Category: Travel

Slovakian Asks Good Questions About American Suburbs

My questions are:

  • What do you actually do? Are you always stuck inside? What did you do when you were a child and couldn’t drive?

  • Why do you have these sorts of strange regulations? Are your officials so incompetent? Is this due to lobbying from car or oil companies? I don’t get it.

  • Why is there no public transport? It seems like the only thing is the yellow school bus, idk.

  • He says there can be only one family houses. Why? Why can’t you have idk a commie block in the middle of such a suburb? Or row houses or whatever.

  • Why are there no businesses inside these? I mean, he says it’s illegal, just why? If I lived in such a place, I’d just buy a house next to mine and turn it into a tavern or a convenience store or whatever. Is that simply not possible and illegal?

  • These places have front and backyards. But they’re mostly empty. Some backyards have a pool maybe, but it’s mostly just green grass. Why don’t you grow plants in your yards? Like potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes or whatever. Why do you own this land, if you never use it?

Originally from Reddit.

My Conversation with the excellent Chris Blattman

Here is the audio, transcript, and video, we did this one face-to-face.  Here is part of the summary:

What causes war?…Chris and Tyler also cover why he doesn’t think demographics are a good predictor of a country’s willingness to go to war, the informal norms that restrain nations, the dangers of responding to cyberattacks, the breakdown of elite bargains in Ethiopia, the relationship between high state capacity and war, the greatest threats to peace in Ireland, why political speech isn’t usually a reliable indicator of future action, Vladimir Putin’s centralized motives for invading Ukraine, why he’s long on Colombia democratically — but not economically, why more money won’t necessarily help the Mexican government curb cartel violence, the single-mindedness necessary for bouldering, how Harold Innis’s insights about commodities led Chris to start studying war, how the University of Chicago has maintained a culture of free inquiry, and more.

And from the dialogue:

COWEN: If you look at the marginal cases — since there are some wars — there’s a bunch of cases, even if unusual, where someone is right at the margin. At the margin, what are the factors that are most likely to account for the explanatory variation in whether or not a country goes to war?

BLATTMAN: For me, the one that people talk the least about that strikes me as the most important is how concentrated is power in the country. What’s holding back someone from considering all of the implications of their actions on other people, should they decide to take their society to war?

It’s maybe the most important margin in history, and it’s maybe the one that no one of my tribes — which are political economists — think and talk the least about. It’s the one that — in journalism, people leap to psychological explanations, and they try to understand the psychology of leaders, but they don’t try to understand the way in which they’re constrained. So, it’s this combination of the most important and the most ignored.

COWEN: So federal societies are less likely to go to war?

Interesting throughout.  And I am very happy to recommend Chris’s new and important book Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Path to Peace.  And here is my earlier 2018 Conversation with Chris.

The pull of the equilibrium?

Man who never wanted to ride in fighter jet accidentally ejects himself

A man who was terrified by his retirement gift from co-workers — a ride in a fighter jet — grabbed the ejector handle in a panic and was launched through the skies 2,500 feet above the ground, says the official government report on the incident.

The ride on March 20, 2019, had been arranged as a surprise gift to the 64-year-old man, who was leaving his job at a French defense contractor. His co-workers took him to the Saint-Dizier air base, 100 miles east of Paris, and announced he would be flying in a Dassault Rafale B.

The man had never expressed any desire to fly in a fighter jet and had no military aviation experience, said the report  by investigators for France’s aviation safety agency…

Safety checks were apparently lax, and he was allowed to adjust his own gear. His helmet strap was unfastened, his  oxygen mask unattached, his visor was up, and his seat  harness was loose.

On takeoff, the pilot and passenger were subjected to 4 Gs. Leveling off around 2,500 feet, that dropped to negative 0.6 Gs, a feeling of weightlessness. At that point, said a translated version of the report, “the insufficiently strapped and totally surprised passenger” grabbed for the nearest handle — which turned out to activate the ejector seat.

He landed in a field near the German border with only minor injuries.  Here is the full story.

James Person’s Hawaii bleg

Could you please recommend or ask your readers’ recommendations for books about Hawaiian history and culture? I am visiting the state for the first time and like to approach my travels with a deeper understanding as you exemplify in your MR travel posts. Thank you for your time and help and especially for MR and Conversations!

Your assistance for James would be much appreciated!

