Category: Travel

Derry notes, Northern Ireland’s second largest city

People in Derry are still talking about the 1680s…it is bad to be a “Lundy,” namely a traitor to your cause but the bar here has become a high one.  You are either with them or against them.

The 17th century city wall seems fully intact, the buildings are splendid, and the green, wet, and hilly natural setting is a perfect fit.  The town is long on history, short on things to do.  It is perfect for a two-day trip.

I witnessed a Loyalist parade — the men were not feminized, nor did they seem happy. It is now so much “common knowledge” that Britain really does not care about them.  So what is their future and with whom?  Given differential birthrates, Catholics seem headed to become a majority in NI as well.

Most of the city centre is Catholic, and unlike Belfast it is not difficult to imagine Derry rather easily being swallowed up by the Republic of Ireland, some of which even lies to the north of Derry.

I went to see where Bloody Sunday occurred in 1972, and it shocked me how small the “contested territory” is/was.  It feels as if you can count each and every home, and one’s mind starts wandering to the Coase Theorem and Hong Kong real estate billionaires and Special Enterprise Zones.

Real estate in Northern Ireland seems dramatically underpriced, though along a thirty-year rather than a ten-year time horizon.  But should you buy closer to Belfast?

In some ways Derry reminded me of parts of West Virginia, including the Scots-Irish faces, the bygone glories, and also the “every family has an addiction” signs in the center of town.

One hundred years ago, in 1921, who would have thought that joining with the Irish Republic would lead to more prosperity than joining with Britain?  Therein lies a cautionary note for us all.

My appearance on the Ezra Klein Show

Talking with Ezra is always both fun and enlightening for me, here is his partial summary of the episode:

So we begin this conversation by discussing the case for and against economic growth, but we also get into lots of other things: why Cowen thinks the great stagnation in technology is coming to an end; the future of technologies like A.I., crypto, fourth-generation nuclear and the Chinese system of government; the problems in how we fund scientific research; what the right has done to make government both ineffective and larger; why Cowen is skeptical of universal pre-K (and why I’m not); whether I overestimate the dangers of polarization; the ways in which we’re getting weirder; the long-term future of human civilization; why reading is overrated and travel is underrated; how to appreciate classical music and much more.

Here is the link, full transcript here, definitely recommended!

My Conversation with Ed Glaeser

I did David Cutler and Ed sequentially, based on their new co-authored book, here is the joint episode but there is also a separate link concerning Cutler.  Here is one excerpt from the general summary:

They joined Tyler for a special joint episode to discuss why healthcare outcomes are so correlated with education, whether the health value of Google is positive or negative, why hospital price transparency is so difficult to achieve, how insurance coding systems reimburse sickness over health improvement, why the U.S. quit smoking before Europe, the best place in America to get sick, the risks that come from over-treatment, the possible upsides of more businesses moving out of cities, whether productivity gains from remote work will remain high, why the older parts of cities always seem to be more beautiful, whether urban schools will ever improve, why we shouldn’t view Rio de Janeiro’s favelas as a failure, how 19th century fights to deal with contagious diseases became a turning point for governance, Miami’s prospects as the next tech hub, what David and Ed disagree on, and more.

And from my exchange with Ed:

COWEN: Let’s start with a simple question. All this enthusiasm about cities and agglomeration benefits — the pandemic comes along. A lot of people transition to work from a distance, and then we see big measured productivity gains. What has gone on there?

GLAESER: It reminds us that for many jobs, in a static sense, you can do this long-distance. You can make things work. I think many of us found this. We wrote this book in eight months over the pandemic year, distinctly away from each other, partially because there were no distractions, and all that was good.

However, you also need to recognize the limits of long-distance living. The most important of those limits is just it’s much less fun. It’s much less joyful, but while it seems as if it’s fine for static productivity, it seems distinctly more problematic for people learning and for onboarding new talent.

Let me just give you two types of studies, one of which is we have the call center studies. The father of that was the Nick Bloom paper, which was a randomized control trial in China. A more modern version is done by our students, Natalia Emanuel and Emma Harrington, which looks into American call centers.

Both of them find the same thing in terms of static productivity. If anything, it goes up, but the workers who go remote are much less likely to be promoted in both studies. One interpretation of this is that promotion in the call center work means that you actually are given the job of handling more difficult calls.

How would your boss know that you are good at handling difficult calls if they weren’t in the same room with you? How would you learn how to do those difficult calls if you weren’t around other people? So while the static productivity remains, you lose the dynamic benefits of being around other people.

