Category: Travel

Memphis

A few days ago, a few of you thought I was dumping on Memphis.  I did say the city is not an economic development success story, but it is perhaps my favorite place to visit in the American South.  It has the best musical traditions, for instance generating Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, all at more or less the same time, with many others later including Lonnie Mack, Isaac Hayes, and Booker T.  It is one of the classic barbecue cities, most of all for ribs.  Beale Street remains a wonderful place to hear music, as it is not nearly as ruined by tourists as Broadway in Nashville or Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  It is also one of the American cities most likely to look as if it is still 1963, or is that 1957?  Finally, Memphis is the starting off point for a drive down Highway 61 into the heartland of the Mississippi Delta, one of the essential American journeys and yes you still can hear rural blues music there.

If you have never done a three-day Memphis trip, I would strongly urge this upon you.

On hitchhiking, circa 1969, from the comments

I hitchhiked across the U.S. twice in 1969. Here’s what my 18-year-old white, male, hippie self learned:
1. Expect to get picked up and propositioned by homosexuals.
2. Everybody is really interested in drugs and wants to get their hands on some.
3. Drugs quickly went from being the pastime of a small, hip elite, to becoming the obsession of trashy, low-class types.
4. Cowboys or anyone who identified with them wants to kill hippies.
5. Mexicans want to kill hippies.
6. It’s possible to sleep in an empty lot in Seattle or Portland, but in L.A., you will be harassed.
6. Panhandling is the world’s most humiliating activity.
7. Day labor is shockingly arduous.
8. America’s roadsides are a continuous scroll of accidental beauty, dramatic vignettes, and surreal occurrences.
9. Even a single night in a small town jail is awful enough to dissuade any sane person from ever committing or coming close to committing an imprisonable offense.
10. Jesus communes and Hare Krishna people will take you in and feed you when no one else will. But they have their own problems.
11. Iowa is surprisingly beautiful.
12. We thought because we all had long hair, we were all on the same wavelength – we weren’t.
12. There are lots of smart, interesting normal people out there, and from them you learn that the best thing in life is to follow the straight and narrow, observe social conventions, work a steady job, and avoid extremes.

That is from Faze.

Nashville notes

I strongly recommend eating at Husk (get the vegetables plate) and Chauhan Ale and Masala House (the Indian-Mexican fusion version of a chile relleno is one of the best courses I have had all year).  Station Inn is good (and comfortable) for bluegrass music, visit Fisk University, Helen’s Hot Chicken serves spicy fried chicken without the tourists or the lines, and the east side of town has some funky shops and boutiques.

Grand Ole Opry is a well-oiled machine, but it makes country music feel old and bankrupt.  The famous strip on Broadway, with the noisy bars, music shows, and restaurants, might as well be hell, but it offers the great joy of being able to leave it.  The “Gulch” part of town is presented as cool, but it’s really just a few boring shops in a homogenized setting.

Nonetheless I now think of Nashville as one of the most successful cities in the South — remarkably few neighborhoods are run down and dumpy, and the residents seem happy.  There is new construction all over, plenty of health care facilities, and Vanderbilt is a quality university.

What might be the most successful southern cities, circa 2018?

— Atlanta

— Richmond

— Nashville

— Bentonville

— the NC Research Triangle deserves mention, even though neither Durham nor Chapel Hill is well-developed enough to make this list (why is that?).

— Maybe the boring Charlotte?

— p.s. Miami is not the south.

What do the success stories have in common?  Other than not being Memphis?

My Conversation with Paul Krugman

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

Tyler sat down with Krugman at his office in New York to discuss what’s grabbing him at the moment, including antitrust, Supreme Court term limits, the best ways to fight inequality, why he’s a YIMBY, inflation targets, congestion taxes, trade (both global and interstellar), his favorite living science fiction writer, immigration policy, how to write well for a smart audience, new directions for economic research, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: In your view, how well run is New York City as an entity?

KRUGMAN: Not very. Compared to what? Actually, I like de Blasio. I actually think he’s done some really good things. What he’s done on education, and even on affordable housing, is actually quite substantial. But the city is so big and the problems are so large that people may not get it.

I will say, it is crazy that you have a city that is so dependent on public transportation, and yet the public transportation is not actually under the city’s control and has clearly been massively neglected. I don’t suffer the full woes of the subway, but I suffer some of them, even myself.

The city could be run better than it is, but it’s certainly not among the worst-managed political entities in the United States, let alone in the world.

And:

COWEN: Will there ever be interstellar trade in intellectual property? You send your technology to a planet far away. It arrives much later, of course. Or you trade Beethoven to the aliens in return for a transporter beam? Can this work? You’ve written a paper that seems to indicate it can work.

KRUGMAN: I wrote a paper on the theory of interstellar trade when I was an unhappy assistant professor. Are there any happy assistant professors? [laughs] I was just blowing off steam. But it’s an interesting question.

COWEN: It could become your most important paper, right? [laughs]

KRUGMAN: We could imagine that there would be some way. We’d have to find somebody to trade with, although it’s the kind of thing — if you try to imagine interstellar trade for real in intellectual property — it’s probably the kind of thing that would be more like government-to-government exchanges.

