip.  And rip.  Other favorites are King Sunny Ade and I.K. Dairo, I don’t love Fema Kuti.  You also might try Nigerian psychedelic funk rock from the late 60s and early 70s, for instance found here.  Most of all, there are thousands of wonderful local performers in Nigeria, you can watch a few of them on the Netflix documentary on the Nigerian music scene, titled Konkombe, recommended and only an hour long.

There is now a good deal of hit Nigerian and Nigerian-American music, such as Wizkid.  It is enjoyable but does not compare to Fela in terms of staying power.

2. Basketball player: The Dream is one of my three or four favorite players of all time.  My favorite Hakeem was watching him pick apart David Robinson play after play after play…see the final clip on the immediately preceding link.

3. Novel: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.  Honorable mentions go to Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, and my colleague Helon Habila.  There are also the Nigerian-American writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Teju Cole is worth reading, including his non-fiction.

4. Movie: Well, I’ve seen parts of some of them, and you should at least sample some Nollywood if you haven’t already.  It’s kinetic.  The documentary “Nollywood Babylon” (Netflix) gives you some background.  As for “Movie, set in,” I draw a blank.  “Album, set in and recorded in” would be Band on the Run, Paul McCartney and Wings.

5. Actor: Chiwetal Ejiofor, he starred in “Twelve Years a Slave,” and is from a Nigerian family in Britain.

6. Presidential name: Goodluck Jonathan.

7. Artist: Prince Twins Seven Seven, or more formally Prince Taiwo Olaniyi Wyewale-Toyeje Oyekale Osuntoki.  He received his nickname because he was the only surviving child from seven distinct sets of twins.

prince_twins_seven-seven_1

8. Food dish: At least for now I have to say jollof rice, a precursor dish to jambalaya, further reports to come however!

The bottom line: Lots of talent here, plenty more on the way.

Mediterranean fact of the day

by on December 27, 2016 at 1:48 pm in Current Affairs, Travel | Permalink

More than 90 migrants were feared dead after the two latest boat sinkings between Libya and Sicily on Thursday, the United Nations reported, bringing the number of migrants killed in 2016 as they attempted the journey to over 5,000, compared with the 3,771 deaths recorded last year.

“This is the worst annual death toll ever seen,” William Spindler, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, told reporters in Geneva, adding that 14 people, on average, drowned in the Mediterranean every day this year.

Here is the full NYT story, possibly with video noise.

flight_into_egypt_-_capella_dei_scrovegni_-_padua_2016

That is by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, published this November, a great book, could it be the very best book on the charm and importance of the Caribbean?  Not the Caribbean of the cruise, but rather the real cultural Caribbean as found in Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, and Trinidad.  The Caribbean was open, globalized, multiracial, vulnerable, and deindustrialized before it was “cool” to be so, and so it stands as a warning to us all.  Yet so few seem to care.  The Caribbean cultural blossoming of the 20th century remains one of the most remarkable yet understudied sagas, but this book, among its other historical virtues, gives you a very good look under the hood.

Did you know that in the 1930s Cuba received more visitors from the U.S. than did Canada?

This is one of the very best non-fiction books of this year, and its depth of knowledge and understanding truly impressed me.  Just to prod your memories here is the broader list.

We find that hedge fund managers who own powerful sports cars take on more investment risk. Conversely, managers who own practical but unexciting cars take on less investment risk. The incremental risk taking by performance car buyers does not translate to higher returns. Consequently, they deliver lower Sharpe ratios than do car buyers who eschew performance. In addition, performance car owners are more likely to terminate their funds, engage in fraudulent behavior, load up on non-index stocks, exhibit lower R-squareds with respect to systematic factors, and succumb to overconfidence. We consider several alternative explanations and conclude that manager revealed preference in the automobile market captures the personality trait of sensation seeking, which in turn drives manager behavior in the investment arena.

That is from a new paper by Stephen Brown, Yan Lu, Sugata Ray, and Melvyn Teo, and for the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Gurgaon: India’s Private City

by on December 16, 2016 at 7:25 am in Economics, Travel | Permalink

My paper with Shruti Rajagopolan, Lessons from Gurgaon, India’s private city, is given visual force and flavor by an excellent new video from Reason called Gurgaon: India’s Private City.