Category: Travel

Slavoj Žižek on His Stubborn Attachment to Communism

There is now transcript and audio from the Holberg debate in Bergen, Norway, courtesy of the CWTeam, here is their summary of the event:

This bonus episode features audio from the Holberg Debate in Bergen, Norway between Tyler and Slavoj Žižek held on December 7, 2019. They discuss the reasons Slavoj (still) considers himself a Communist, why he considers The Handmaid’s Tale “nostalgia for the present,” what he likes about Greta Thunberg, what Marx got right about the commodification of beliefs, his concerns about ecology and surveillance in communist states like China today, the reasons academia should maintain its ‘useless character,’ his beginnings as a Heideggerian, why he is distrustful of liberal optimism, the “Fukuyama dilemma” we face, the importance of “empty manners,” and more.


COWEN: You know the old joke, what’s the difference between a Communist and a Nazi? Tenure.


ŽIŽEK: You mean university tenure?

COWEN: Yes. It’s a joke, but the point is you don’t need Communism. You are much smarter than Communism.

I would describe the proceedings as “rollicking,” including the segment about “smoking the prick.”

The New Arthashastra

The Arthashastra, the science of wealth and politics, is one of the world’s oldest treatises on political economy. Written by Kautilya, legendary advisor to the Indian King Chandragupta Maurya (reign: 321–298 BCE), the Arthashastra has often been compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince and has been a touchstone in Indian political economy for well over a thousand years.

In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy by [Kelkar, Vijay, Shah, Ajay]Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah, two long-time advisors to the Indian government, have written the new Arthashastra, In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economy Policy. In Service doesn’t go into great detail on current policies in India (Joshi’s Long Road is the best recent overview), it instead distills timeless wisdom on the making of political economy.

When faced with a potential government intervention, it is useful to ask three key questions. Is there a market failure? Does the proposed intervention address the identified market failure? Do we have the ability to implement the proposed intervention?

Public policy failures are born of: (1) The information constraint; (2) The knowledge constraint; (3) the resource constraint; (4) The administrative constraint; and (5) The voter rationality constraint. These five problems interact, and jointly generate government failure, of both kinds; pursuing the wrong objectives and failing on the objectives that have been established.

A government organization that is riven with corruption is not one which was unlucky to get a lot of corrupt people. It is one where the rules of the game facilitate corruption.

The competitive market process should force the exit of low-productivity firms. This does not happen when the low-productivity firms violate laws–e.g. a low productivity firm may emit pollution, while the high-productivity firm incurs the higher costs associated with the pollution control required in law….When enforcement capabilities, of laws or of taxes, are improved…production will shift from low-productivity firms to high-productivity firms. This reallocation will yield GDP growth, in and of itself.

There are two pillars of intervention in banking in India. On one hand, the state regulates banking. In addition, the Indian state produces banking services through the ownership of bank….There are conflicts between these two [pillars]. Regulation by the state may be indulgent towards its own entities….this calls for strong separation between the two pillars.

Kelkar and Shah are especially concerned with policy making in the Indian context of low state-capacity:

A policy pathway that is very successful in (say) Australia may not work in India as it is being placed in a very different setting. Envisioning how a given policy initiative will work in India requires deep knowledge of the local context.

If the fine for driving through a red light is Rs 10,000, there will be pervasive corruption. Jobs in the highway police will be sought after; large bribes will be paid to obtain these jobs. There will be an institutional collapse of the highway police. It is better to first start with a fine of Rs 100, and build state capacity.

(On that theme see also my paper with Rajagopalan, Premature Imitation.)

In Service to the Republic is the book that every policy maker and future policy maker should be given while being told, “before you do anything, read this!”

Addendum: I will be in India next week and after a visit to Agra and Hampi, I will be giving some talks at Ramaiah University in Bangalore and later in the month at the Indian School of Public Policy.

Emergent Ventures, sixth cohort

Sonja Trauss of YIMBY, assistance to publish Nicholas Barbon, A Defence of the Builder.

Parnian Barekatain.

Anna Gát, for development as a public intellectual and also toward the idea and practice of spotting and mobilizing talent in others.