It sounds like it would be really, really hard, although some science fiction writers are imagining that something like Bitcoin would make it possible to do these long-range . . . I don’t think something like Bitcoin is even going to work here.

Krugman also gives his opinions on Star Wars and Star Trek and Big Tech and many other matters.  Interesting throughout…

My Conversation with Bruno Maçães

Here is the audio and transcript, here is the opening summary:

Political scientist Bruno Maçães has built a career out of crossing the globe teaching, advising, writing, and talking to people. His recent book, born out of a six-month journey across Eurasia, is one of Tyler’s favorites.

So how does it feel to face Tyler’s rat-a-tat curiosity about your life’s work? For Bruno, the experience was “like you are a politician under attack and your portfolio is the whole of physical and metaphysical reality.”

Read on to discover how well Bruno defended that expansive portfolio, including what’s missing from liberalism, Obama’s conceptual foreign policy mistake, what economists are most wrong about, how to fall in love with Djibouti, stagnation in Europe, the diversity of Central Asia, Hitchcock’s perfect movie, China as an ever-growing global force, the book everyone under 25 should read, the creativity of Washington, D.C versus Silicon Valley, and more.

Here is one bit:

MAÇÃES: This raises deep philosophical questions and political questions. If you want Turkey to become like Europe, then you have to project European power across Turkey. If Europe no longer has that ability, then you shouldn’t be surprised that Turkey looks elsewhere.

It’s very simple. I think I say in the book that in order to be loved, you also have to be feared. This idea that you find in Europe now, that without projecting any kind of power, other countries will be attracted to the European model, that’s a form of utopianism. I just cannot see that happen.

COWEN: So Europe lacks the spirit of adventure.

MAÇÃES: That is certainly the case. I think you see that. One of the areas where the spirit of adventure today is more relevant and important is technology. You see in Europe the idea that technology’s against us, and we should resist this rather than embrace it. A very negative spirit, which I think is a good example of how adventure has disappeared from the European psyche.

And:

COWEN: Russia. Why is Russia as a world power currently underrated?

MAÇÃES: The most impressive thing about Russia is, in fact, something that you might not think at first: the power of organization. We have this image of Russia as a failed state in many respects.

But in order to keep that empire, in order to keep it together throughout the centuries, in order to develop it to some extent, in order to bring together so many ethnicities, so many religions . . . it’s fair to say that Russia has done a better job of integrating its Muslim population, which is close to 15 percent, than any other country, I would argue — certainly any other major country.

The power of the Russian state, the ability to organize, to dispose, to connect, is one of the great political stories of mankind — to see how the Russian state was able to grow and to extend itself. And that’s still there.

Original and highly recommended.  Again, here is Bruno’s book The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order.

Congestion pricing is not just slanted toward the elite

From Luz Lazo at The Washington Post:

The average user [of the optional toll lanes] is younger than 45 and has a household income of less than $100,000 a year, according to a new survey.

About 60 percent of the frequent users said they have household incomes of less than $100,000, and a similar share have a bachelor’s degree or higher. About one-third of those users said they don’t mind the tolls because their employers pick up the bill, according to the survey.

And this:

They are loyal Amazon customers who get a package from the online retailer at least once a month.

“They don’t mind paying a fee for convenience services and similarly don’t mind paying for tolls,” Bell said.

Congestion pricing in the D.C. area has been a major success.  And many of its benefits are overlooked.  Consider me, a relatively well-educated and high-income user of the roads.  After a few years, I still can’t figure out how to use the new Beltway lanes, and when they let me get off where I want to, or not.  So I have never used them once.  Still, they clear the rest of the road for me.

What has and has not changed in Guangzhou

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

I hadn’t been to Guangzhou in more than 30 years, and I wanted to see what I would remember.

And here is one bit:

How about the train ride between Hong Kong and Guangzhou? In 1988 I saw lone farmers plowing the field with their oxen. These days the journey brings you through Shenzhen, China’s tech capital, where many iPhones are assembled and which has eclipsed Guangzhou as a source of economic dynamism.

And yet I cannot conclude that Guangzhou is altogether a story of change and change alone.

That all said, Guangzhou is no longer an economic leader in China.  Overall it struck me that Guangzhou has become a bit of an economic backwater, albeit at an enormous size and decent (compared to the rest of China) standard of living.

That was then, this is now

Four decades ago Venezuelans could fly in and out of Caracas’s Maiquetía airport on Concorde. These days they are leaving the country on foot — walking over the border into Colombia, traipsing down the Andes to Ecuador and Peru or trudging through the Amazon basin to Brazil. As the economy collapses, the Venezuelan exodus “is building to a crisis moment”, the UN has warned. Drawing comparisons with the desperate journeys of Syrians and Africans through the Mediterranean in recent years, it says 2.3m people — 7 per cent of the population — have left Venezuela since 2015. On Monday, President Nicolás Maduro put the figure at just 600,000, and his vice-president Delcy Rodríguez said the outflow was “normal”. Outcry over the exodus, she said, was “designed by the Pentagon to justify intervention in Venezuela”.

That is from Gideon Long in the FT.