Emergent Ventures winners, eighteenth cohort

Zvi Mowshowitz, TheZvi, New York City, to develop his career as idea generator and public intellectual.

Nadia Eghbal, Miami, to study and write on philanthropy for tech and crypto wealth.

Henry Oliver, London, to write a book on talent and late bloomers.  Substack here.

Geffen Avrahan, Bay Area, founder at Skyline Celestial, an earlier winner, omitted from an early list by mistake, apologies Geffen!

Subaita Rahman of Scarborough, Ontario, to enable a one-year visiting student appointment at Church Labs at Harvard University.

Gareth Black, Dublin, to start YIMBY Dublin.

Pradyumna Shyama Prasad, blog and podcast, Singapore.  Here is his substack newsletter, here is his podcast about both economics and history.

Ulkar Aghayeva, New York City, Azerbaijani music and bioscience.

Steven Lu, Seattle, to create GenesisFund, a new project for nurturing talent, and general career development.

Ashley Lin, University of Pennsylvania gap year, Center for Effective Altruism, for general career development and to learn talent search in China, India, Russia.

James Lin, McMaster University gap year, from Toronto area, general career development and to support his interests in effective altruism and also biosecurity.

Santiago Tobar Potes, Oxford, from Colombia and DACA in the United States, general career development, interest in public service, law, and foreign policy.

Martin Borch Jensen of Longevity Impetus Grants (a kind of Fast Grants for longevity research), Bay Area and from Denmark, for a new project Talent Bridge, to help talented foreigners reach the US and contribute to longevity R&D.

Jessica Watson Miller, from Sydney now in the Bay Area, to start a non-profit to improve the treatment of mental illness.

Congratulations to you all!  We are honored to have you as Emergent Ventures winners.

The Covid pandemic, circa February 2022

It is widely believed that speaking helps to spread Covid, including in public places.  Yet if you try to book a ticket on the Acela (a term also used sarcastically to describe a particular brand of Eastern elites), you can get tickets only in the Quiet Car.  The rest of the train is already sold out, because people prefer to be able to talk.

You may not think that is how things should be, but that is how they are.  And no, the Acela does not run from Alabama to West Virginia.

What should I ask Chris Blattman?

I will be having a Conversation with him, rooted in his forthcoming book Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace.  Though not only!

Chris is a political scientist at University of Chicago, but with training in other fields as well and indeed he is also an economist.  He has done extensive fieldwork in Colombia and East Africa, both on conflict and also on cash transfers.  He is active blogging and tweeting, and is a Canadian too.

Here is my previous Conversation with Chris.  So what should I ask him this time around?

Religion in the south Pacific (from my email)

I spent years living on a small, remote Pacific island. I am not religious, I was there on a government contract. Practically the only other Westerners were missionaries.

Importantly, Pacific islands have always been relatively easy to convert. They converted quite quickly to Christianity. The off-the-cuff explanation for this is usually “because they are so friendly” or whatever. An underrated factor is the fact that on many islands they genuinely helped improve the situation. Prior to the missionary operations many of these islands were getting literally and figuratively raped by Whalers. Disease everywhere, alcohol completely ruining everything. Fathers selling children to Whalers for alcohol. The missionaries helped improve that situation (albeit incompletely and with their own set of issues they themselves caused!)

That said, these days Mormons have the best missionary operation by far:
-They learn the language.
-They translate the book of Mormon into the local language even when it is a language spoken only on that island by a small number of people.
-The missionary group, very consciously, is designed to usually contain Pacific islanders from OTHER islands but rarely one from THAT island. They generally avoid putting islander missionaries on their own island to avoid sex and alcohol issues.
-They are on their missionary grind all day, 6 days a week. One day a week (Monday or Tuesday I think) reserved for running errands and being able to relax.
-They are allowed to and encouraged to exercise but very little other recreation is allowed. They are not allowed to go swimming.
-They do a fantastic job of just talking to people and being friendly, hosting youth stuff etc. and having it be genuinely wholesome and valuable.
-The LDS churches on the islands (though not the missionaries themselves) provide food and other forms of aid (like helping with the electricity bill) to church members. This is VERY important. They are widely seen on remote islands as mostly attracting “poor families” at first, for this reason.

Distant 2nd and 3rd place is a toss up between Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seven Day Adventists. SDA builds schools. JW does a good job with the languages. SDA missionaries are often very low quality though without much in the way of a code of conduct. JW do not celebrate holidays on islands where social life is organized around all kinds of major and minor holidays.