M.B. Malabu, travel grant to come to the D.C. area for helping in setting up a market-oriented think tank in Nigeria.

Eric James Wang and Jordan Fernando Alexandera joint award for their work on the project Academia Mirmidón, to help find, mobilize, and market programming and tech talent in Mexico.

Gonzalo Schwarz, Archbridge Institute, for research and outreach work to improve policy through reforms in Uruguay and Brazil. 

Nolan Gray, urban planner from NYC, to be in residence at Mercatus and write a book on YIMBY, Against Zoning.

Samarth Jajoo, an Indian boy in high school, to assist his purchase of study materials for math, computer science, and tutoring.  Here is his new book gifting project.

One other, not yet ready to be announced.  But a good one.

And EV winner Harshita Arora co-founded AtoB, a startup building a sustainable transportation network for intercity commuters using buses.

Here are previous MR posts on Emergent Ventures.

The Dan Wang year-end letter

Always recommended.

This year I want to discuss mostly science and technology. First, some thoughts on China’s technology efforts. Then I’ll present a few reflections on science fiction, with a focus on Philip K. Dick and Liu Cixin. Next I’ll discuss books I read on American industrial history. I save personal reflections for the end.

Dan now lives in Beijing.  He left out music, however…

Markets in everything

…if you stay in the hotel bedroom created by Christopher Samuel, don’t rush to post a scathing review. He has actually designed it to be as annoying as possible (while remaining just about habitable).

“You probably wouldn’t spend more than a night in it in reality,” says Michael Trainor, creative director of the Art B&B in Blackpool. “I think the novelty would soon wear off.”

Samuel is one of 19 artists who have kitted out a room in the seaside B&B. And it’s hard not to chuckle at the fiendishness of Samuel’s adaptations every time you spot another deliberately awkward feature (the upside-down shower gel dispenser is a particular triumph of user-unfriendliness).

But for him, it’s not a joke.

By making life difficult for visitors, the artist wants to give them a taste of the access problems faced by many disabled people…

In his room – titled Welcome Inn – the bed is surrounded by a 3ft lip, which you must scramble over every time you want to get in or out. The bathroom door doesn’t close because it hits the toilet, meaning there’s no privacy.

Here is the full story.

My Conversation with Abhijit Banerjee

I had an excellent time in this one, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the opening summary:

Abhijit joined Tyler to discuss his unique approach to economics, including thoughts on premature deindustrialization, the intrinsic weakness of any charter city, where the best classical Indian music is being made today, why he prefers making Indian sweets to French sweets, the influence of English intellectual life in India, the history behind Bengali leftism, the best Indian regional cuisine, why experimental economics is underrated, the reforms he’d make to traditional graduate economics training, how his mother’s passion inspires his research, how many consumer loyalty programs he’s joined, and more.

Yes there was plenty of economics, but I feel like excerpting this bit:

COWEN: Why does Kolkata have the best sweet shops in India?

BANERJEE: It’s a bit circular because, of course, I tend to believe Kolkata has —

COWEN: So do I, however, and I have no loyalty per se.

BANERJEE: I think largely because Kolkata actually also — which is less known — has absolutely amazing food. In general, the food is amazing. Relative to the rest of India, Kolkata had a very large middle class with a fair amount of surplus and who were willing to spend money on. I think there were caste and other reasons why restaurants didn’t flourish. It’s not an accident that a lot of Indian restaurants were born out of truck stops. These are called dhabas.

COWEN: Sure.

BANERJEE: Caste has a lot to do with it. But sweets are just too difficult to make at home, even though lots of people used to make some of them. And I think there was some line that was just permitted that you can have sweets made out of — in these specific places, made by these castes.

There’s all kinds of conversations about this in the early-to-mid 19th century on what you can eat out, what is eating out, what can you buy in a shop, et cetera. I think in the late 19th century you see that, basically, sweet shops actually provide not just sweets, but for travelers, you can actually eat a lunch there for 50 cents, even now, an excellent lunch. They’re some savories and a sweet — maybe for 40 rupees, you get all of that.