A note on overtourism, solve for the equilibrium

“At the end, this story is just a numbers problem,” Mr. Tourtellot said. He noted that in 1960, when the jet age began, around 25 million international trips were taken. Last year, the number was 1.3 billion.

As for the cities that are the major destinations? They are “the same size they were back in 1959, and they’ll probably stay that way,” he said.

That is from Farhad Manjoo at the NYT.

Moroccan Medina markets in everything

Stanley emails me:

Since Google Maps and even most paper maps don’t help navigate a visitor around the Fez Medina (particularly the inner non-tourist parts), it creates an interesting markets in directions. Gentleman (nearly all as far as I can tell) stand around the various pedestrian-only streets* (if you can call them that) and offer to help, which usually ends up with them walking alongside you in the direction they think you might want to go (or the place you requested thinking it was simply a free helping hand). At the end of the partnered walk they ask for money (even though they insisted it was free or pretend they didn’t hear you ask before embarking). While most people would see this as a “tourist trap” (and it certainly is), the more interesting part to me (as a former econ major and MR enthusiast) is the the market problem – that is, lack of technology/tools and asymmetric information – is paired with a market solution, which is the locals providing only the information they know (directions)…In very minimal engagement in the market I found a piece of information cost between 5 to 20 dirham ($0.50 to $2.00) depending on the length of service (how far they walk with you) and your ability to negotiate.

Azerbaijani road trip

About half the world’s mud volcanoes are in Azerbaijan, and some good ones are about an hour’s drive from the edge of Baku.

I saw a Koch Industries truck parked about ten miles down the road.

The Zoroastrian Fire Temple attracts scores of Indian tourists, unlike anything in Baku.  It dates mostly from the 18th century.  And:

Yanar Dag (Azerbaijani: Yanar Dağ, meaning “burning mountain”) is a natural gas fire which blazes continuously on a hillside on the Absheron Peninsula on the Caspian Sea near Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan (a country which itself is known as “the Land of Fire“). Flames jet into the air 3 metres (9.8 ft) from a thin, porous sandstone layer.

Here are photos from somebody else’s Azerbaijan road trip.

Baku bits, what to see in Baku

The vertigo starts, as upon arrival in the airport there are few direct clues as to which country you might be in.  You will see people from every part of this hemisphere, and furthermore the Azerbaijanis won’t stand out as such.  The facility itself looks like an average of five or six other airports, like how some TV shows film in Canada to get that generically American look.

Matters seem to go downhill as one rides into town — “Dubai, yet without the charm” is how I described it to Yana in an early, premature email.  Yet this petro-city grows on you quickly, and I don’t just mean the cherry jam.  Closer to town center there are interesting buildings in every direction, and of three sorts: the medieval Old City with walls, a blossoming of late 19th century European architecture (and they are still doing contemporary copies of it), and the Brasilia-Dubai like modern buildings.

In 1905 about half of the world’s oil was produced in or near Baku.  In 1942, it was Stalingrad that stopped Hitler from taking the place over and perhaps changing the course of history.  Not long ago, oil and gas were estimated to account for sixty percent of the gdp of Azerbaijan.

And you can see that money being spent, to the benefit of the tourist I might add.  Baku has perhaps the most attractive and walkable seaside promenade.  The walker has views of the Caspian, of spectacular buildings, of the port, and there are multiple paths with beautiful gardens and cactuses and baobab trees, benches everywhere, Eurasians in abundance, and in August the weather is perfect for a long stroll every night.

Baku is reputed to be the world’s lowest capital city, standing about 28 meters below sea level.

It is the first Shiite country I have visited, and it seems less conservative than say the Turkey of ten years ago, for instance in terms of dress and demeanor.  A small percentage of women wear burkhas, most of all by the seaside walk, but the look of their companions suggests most are tourists or expats.

In short, several generations of communist-enforced atheism do have a persistent effect.  One Azerbaijani, with whom I had an extended dialogue through a translator, stressed to me how much universal Soviet education elevated the region (and she was not pro-Soviet or pro-communist by any means).  The Azerbaijanis address me in Russian, as few can converse with ease in English.

The police go to great lengths to limit jaywalking, which is in any case dangerous.  The city roads are wide, and like some parts of central Brasilia have few traffic lights.  Never have I wished so often that I was on the other side of the street as in Baku.

Baku has three working synagogues, and, unlike in almost every other country in the world, they do not require police protection.  It is a remarkably safe city.

There is strong sentiment here that Nagorno-Karabakh, technically a part of Azerbaijan but not controlled by the government in over twenty years, is ruled by “Armenian terrorists,” backed by Putin. This issue, largely neglected outside the region, is likely to flare up again.  When I applied for a visa, I had to answer whether I come from Armenian blood (no).  It seems like a much less friendly conflict than say between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Baku was the easternmost part of the Roman Empire — does that make it European?

“Relatives may eat your flesh but they won’t throw away your bones” is an old Azerbaijani saying.

Newborns are washed in salt water, to make them truthful and bold.

As a vacation spot, I recommend three to four days here for anyone looking for something off the beaten path, but without logistical difficulties.  Here is Wikipedia on Baku.