Second piece of evidence it comes from Burning Glass Technologies and new hires. Even though Microsoft tells us that its programmers were just as productive, overall, new hires for programmers were down 42 percent between November 2019 and November 2020. Firms were clearly unwilling to take the same kind of risks of hiring new workers that they couldn’t inculcate in their corporate culture or screen them properly, or do any of those other things.

Even though measured productivity did well during the pandemic, there were still lots of disruptions. In particular, many younger workers who came of age really lost out as a result of this.

COWEN: If work from a distance goes fine in the short run, what’s the cross-sectional prediction about where it will persist in the future? Is it firms facing bankruptcy, firms with immediate projects now, possibly start-ups who will then later transition to all being together in one big happy family, but they’re afraid they’re going to fail before then? What should we expect?

GLAESER: I think we should expect young workers to be more likely to be brought together. Young firms, as well, because you’re very much at this learning, creative phase. I think the optimal work-from-home strategy is a couple of partners who are in an accounting practice and have decided they know each other perfectly well and are delighted to Zoom it in from wherever they are.

I think, unquestionably, working from home will remain a part of the economy. It may well be many workers end up spending 20 percent of their time working from home, even if they’re part of a generally full-time job. But for younger workers, for firms that are just getting started, I think being live is likely to continue being a major part of the work environment.

It also depends a lot on what your home environment is like. If you’re like us —  if you are a middle-aged professor who’s likely to have a comfortable home office, and maybe even not having kids at home anymore, certainly not kids who are crying all the time at home anymore — working at home is a lot more pleasant than if you’re a 23-year-old and live in a studio apartment in Somerville or New York or London.

Recommended!

Authoritarian Australia

Australia is now one of the most authoritarian states in the world. Conor Friedersdorf writes:

Australia is undoubtedly a democracy, with multiple political parties, regular elections, and the peaceful transfer of power. But if a country indefinitely forbids its own citizens from leaving its borders, strands tens of thousands of its citizens abroad, puts strict rules on intrastate travel, prohibits citizens from leaving home without an excuse from an official government list, mandates masks even when people are outdoors and socially distanced, deploys the military to enforce those rules, bans protest, and arrests and fines dissenters, is that country still a liberal democracy?

As I noted earlier, Australia is in clear contravention of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 13 of which states:

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Friedersdorf continues:

To give Australia’s approach its due, temporary restrictions on liberty were far more defensible early in the pandemic…Had it behaved rationally and adequately valued liberty, a rich nation like Australia would have spent lavishly—before knowing which vaccines would turn out to be most effective—to secure an adequate supply of many options for its people. It could afford to eat the cost of any extra doses and donate them to poorer countries. Australia then could have marshaled its military and civil society to vaccinate the nation as quickly as possible, lifted restrictions more fully than Europe and the United States did, and argued that the combination of fewer deaths and the more rapid return to normalcy made their approach a net win.

Instead, Australia invested inadequately in vaccines and, once it acquired doses, was too slow to get them into arms. “Of the 16 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that have been released to the government by manufacturer CSL, only about 8 million have gone into the arms of Australians,” The Age reported on August 21, citing concern about blood clots and a widespread preference for the Pfizer vaccine.

…Because of its geography, Australia is a neighbor and an observer of authoritarian countries as varied as China and Singapore. But its own fate, too, may turn on whether its people crave the feeling of safety and security that orders from the top confer, or whether they want to be free.

Australians largely support the restrictions but to me that makes them all the more disturbing.

Temporary restrictions on liberty can be justified in an emergency if the restrictions produce something else of great value but respecting the great value of liberty and individual rights means doing everything in one’s power to limit the scope of and lift such restrictions as quickly and completely as possible.

My Conversation with Zeynep Tufekci

Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Zeynep joined Tyler to discuss problems with the media and the scientific establishment, what made the lab-leak hypothesis unacceptable to talk about, how her background in sociology was key to getting so many things right about the pandemic, the pitfalls of academic contrarianism, what Max Weber understood about public health crises, the underrated aspects of Kemel Mustapha’s regime, how Game of Thrones interested her as a sociologist (until the final season), what Americans get wrong about Turkey, why internet-fueled movements like the Gezi protests fizzle out, whether Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in Turkey, how she’d try to persuade a COVID-19 vaccine skeptic, whether public health authorities should ever lie for the greater good, why she thinks America is actually less racist than Europe, how her background as a programmer affects her work as a sociologist, the subject of her next book, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Max Weber — overrated or underrated as a sociologist?