And it was actually the core mechanism for reconciling Brahminical cultures of different kinds with a certain amount of social mobility. People came from outside. They were working in Kolkata. Kolkata was a big city in India. All the immigrants came. What would they eat? I think a lot of these sweet shops were a place where you actually don’t just get sweets — you get savories as well. And savories are excellent.

In Kolkata, if you go out for the day, the safest place to eat is in a sweet shop. It’s always freshly made savories available. You eat the freshly made savories, and you get some sweets at the end.

COWEN: Are higher wage rates bad for the highest-quality sweets? Because rich countries don’t seem to have them.

BANERJEE: Oh no, rich countries have fabulous sweets. I mean, at France —

COWEN: Not like in Kolkata.

BANERJEE: France has fabulous sweets. I think the US is exceptional in the quality of the . . . let me say, the fact that you don’t get actually excellent sweets in most places —

And this on music:

BANERJEE: Well, I think Bengal was never the place for vocal. As a real, I would say a real addict of vocal Indian classical music, I would say Bengal is not, never the center of . . . If you look at the list of the top performers in vocal Indian classical music, no one really is a Bengali.

In instrumental, Bengal was always very strong. Right now, one of the best vocalists in India is a man who lives in Kolkata. His name is Rashid Khan. He’s absolutely fabulous in my view, maybe the best. On a good day, he’s the best that there is. He’s not a Bengali. He’s from Bihar, I think, and he comes and settles in Kolkata. I think a Hindi speaker by birth, other than a Bengali. So I don’t think Bengal ever had top vocalists.

It had top instrumentalists, and Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee — these were all Bengali instrumentalists. Even now, I would say the best instrumentalists, a lot of them are either Bengali or a few of them are second . . . Vilayat Khan and Imrat Khan were the two great non-Bengali instrumentalists of that period, I would say, of the strings especially. And they both settled in Kolkata, so that their children grew up in Kolkata.

And the other great instrumentalists are these Kolkata-born. They went to the same high school as I did. There were these Kolkata-born, not of Bengali families, but from very much the same culture. So I think Kolkata still is the place which produces the best instrumentalists — sitarists, sarod players, et cetera.

COWEN: Why is the better vocal music so often from the South?

Definitely recommended, Abhijit was scintillating throughout.

My Portal podcast with Eric Weinstein

Eric and his team describe it as follows:

In this episode, Eric sits down with Tyler Cowen to discuss how/why a Harvard educated chess prodigy would choose a commuter school to launch a stealth attack on the self-satisfied economic establishment, various forms of existential risk, tech/social stagnation and more. On first glance, Tyler Cowen is an unlikely candidate for America’s most influential economist. Since 2003, Cowen has grown his widely read and revered economics blog Marginal Revolutions with lively thought, insight and prose resulting in a successful war of attrition against traditional thinking. In fact, his well of heterodox thinking is so deep that there is an argument to be made that Tyler may be the living person with the most diverse set of original rigorous opinions to be found in any conversation. The conversation takes many turns and is thus hard to categorize. We hope you enjoy it.

I recall it being about 2.5 hours long, and covering a lot of fresh material, Eric of course is superb.  Here is the link.  Here is the broader set of Portal podcasts, hosted by Eric.

My Conversation with Esther Duflo

Self-recommending if there ever was such a thing, here is the audio and transcript.  In addition to all of the expected topics, including gender in the economics profession, we even got around to Indian classical music and Bach cantatas (she prefers the latter).  Excerpt:

COWEN: Do you worry much that the RCT method — it centralizes authority in too few institutions? You need a certain amount of money. You need some managerial ability. You need connections abroad. It’s not like running regressions — everyone can do it on their PC. Is that, in some way, going to slow down science? You get more reliable results, but there’s much less competition of ideas, it seems.

DUFLO: I think it would be the case if we had not been mindful of this problem from the beginning. And it might still be the case to some extent. But I actually think that we’ve put a lot of effort in avoiding it to be the case.

When you take an organization like J-PAL, just in India we have 200 staff members. And we have, at any given time, 1,000 people running surveys. I say we, but these people are not running my project. These people are running the projects of dozens and dozens of researchers. When I started, I couldn’t have started without having the backing of my team because it was such a risky proposition that you needed to be able to easy risk capital kind of things.

