Month: January 2011

Skating Lessons

Yesterday I inaugurated the New Year by taking the kids ice skating. Naturally this got me to thinking about economics, specifically Dan Klein's modern classic, Rinkonomics: A Window on Spontaneous Order.

Long ago people didn't know anything of skating. Imagine yourself one of them. Imagine that a friend walks up to you and tells you with great enthusiasm about his new idea for a business:

"I'll build a huge arena with a smooth hard wooden floor and around the perimeter a naked iron hand-rail. I'll invite people to come down to the arena and strap wheels onto their feet and skate round n' round the arena floor. They won't be equipped with helmets, shoulder-pads, or knee-pads. I won't test their skating competence, nor separate skaters into lanes. Speedsters will intermingle with toddlers and grandparents, all together they will just skate just as they please. They'll have great fun. And they'll pay me richly for it!"

Knowing nothing of skating, you would probably expect catastrophe. You exclaim: "How are 100 people supposed to skate around the arena without guidance or direction?…The arena will be a scene of collision, injury, and stagnation. Who will pay for that?!"…

Yet, we have all witnessed roller skating, and we know that somehow it does work out. There are occasional accidents, but mostly people stay whole and have fun, so much so that they pay good money to participate. The spectacle is counter-intuitive. How does it happen?…

An important quality of collision is mutuality. If I collide with you, then you collide with me. And if I don't collide with you, you don't collide with me. In promoting my interest in avoiding collision with you, I also promote your interest in avoiding collision with me.

The key to social order at the roller rink is this coincidence of interest.I do not intend to promote your interest. I am not necessarily even aware of it. Still, by looking out for myself I am to that extent also looking out for you. My actions promote your interest.

Skating on the floor of the roller rink is an example of what Friedrich Hayek called spontaneous order.

John Stossel memorably demonstrated the alternative process of centrally planned skating in this video (starting about 3:16).

How to eat well anywhere in Mexico

You'll sometimes hear fallacious claims that San Miguel Allende or Guanajuato or other parts of Mexico don't have superb food.  What is true, in many Mexican cities, is that almost every place near the main square is only so-so.  Here's what to do:

1. Look for time-specific food.  In San Miguel for instance, there is barbacoa [barbecue] from 8-10 a.m., carnitas from about 11-4, and wonderful chorizo after 8 p.m.  In Mexico, if the food is available only part of the day, it's almost always good.  It's for locals and there is no storage in these places so it's also extremely fresh.

2. Often the best meals are served in places which have no names.  In San Miguel the "brothers Bautista" run the best carnitas stands, but there is no sign and no marking.  The stands are simply there on the side of the road, with some plastic tables and chairs, at a few places around town.  Everyone in town knows about them.

3. Ask around with taxi drivers and be persistent.  Ask the older taxi drivers.  Throw away your guidebook, no matter which one you have.

4. Use breakfast and lunch for your best meals; dinner is an afterthought.  Almost everywhere good is closed by 8 p.m. or often long before then.  Always visit a place that closes by 1 p.m.

5. Roadside restaurants, on the edges of towns or between towns, serve some of the best food in Mexico or anyhere else for that matter.  Some of these restaurants even have names, though you can overlook that in the interests of eating well. 

Peak travel

A study of eight industrialized countries, including the United States, shows that seemingly inexorable trends – ever more people, more cars and more driving – came to a halt in the early years of the 21st century, well before the recent escalation in fuel prices. It could be a sign, researchers said, that the demand for travel and the demand for car ownership in those countries has reached a saturation point…

Most of the eight countries in the study have experienced declines in miles traveled by car per capita in recent years. The U.S. appears to have peaked at an annual 8,100 miles by car per capita, and Japan is holding steady at 2,500 miles.

Here is more.

Real wages for the previously unemployed

Catherine Rampell reports:

Nearly 7 in 10 of the survey’s respondents who took jobs in new fields say they had to take a cut in pay, compared with just 45 percent of workers who successfully found work in their original field.

Of all the newly re-employed tracked by the Heldrich Center, 29 percent took a reduction in fringe benefits in their new job. Again, those switching careers had to sacrifice more: Nearly half of these workers (46 percent) suffered a benefits cut, compared with just 29 percent who stayed in the same career.

Classical music for $100

Enda asks:

Loyal MR reader and consumer of alternative/indie/rock music here. If someone asked me for a broad introduction to the best of the genre with a budget of $100, my personal recommendation would be to purchase Sgt Pepper (The Beatles), skip most of the next two decades, Doolittle (Pixies), OK Computer (Radiohead), Pinkerton (Weezer), Siamese Dream (Smashing Pumpkins), Loveless (My Bloody Valentine), Is This It (The Strokes), Songs for the Deaf (Queens of the Stone Age) and Funeral (Arcade Fire).I have a $100 budget for an introduction to classical music and an essentially blank canvas. Your recommendations?

I'll price this by the CDs rather than the MP3s:

1. Start with a box of the Beethoven symphonies, either Gardiner or van Karajan cost only $20.  (For $43 the Klemperer set offers the piano concerti as well.) 

2. The Bach Brandenburg Concerti; the Pinnock set is basically $20 with the Suites thrown in.  Or get the Alessandrini set for $26.
4. Never buy an inferior recording simply because it is cheaper.  In the long run it is more expensive.

5. Mozart, symphonies 40 and 41 and other late symphonies, $15.

That brings us to about $68. For the rest I would draw from Dvorak's New World Symphony, Schubert (Symphony 9 or Trout Quintet, with superb pairings on both CDs), assorted ChopinBeethoven piano sonatas, or Monteverdi, or Philip Glass Songs from the Trilogy.  In general, try whichever pieces might have personal meaning to you; for instance if you liked the movie Black Swan, buy Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake (by either Previn or Pletnev) I've focused on the most accessible pieces, but if you wish to skip ahead Schubert's String Quintet is better than the Trout, Op.31, etc.