TUFEKCI: Underrated.

COWEN: Why?

TUFEKCI: Part of the reason he’s underrated is because he writes in that very hard-to-read early 19th-century writing, but if you read Max Weber, 90 percent of what you want to understand about the current public health crisis is there in his sociology. Not just him, but sociology organizations and how that works. He’s good at that. I would say underrated, partly because it’s very hard to read. It’s like Shakespeare. You need the modern English version, conceptually, for more people to read it.

I would say almost all of sociology is underrated in how dramatically useful it is. Just ask me any time. Early on, I knew we were going to have a pandemic, completely based on sociology of the moment in early January, before I knew anything about the virus because they weren’t telling us, but you could just use sociological concepts to put things together. Max Weber is great at most of them and underrated.

COWEN: Kemal Mustafa — overrated or underrated?

TUFEKCI: Underrated.

COWEN: Why?

TUFEKCI: Why? My grandmother — she was 12 or 13 when she was in the Mediterranean region — Central Asia, but Mediterranean region, very close to the Mediterranean. She was born the year the Turkish Republic had been founded, 1923, and she was 13 or so. She was just about to be married off, but the republic was a little over a decade — same age as her. They created a national exam to pick talented girls like her. The ones that won the exam got taken to Istanbul to this elite, one of the very few boarding high schools for girls.

The underrated part isn’t just that such a mechanism existed. The underrated part is that the country changed so much in 13 years that her teacher was able to prevail upon the family to let her go. To have a 13-year-old be sent off to Istanbul, completely opposite side of the country, to a boarding school for education — that kind of flourishing of liberation.

I’m not going to deny it was an authoritarian period, and minorities, like Kurds, during that period were brutally suppressed. I can’t make it sound like there was nothing else going on, but in terms of creating a republic out of the ashes of a crumbling empire — I think it’s one of the very striking stories of national transformation, globally, within one generation, so underrated.

There are numerous interesting segments, on varied topics, to be found throughout the dialog.

The problem with fitting third doses into a regulatory structure

That is a key theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

In the U.S., President Joe Biden’s administration is now pushing third booster shots for people who already have been vaccinated. That might be a good idea, but it too creates additional uncertainty for travel and migration — and for social interaction more broadly. If three doses are so important, should people be allowed to travel (or for that matter interact indoors) with only two doses? The bar is raised yet again.

Of course the issues do not end with the third dose. If the efficacy of the second dose declines significantly in less than a year, might the same happen with the third dose? How long before four doses are necessary, or maybe five? Or what if yet another significant Covid variant comes along, and only some people have a booster dose against that strain? What then counts as being “sufficiently vaccinated”?

Many Americans seem to be keen to get their third dose, but by the nature of counting that number is fewer than the number willing to get two doses. Furthermore, many people might just tire of the stress of dealing with an ongoing stream of obligatory booster shots and stop at one or two.

The sad reality is that the “two-dose standard” may not last very long, whether abroad or domestically (the same is true of the even weaker one-dose standard with Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca). Vaccine mandates will become harder to define and enforce, will be less transparent, and will probably be less popular.

If you tell people that three doses are needed for safety, but two doses are enough to get you into a concert or government building, how are they supposed to sort out the mixed messages? It is not obvious that enough people will get the third dose in a timely manner to make that a workable standard for vaccine passports.

Add to that the problems with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which originally the government urged people to get. Now those people are not being given comparable chances to obtain boosters — in fact, they are not yet being given specific guidance at all. Are they orphaned out of any new vaccine passport system, or will (supposedly dangerous?) exceptions be made for them? Or do they just have to start all over?

The big international winner from all this is likely to be Mexico, which has remained an open country and is not relying on vaccine passports. In general I do not admire Mexico’s lackadaisical Covid response, but the country may end up in a relatively favorable position, most of all when it comes to tourism and international business meetings.

As for the U.S. and Europe, the temptation to escalate required safety measures is understandable. But the previous vaccine standards were largely workable ones. If they are made tougher, they might break down altogether.

Recommended.

Covid markets in everything, certified air ambulance regulatory arbitrage edition

“We weren’t sure what was going to happen … if they were going to separate us or put us in a hospital,” said McElroy. “I didn’t know if I was going to need a respirator.”

None of that happened. Within 72 hours, the couple was on a Learjet back to Arizona.