Assembly of God, Calvary Baptist are just too small of operations, usually much older missionaries. A few other vaguely Pentecostal-seeming varieties are around too but again, they just don’t have the resources or operation size/scale to really compete.

If you’re looking for a dark horse candidate moving forward… Ahmadiyya Islam is making inroads into the Pacific! It is a tall order in very Christian Pacific cultures that know nothing about Islam, but they actually are making some progress. Big focus on providing services to the poor.

I thank A. for sending me this!

My Israel-only Conversation with the excellent Russ Roberts

Here is the audio, video, and transcript, here is the CWT summary:

In this special crossover special with EconTalk, Tyler interviews Russ Roberts about his new life in Israel as president of Shalem College. They discuss why there are so few new universities, managing teams in the face of linguistic and cultural barriers, how Israeli society could adapt to the loss of universal military service, why Israeli TV is so good, what American Jews don’t understand about life in Israel, what his next leadership challenge will be, and much more.

We didn’t shy away from the tough stuff, here is one question:

COWEN: Let me ask you another super easy question. Let’s say we think that under current circumstances, a two-state solution would not lead to security either for Israel or for the resulting Palestinian state. Many people believe that. Let’s say also, as I think you believe, that a one-state solution where everyone votes would not lead to security for a current version of Israel or even a modified version of it.

Let’s say also that the current reliance of the Palestinian territories on the state of Israel for protection, security, intelligence, water — many important features of life — prevent those governing bodies from ever attaining sufficient autonomy to be a credible peace partner, guaranteer of its own security, and so on. From that point of view, what do we do? We’re not utilitarians. We’re thinking about what’s right and wrong. What’s the right thing to do?

Do read Russ’s answer!  (Too long to excerpt.)  And:

COWEN: Now, the United States has about 330 million people, yet there are more Israeli TV shows I want to watch than American TV shows. There’s Srugim, there’s Shtisel, there’s Prisoners of War, there’s In Judgment, there’s Tehran. There’s more. Why is Israeli TV so good?

ROBERTS: I’m glad you mentioned Prisoners of War, which doesn’t get enough — Prisoners of War is in my top five. If I had to list my top five, I’d pick Shtisel, Prisoners of WarThe Americans, probably The Wire, and The Crown. Do you have a top five that you could reel off?

COWEN: The Sopranos would be my number one. Srugim and Prisoners of War plausibly would be in my top five.

We then consider the Israeli topic at hand.  Interesting throughout, a very good dialogue.

Noah Smith Substack interviews me

Here is the interview.  Here is one excerpt:

N.S.: So how would you generally describe the zeitgeist of the moment, if you had to give a simple summary? What do you think are a couple of most important trends in culture and thought right now? My impression has been that we’re sort of in a replay of the 70s — a period of exhaustion after several years of intense social unrest, where people are looking around for new cultural and economic paradigms to replace the ones we just smashed. But maybe I’ve just been reading too many Rick Perlstein books?

T.C.: I view the 1970s as a materialistic time, sexually highly charged, and America running into some significant real resource constraints, at least initially stemming from high oil prices. Mainstream culture was often fairly crass — just look at disco, or the ascendancy of mainstream network television. The current time I see as quite different. Sexually, we are withdrawing. Society is more feminized. America has far more immigrants. And we are obsessed with the virtual and with make-believe, to a degree the 1970s could not have imagined. Bruno Macaes is one author who is really on the right track here, with his emphasis on how America is building virtual and indeed often “unreal” fantasies.

I think today the variance of weirdness is increasing. Conformists can conform like never before, due say to social media and the Girardian desire to mimic others. But unusual people can connect with other unusual people, and make each other much weirder and more “niche.” For instance, every possible variant of political views seems to be “out there” these days, and perhaps that is not entirely reassuring. A higher variance for weirdness probably encourages creativity. But is it a positive development on net? We are going to find out.

Recommended throughout, and of course do subscribe to Noah’s Substack.

