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 War, The 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.
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!
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?
New Buenos Aires notes
My last and rather lengthy Buenos Aires notes are from 2006, still worth a read. This time my visit was much shorter, but I had three dominant impressions. First, the city seems more “normal” and less Argentine than in times past. The nicer parts of town, as you might find in or near Palermo, seemed more “Pan-Latin” than anything else, as you might find in comparable parts of Mexico City or Bogotá. More hipster. More Brooklyn even. The whole “invisible stories about weird librarians obsessed with their cats” side of the city seems weaker these days. And along similar lines, traditional Argentinean food is harder to find.
Second, the talent of Argentina has been liberated from the country itself. Argentina has more unicorns — eleven! — than any other Latin American nation, though it is not close to tops in population. Yet for the most part these unicorns exist beyond the confines of Argentina. The top talents of Argentina seem to have used the internet more effectively to integrate into global markets than the top talents of other Latin countries. In contrast, Brazilian commercial talent seems best suited to…the rules of the game in Brazil.
Third, the country no longer seems to alternate between glorious hope and extreme despair. It seems more accepted that the country is not going to solve its fiscal or monetary problems, and instead will alternate between “OK enough” periods and “uh-oh inflation is really pretty high now” periods. Currently rates of price inflation are running at about fifty percent, and the black market exchange rate is about two times as favorable for the dollar as the official exchange rate. No one seems very surprised by this, nor is there much uncertainty about how things will end, nor is there great hope that “the reformers” will solve the problems. Yet a bounceback is likely to follow as well, sooner or later. The cyclical nature of the Argentine economy seems more accepted and enshrined in expectations. And the elite are more insulated from it than ever before, through a mix of Miami-based dollar accounts and crypto, and here are some tactics for the middle class (Bloomberg).
Fortunately, the economy is growing at an annualized rate of over eleven percent, though the year before it contracted by more than ten percent. None of that will end the cycle.
Buenos Aires remains one of the very best cities in the world, most of all in their summer.
The expensive version of the flying car?
Blade Air Mobility, the helicopter shuttle company backed by Cathie Wood and David Zaslav, has struck a $12m deal with a Canadian helicopter operator, betting that a wider network will give it a lead if electric air taxis become a reality.
The New York-based group, which makes most of its money from trips to the city’s airports and the Hamptons, has acquired exclusive rights to the scheduled passenger business of Helijet, a Canadian company flying between Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo in British Columbia.
The deal is part of a land grab for helipads, routes and customers in expectation that a new generation of quieter, lower-emissions, short-hop aircraft will need to use constrained existing infrastructure, at least initially, according to executives.
JPMorgan predicted in September that the total market could be worth “hundreds of billions” of dollars by the 2030s, but cautioned that only a handful of EVA companies were on track for regulatory certification by 2025 and several planned to compete with Blade.
Here is the full FT story. And I presume a private car picks you up after you land…
What should I ask Russ Roberts?
I will be doing a podcast with him, specifically focusing on his decision to emigrate to Israel. Here are the suggestions that Russ solicited from Twitter. We will release the episode both on EconTalk and on CWT.
So what should I ask him? Keep in mind this is the Conversation with Russ I want to have…
My favorite things Idaho
I used to blog “My Favorite Things…” all the time, but I ran out of new places to go for a while. Now there is Idaho! Boise in particular. Today, I can think of a few “favorite things” from Idaho, here goes and potatoes don’t count:
Artist: Matthew Barney. Filmmaker and artist, prominent in the avant-garde but much of his work is quite accessible if you don’t mind the near total absence of dialogue. Is the nine-hour Cremaster cycle his masterpiece? (I’ve only seen parts). According to the internet “Cremaster is a paired muscle of the pelvis and perineum that is fully developed only in the external genitalia of males. Being located between the internal and external layers of spermatic fascia, cremaster covers the testes and spermatic cord.” Many scenes from the movies have been turned into photos and artworks as well.
Do people in Idaho look like that?
Composer: LaMonte Young. Is he the most underrated twentieth century avant-garde composer? The Well-Tuned Piano is one of my favorite works, though it is a tough slog for many, being about five hours in length, here is a YouTube version. He was even born in a log cabin in Idaho, and grew up LDS. His career blossomed in New York, but he attributed his interest in drone sounds to the Idaho wind and other sounds from his boyhood.
Other music: Built to Spill.
Author: Jerry Kramer, who grew up in Idaho and later played football for the Green Bay Packers. I loved Instant Replay as a kid. But is there a “real author” from Idaho? Is it better or worse to be a “real author”? Marilynne Robinson has never clicked with me.
Poet: Ezra Pound, born in Idaho. A fascist and anti-Semite, and not a true favorite of mine, but he was talented and it seems odd not to list him. Can I name a better poet from Idaho?
Explorer: Sacagewea. I hope she is cancel-proof.
Drum Battle: Idaho. Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. For some reason, it reminded me of Benny Goodman’s Clarinade (not from Idaho).
Film, set in: My Own Private Idaho and Napoleon Dynamite might be the best known. But perhaps I will go with Smoke Signals, Superman II (the one with Gene Hackman), and Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. Superman II, if I had to say.
Here is more Matt Barney:
NASA chief Bill Nelson on UFOs
An unprecedented statement by current NASA Director and former Senator Bill Nelson. It is the most honest and forthright commentary to date on the UAP issue from a NASA Director, and perhaps the most thoughtful UAP-related statement ever made by a serving senior U.S. official: https://t.co/2RL4gBuCUD
— Christopher K. Mellon (@ChrisKMellon) October 23, 2021
And more on YouTube, for instance at 55:30.
Lexington, Kentucky notes
Here they have NIMHY rather than NIMBY — “Not in my horse’s yard.” And so the city is ringed by (protected) horse farms and the suburbs are further out. This makes the downtown core denser and more coherent than you might expect, to the benefit of the visitor but perhaps not the resident?
I was struck by how much everyone complains about “the traffic.”
You may recall that Lexington was the setting for Queen’s Gambit.
Overall I would be “long” the city. Downtown has a music and theater scene, albeit on a modest scale. There is a university and a basketball team (Anthony Davis, Rex Chapman, and John Wall, among many others) and lots of health care. And lots of bourbon.
I had an excellent meal in a Peruvian restaurant, saw a plausible Honduran restaurant and also a “West Indies” chicken restaurant under construction. The local steak house was very good, and they offer a $160 wagyu cut, not my order however.
Downtown has more historical plaques than are needed, and they can’t even fit the event descriptions on a single side of the plaque. By the end of the double-sided exposition, you are not sure what they are talking about.
As is common in the Appalachian and near-Appalachian regions, the quality difference between pre-WWII and post-WWII buildings is enormous, even larger than usual.
How many people could, off the top of their heads, name the third largest city in Kentucky? Overall, Louisville is larger and more charming, but Lexington arguably is less Midwest and “more Kentucky.”
Maybe it was just coincidence, but I sure saw and heard a lot of ambulances whizzing by.