Before they left, Underwood purchased memberships with Covac Global, a medical evacuation company launched by the crisis response firm HRI in the spring of 2020. It meant the couple didn’t pay a dime for their repatriation, said McElroy.

Commercial airlines and private jets can’t fly travelers with Covid-19 home, but certified air ambulances staffed with medical teams can.

While some companies evacuate travelers who require hospitalization, Covac Global retrieves travelers who test positive for Covid-19 and have one self-reported symptom. About 85% of evacuees are returned home, while the rest need hospital attention, said CEO Ross Thompson.

When CNBC first spoke with the company in March, it was performing about two to three medical evacuations every month. Now, that number has climbed to about 12 to 20.

Here is the full story, via Shaffin Shariff.

The value of seat space during a pandemic

Delta Air Lines did not sell the middle seat in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Its principal rivals sold all seats starting in July 2020.

Delta raised its fares by 15%.

Passengers paid $23 to prevent a stranger from sitting next to them.

Delta had to operate more flights, so this was not a profit-enhancing strategy.

Here is the paper, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Andrew Sullivan

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the overview:

Andrew joined Tyler to discuss the role of the AIDs epidemic in achieving marriage equality, the difficulty of devoutness in everyday life, why public intellectuals often lack courage, how being a gay man helps him access perspectives he otherwise wouldn’t, how drugs influence his ideas, the reasons why he’s a passionate defender of SATs and IQ tests, what Niall Ferguson and Boris Johnson were like as fellow undergraduates, what Americans get wrong about British politics, why so few people share his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, why Bowie was so special, why Airplane! is his favorite movie, what Oakeshottian conservatism offers us today, whether wokeism has a positive influence globally, why he someday hopes to glower at the sea from in the west of Ireland, and more.

And here is one excerpt:

SULLIVAN: Well, and so you get used to real conversations about people, and you don’t mistake credentials for intelligence. You realize that people outside of the system may be more perceptive about what’s going wrong with it than people buried within it. I honestly find life more interesting the more variety of people you get to know and meet. And that means from all sorts of different ways of life.

The good thing about being gay, I will tell you, is that that happens more often than if you’re straight — because it’s a great equalizer. You are more likely to come across someone who really is from a totally different socioeconomic group than you are through sexual and romantic attraction, and indeed the existence of this subterranean world that is taken from every other particular class and structure, than you would if you just grew up in a straight world where you didn’t have to question these things and where your social life was bound up with your work or with your professional peers.

The idea for me of dating someone in my office would be absolutely bizarre, for example. I can’t believe all these straight people that just look around them and say, “Oh, let’s get married.” Whereas gay people have this immense social system that can throw up anybody from any way of life into your social circle.

Interesting throughout.  And again, here is Andrew’s new book Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021.

Monterrey notes

Most of all, I was surprised at how beautiful the city setting is — gleaming skyscrapers surrounded by green mountains.

The red Faro del Comercio is the city’s landmark, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

You can visit an excellent old iron works factory.

For “randomly scattered bizarre but interesting sculptures” I give Monterrey an A+.  It is also the best location in Mexico for modernist architecture, as the landmark items in Mexico City are too scattered.  Excellent for brutalist buildings as well.  If you are interested in architecture, Monterrey is a must.

The city’s PPP_adjusted gdp per capita is over 35k, which alone makes it one of the most interesting parts of Mexico.  It also seemed well within acceptable safety margins, just don’t drive the road up to Nuevo Laredo.

My two best meals were at Koli Cucina de Origin (fixed price menu only) and Cara de Vaca (get the green chile tacos).  Overall the city is not top notch for “comida popular,” so go to the mainstream good restaurants.

It is one of the least walkable cities.  Everything is spread out, and the most interesting parts are not typically compact neighborhoods.  There are often highways to cross.

A mere hour away is Saltillo, home of serrapes and capital city of the state of Coahuila.  The outskirts serve up a lot of American fast food, the city center is sleepy and feels like the 1950s.  More generally, there is lots of “horse country” surrounding Monterrey and Saltillo.  It is not uncommon to see cowboy hat and boots.

Not many people visit Monterrey for tourism, but I was very happy to have spent six days there and was never bored.  It should be considered an essential part of one’s “Mexico education.”

The incentives for Mexican hotel Covid testing

Yes you need a negative result on the test to return to the United States, but you never know the sensitivity of the test you are taking.  It should be from an “approved provider,” but what does that mean?  No authority from the United States can readily verify how good the test is.