Dan Wang’s 2021 letter

Here it is, one of the better written pieces of this (or last) year.  It is mostly about China, manufacturing, and economic policy, but here is the part I will quote:

But Hong Kong was also the most bureaucratic city I’ve ever lived in. Its business landscape has remained static for decades: the preserve of property developers that has created no noteworthy companies in the last three decades. That is a heritage of British colonial rule, in which administrators controlled economic elites by allocating land—the city’s most scarce resource—to the more docile. Hong Kong bureaucrats enforce the pettiest rules, I felt, out of a sense of pride. On the mainland, enforcers deal often enough with senseless rules that they are sometimes able to look the other way. Thus a stagnant spirit hangs over the city. I’ve written before that Philip K. Dick is useful not for thinking about Hong Kong’s skyline, but its tycoon-dominated polity: “governed by a competent but fundamentally pessimistic elite, which administers a population bent on consumption. Instead of being hooked on drugs and television like in PKD’s novels, people in Hong Kong are addicted to the extraordinary flow of liquidity from the mainland, which raises their asset values and dulls their senses.”

And then on Mozart:

Among these three works, Figaro is the most perfect and Don Giovanni the greatest. But I believe that Cosi is the best. Cosi is Mozart’s most strange and subtle opera, as well as his most dreamlike. If the Magic Flute might be considered a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest—given their themes of darkness, enchantment, and salvation—then Cosi ought to be Mozart’s take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Donald Tovey called Cosi “a miracle of irresponsible beauty.” It needs to be qualified with “irresponsible” because its plot is, by consensus, idiotic. The premise is that two men try—on a dare—to seduce the other’s lover. A few fake poisonings and Albanian disguises later, each succeeds, to mutual distress. Every critic that professes to love the music of Cosi also discusses the story in anguished terms. Bernard Williams, for example, noted how puzzling it has been that Mozart chose to vest such great emotional power with his music into such a weak narrative structure. Joseph Kerman is more scathing, calling it “outrageous, immoral, and unworthy of Mozart.”

I readily concede that the music of Cosi so far exceeds its dramatic register.

Recommended!  There is much more at the link, substantive throughout.  Though I should note I am less bullish on both manufacturing and China than Dan is.  I fully agree about Bleak House, however, and at times I think it is the greatest novel written…

The Jeff Holmes Conversation with Tyler Cowen

Jeff is the CWT producer, and it has become our custom to do a year-end round-up and summary.  Here is the transcript and audio and video.  Here is one excerpt:

HOLMES: …Okay, let’s go through your 2011 list really quickly.

COWEN: Sure.

HOLMES: All right, number one — in no particular order, I think — but number one was Incendies. Do you remember what that’s about?

COWEN: That is by the same director of Dune.

HOLMES: Oh, is that Denis Villeneuve?

COWEN: Yes, that’s his breakthrough movie. It’s incredible.

HOLMES: I didn’t know that. I’d never heard of it. French Canadian movie, mostly set in Lebanon.

COWEN: Highly recommended, whether or not you like Dune. That was a good pick. It’s held up very well. The director has proven his merits repeatedly, and the market agrees.

HOLMES: I’m a fan of Denis Villeneuve. Obviously, Arrival was great. I can’t think of the Mexican drug movie off the top of my head.

COWEN: Is it Sicario?

HOLMES: Sicario — awesome.

COWEN: It was interesting, yes.

HOLMES: He is one of the only directors today where, when he now makes something, I know I will go and see it.

COWEN: Well, you must see Incendies. So far, I’m on a roll. What’s next?

HOLMES: All right, number two: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

COWEN: Possibly the best movie of the last 20 years. I’m impressed by myself. It’s a Thai movie. It’s very hard to explain. I’ve seen it three times since. A lot of other people have it as either their favorite movie ever or in a top-10 status, but a large screen is a benefit. If you’re seeing the movie, pay very close attention to its sounds and to the sonic world it creates, not just the images.

There are numerous interesting observations in the dialogue, including about some of the guests and episodes.


Patagonia, Argentina — St. Martin de los Andes

One of the lovelier spots on the planet, and with excellent food.  Thise town has about 35,000 people, and architecture based on Swiss chalets and northern German churches.  It is a jumping off point for exploring the surrounding countryside, but very charming in its own right.  And there is no larger population center anywhere nearby!

Now I am back!

Why is Patagonia so underpopulated?

Patagonia has wonderful summers and tolerable winters, amazing fresh water resources, lots of green, plenty of land, and it is just…gorgeous.  So why does hardly anyone live there?

Governance there is hardly perfect, but Chile and Argentina are hardly the worst governed countries on this planet.

Maybe you look at the above picture and are tempted to shriek “Not enough rice!” But for how long can that remain a binding constraint?