But at this point, because of the infrastructure, it’s much more normal sense. People can get in with no funding of their own, in part because one of the things we are doing as a network is raising a lot of money to redistribute to other people widely. J-PAL has 400 researchers that are affiliated to it, or invited researchers, many of them quite, quite junior.

So that sort of mixture — it was very important to us, and I think we’ve been quite successful at making the tool marginally available. It’s never going to be like running a regression from your computer. But my philosophy is that if you have the drive and you’re willing to put in your own sweat equity, you can do it. And our students and many other students who are not at top institutions are doing it.


COWEN: On the internet, there’s a photo of a teenage Esther Duflo — at least it looks like you — protesting against fascism in Russia on top of a tank, is it?

DUFLO: That was a bus, and it was me. It was me. So that was in 1991. This was not when I lived for one year there. I lived one year in ’93–’94. But this was in ’91. I had gone to Russia about every year since I was a teen to learn Russian. I happened to be there the summer where there was this putsch against Gorbachev. That summer…

And someone gave me that fashizm ne poletit placard and asked me to hold it. And I’m like, “Sure, I’m going to hold it.” So I’m holding my placard. We stayed there for a long time when things were happening. Next time I saw in the evening, my parents called me, “What are you doing?” Because it turned out that that image was on all the TVs in the world. [laughs] And that’s how I very briefly became the face of this revolution.


COWEN: Does child-rearing in France strike you as more sensible than child-rearing in the United States?

DUFLO: Oh very much so, very much so.

COWEN: And why?

DUFLO: You know that book, Bringing Up Bébé?


DUFLO: I think she picked up on something which rings so true to me, which maybe is a marginal point about the US versus France. In France people are reasonably content to just go with the flow and do what everybody does. Every kid eats the same thing at 4:30, has dinner at the same time, has gone through the same experiences, learned the same songs, and everybody thinks they are totally free. But in fact, they are all on this pretty sensible railroad. And also, they don’t agonize about it.

In the US, child-rearing is one more occasion to make a statement about your identity. You’re the kind of mother that carries the baby, or you’re the kind of mother that puts the baby in a stroller. And somehow it almost can predict what you’re going to think about Donald Trump. That’s crazy. Some people are so concerned about what they do. Not only they feel that they have to invest a ton in their children, and they feel inadequate if they are not able to, but also, exactly what they do creates them as people.

In France that’s not there, and I think that makes everybody so much more laid back, children and adults.

Recommended throughout.

The cultures that are northern Europe

Here are some extensive travel notes, taken from two years living in Munich, working for a Danish company.  Excerpts:

I also think I might just sound negative; like theres a negativity bias in frank descriptions about what people and places are like.


The US, its common wisdom that a resume should only be one page. This is like a basic rules of Resumes, and at places I worked, we would throw out resumes that exceed one page. In Europe, it is uncommon for resumes to be merely one page.

European people will put a picture of their portrait on their resume. I found that weird. It seems to imply they think their looks matter, or that I, the resume reviewer, am the kind of person who thinks their looks matter.


My Danish coworkers were complaining about how young people today find nudity awkward. Both of them viewed the acceptance of nudity and human bodies as a traditional value that was disappearing in the modern danish world. One of them said that their sports club makes it a point to do big group bathing together after practice to set a good example for their children. The other told me that at a job he had long ago, the employees went on a ski trip together and they would share beds with their coworkers. He said his bed was so small and his sleeping partner was so big he had to physically hang on to him to stay in the bed. He presented this as a kind of ideal; that thats how things were in the good old days.


I read an article on Scandanavian dating norms, which basically said “Scandanavian people dont date”. The article said in a comedic tone, that Scandanavian people dont date, they just get really drunk with their opposite sex friends, have drunken sex, and then thats it: its a relationship. One of my Scandanavian coworkers said exactly the same thing.

Entertaining throughout, written by Chad, via Lama.

The mattress-stealing, luxury hotel culture that is German

Some hotel guests wake so rested at luxury properties that they purchase the same kind of mattress they slept on. Then there are those patrons who steal them.