Let us say you are a hotel owner, which kind of testing service do you wish to commission to send around to your rooms to test your American guests?  A highly sensitive test that will yield periodic false positives, or a not very sensitive test that won’t generate false positives and might even result in some false negatives?  And say some of your guests truly will be Covid-positive — do you wish to keep them in their rooms for another week or two, with all the attendant risks, or do you wish to send them along their way?

You don’t even have to imagine that the hotel owners are entirely cynical.  They themselves can’t judge the accuracy of the tests, so a service that yielded a fair number of Covid positives could be seen as “they make too many mistakes and won’t let our guests leave, we don’t want them.”  If the Delta variant is outracing publicity about the Delta variant, as was the case for a while in Tulum, such a hotelier reaction might be all the more likely.

I did in fact test negative.  And the testers were very nice to me.

The Farrago of International Travel Restrictions

International travel restrictions are a farrago built on fear, statistical confusion, and out-dated information. The US, for example, is still requiring a virus test to enter the US but not proof of vaccination. In other words, a fully vaccinated citizen can now fly to Canada (with Canadian requirements) but if they want back in they need to have had a virus test. Ridiculous.

Even more ridiculous, Chinese, European and British citizens are still not allowed into the United States. Why? China, for example, has almost no COVID cases–thus there is no reason to restrict Chinese citizens from traveling to the United States. Indeed, President Trump rescinded these restrictions at the end of his term but Biden reinstated them immediately. Why?  Travel is now banned from many countries with low COVID and high vaccination rates while allowed from many countries with high COVID rates and low vaccination rates.  There is no rhyme or reason to the travel bans and restrictions.

I propose we eliminate the farrago with a simple rule. Anyone vaccinated with a full dose of any WHO approved vaccine should be allowed to visit the United States without restriction. People on twitter responded “but even a vaccinated person could still be a carrier!” No kidding. So what? We cannot eliminate all risk. The logic of allowing vaccinated travelers into the United States is simple–a fully vaccinated visitor is safer than the average US citizen. Thus, allowing more vaccinated people into the United States is not especially risky and is having beneficial effects on the economy.

“Vaccine passports” became politically charged but what we have now is a bizarre combination of “testing passports” and “no passports.” In contrast, a vaccination requirement for travel is simpler, cheaper, more convenient and more effective than a test and it creates greater freedom than no passport at all. A vaccine requirement is no more difficult to enforce than a testing requirement. Indeed, the United States has in the past required vaccination prior to arrival so this would hardly be unprecedented. For special cases, a test could be allowed in lieu of a vaccine, especially if it was followed up with an airport vaccination but vaccination should be the primary requirement.

To recap: Anyone vaccinated with a full dose of any WHO approved vaccine should be allowed to visit the United States without restriction.

Addendum: A mix and match from any two WHO approved vaccines counts as a full dose!

How to find the best food in Oaxaca

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

First, if you do it right, most of your best meals will be eaten before 3 p.m., sometimes even before 10 a.m. Most “comida popular,” as it is called, is sold in the earlier parts of the work day, as the evening meal is typically eaten at home with family. Those are the supply chains you wish to catch, because they will have the freshest food and ingredients. Treat your dinner as an afterthought, but plan the earlier part of your day carefully.

Start by getting up fairly early and avoiding the hotel breakfast, which is rarely excellent even in the fanciest places.

The best thing to do is to walk or take a cab to a food market around 8 or 9 a.m. Look for a lone woman selling tamales, and don’t be afraid to ask around for her, since her place in the market will not be so obvious. Everyone in the market, however, will know her station. In Oaxaca, you might try 20 de Noviembre market or Mercado de Abastos, but tamales can be found in other locations as well, sometimes also in the parks or in various neighborhoods, carried around in baskets.

Then order as many tamales as you can; you won’t find it easy to spend more than $5 on your meal. Of particular interest are the tamales de mole, tamales de amarillo (the word means yellow, but they’re actually orange), and the tamales de rana with tomatoes. In addition to the fillings, you can enjoy the thrilling experience of eating corn near the locations where corn was first bred and engineered by indigenous Mexicans before the Spanish conquest. You’ll feel like you’ve never tasted corn before.

…Don’t worry about sanitation; the tamales have been steamed at high temperatures and kept hot, and they are served promptly. They’re typically gone by 10 a.m., a sign of both their quality and their safety.

Recommended, there are further tips at the link, including about the world’s best barbecue, which is in Mexico, not Texas or North Carolina.