At least 48 mattresses have disappeared from guest rooms in the more than 1,100 four- and five-star European hotels surveyed by German review site Wellness Heaven. Guests at five-star hotels were 8% more likely to take mattresses, perhaps because they were more comfy, according to the survey.

That’s far less than the nearly 900 towels or 753 bathrobes that hotels say went missing. Hangers, pens, cutlery, cosmetics and blankets were among the other most commonly lifted items. Personal electronics and small appliances, including tablet computers, hair dryers, coffee makers and TV sets were also reported missing from hotel rooms across the properties.

…He [Keilmann] estimates that roughly $60 million worth of mattresses are lifted from hotels worldwide each year.

Here is the full story, and it seems you can get away with such thefts because the hotels are reluctant to report them and get the police involved.  (By the way, might some of those mattresses be the famous German Schlafsacks?)

For the pointer I thank the excellent Michael Rosenwald.

Airline markets in everything

Out of the many repulsive things about air travel, airline food probably ranks high. But not for AirAsia.

Asia’s largest low-cost carrier is betting people love its food so much that it opened its first restaurant on Monday, offering the same menu it sells on flights. It’s not a gimmick, either: AirAsia, based in Malaysia, said it plans to open more than 100 restaurants globally within the next five years.

The quick-service restaurant’s first location is in a mall in Kuala Lumpur. It’s called Santan, meaning coconut milk in Malay, which is the same branding AirAsia uses on its in-flight menus.

Entrees cost around $3 USD and include local delicacies such as chicken rice and the airline’s signature Pak Nasser’s Nasi Lemak dish, a rice dish with chilli sauce. Locally sourced coffee, teas and desserts are also on the menu.

Here is the full story, via Michael Rosenwald.  P.S. Pablo Escobar’s brother is now selling a folding smart phone.

Japanese hotel markets in everything

A Japanese hotel offers a room that costs only $1 per night, but there’s a catch — the guest’s entire stay is livestreamed on YouTube.

Tetsuya Inoue, who took over the Asahi Ryokan hotel in Fukuoka from his grandmother last year, said he was looking for ways to boost business and was inspired by a British YouTuber who livestreamed his time at the hotel.

“This is a very old ryokan and I was looking into a new business model,” Inoue told CNN. “Our hotel is on the cheaper side, so we need some added value, something special that everyone will talk about.”

Inoue said room No. 8 is now equipped with cameras that are always livestreaming on his YouTube channel, One Dollar Hotel. He said the feed is video only and the cameras are pointed away from the bathroom area to give guests some privacy.

“Young people nowadays don’t care much about the privacy,” Inoue said. “Some of them say it’s OK to be [watched] for just one day.”

He said the hotel loses money with the $1 stays, but once his YouTube channel reaches 4,000 view hours, he will be able to monetize the scheme with ads.

Here is the link, via Ashish K. and the excellent Samir Varma.

Sir Rod Stewart

He’s one of rock’s biggest stars, but Sir Rod Stewart has finally revealed the fruits of his other great passion – model railways.

In between making music and playing live, Sir Rod has been working on a massive, intricate model of a US city for the past 23 years.

He unveiled it as part of an interview with Railway Modeller magazine.

He then phoned in to Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio 2 show to rebuff the host’s suggestion he had not built it himself.

“I would say 90% of it I built myself,” he insisted. “The only thing I wasn’t very good at and still am not is the electricals, so I had someone else do that.”

Sir Rod has released 13 studio albums and been on 19 tours during the time it took to build the city, which is modelled on both New York and Chicago around 1945.

Here is more, via the BBC.  Via Ilya Novak.

The winners and losers from Airbnb

Overall, renters in New York City suffer a loss of $178mm per annum, as the losses from the rent channel dominate the gains from the host channel. I find that the increased rent burden falls most heavily on high-income, educated, and white renters, because they prefer housing and location amenities most desirable to tourists. Moreover, there is a divergence between the median and the tail, where a few enterprising low-income households obtain substantial gains from home-sharing, especially during demand peaks.

That is from the job market paper of Sophie Calder-Wang of Harvard.  You will note there still are likely net gains once you count tourist demand, but of course this helps explain why Airbnb rentals are unpopular in some cities.