Category: Travel

In praise of travel in middle-income countries

Mexico, Turkey, and Brazil stand between “the developed world” and “the underdeveloped world.”  They are all diverse regionally.  They are different enough to be exotic, and wealthy enough to be comfortable.  On your trip you can move between worlds with ease.  They all have superb food and world-class sights.  They are not finished works, but rather they are in the process of creating themselves.  The journey is full of suspense.  Two of the three (not Brazil) are cheap to travel in.  Two of the three are safe.

Ankara is splendid, yet it receives few words of praise.  Imagine that by visiting the current city you would be witnessing a world from centuries away.  How you would swoon!  The markets, the intact buildings, the exotic foodstuffs, the political monuments, the dynamism of the human spirit there, fill in the desired travel cliche.  Suddenly you wake up and realize that you are viewing the Ankara of your own time.  Why should all of that swoon go away?

Drop your bias against the temporally proximate; ruins are ruined, Ankara is not.

Shimon Peres on Foreign Aid

Shimon Peres gave a press conference for a small group of bloggers. He was very impressive. When asked about foreign aid, specifically foreign aid to some Arab regimes he had this to say (again a paraphrase from my notes, the clever lines are his, the order may have changed somewhat and this is incomplete).

Look, the West can’t help everyone and the regimes would be insulted if we tried. But they don’t need our help. The greatest poverty in our time has been in China and India. Did these countries reduce poverty because of our help? No. They did it themselves.

Giving is problematic. We take money from poor people in rich countries and give it to rich people in poor countries. Aid sometimes creates corruption.

And suppose we gave people computers. Would computers help? No. There is no technology without civilization, civilization is the carriage of technology. It is a matter of institutions. If a country discriminates against women, for example, no computers will help. Do you know who are the greatest opponents of democracy in the Middle East? The husbands. As long as husbands discriminate against their wives the husbands will support the dictators.

Now, however, there is a young generation who are realizing that the glory is within. The glory [of civilization] it is within their power to grasp.

Peres was also great on science, a question I asked. More on that later.

In other news Dr. Ruth criticized social media, “I like to touch my friends.”

Random Thoughts from Jerusalem

The first session of the Shimon Peres Presidential conference I am attending began strangely with a session featuring Dan Ariely, Sir Martin Sorrell, Jimmy Wales, Shakira and Sarah Silverman.

Ariely was fine, he gave his usual talk on self-control and temptation, cleverly labelled the “Adam and Eve” problem. Most interesting thing I had not heard. Just like people, rats and pigeons have a hard time resisting a short-term pleasure even at the expense of a much larger future pleasure. The interesting part is that just like people, rats and pigeons seem to know that they are making a mistake so they will pay to have the short-term choice taken away from them (like people locking their refrigerator.) Ariely,however, kept his insights on the “how to lose weight” level and didn’t attempt to address any larger issues.

Sorrell was a total bore.

Wales talked about Wikipedia, the power of voluntarism, and the Wikipedian assumption of good faith.

Shakira told us about the importance of early education. She was earnest and I’d rather hear it from her than Jim Heckman but it was still boring.

An incompetent interviewer tried to make jolly with Sarah Silverman. She was the only, however, to address real issues and was quite clever although she also told us that she really had to pee.

The opening acts over with, we then had Shimon Peres, Tony Blair, Bernard Henri-Levy and Amos Oz.

Peres at 87 is vigorous, optimistic and pro-science (“science cannot be contained by governments and flourishes most with peace.”) Impressive.

Tony Blair gave a very pro-Israel speech, even more than expected (“the model for the region”).

BHL said nothing wrong–indeed, he discussed a topic I would have discussed, democratic peace theory, albeit presented too strongly. He also noted that for decades the Libyans and Syrians have been taught that Israel is the great Satan but now the veil has been lifted and Satan is found closer to home. I find it difficult to take BHL seriously, however. No doubt the fault is mine.

The highlight of the evening was Israeli novelist Amos Oz. Oz gave a hard-hitting speech full of quotable moments (here are paraphrases but look for the speech online for a real sense). Many will disagree with the conclusions but it was still an excellent speech in delivery, allusion, and insight:

The suppression of the Palestinians is immoral and not in Israel’s genuine self-interest. The building of settlements is immoral and not in Israel’s genuine self-interest. The expansion into East Jerusalem is immoral and not in Israel’s genuine self-interest.

I love Israel even when I don’t like it.

I am not a hippy. I say make peace not love.

Why is it that the same Europeans who hate Hollywood treat the Israel/Palestine conflict with the subtlety of a Hollywood movie with bad guys and goods guys?

It’s going to be an amputation for both sides.

Oz’s speech was mostly well received by this audience of Israel’s secular/liberal elite but there was heckling especially when he said that there would have to be a two-state solution along the 67 lines (with modifications) and that Israel would have to give up biblical lands. Oddly Sarah Silverman had hit on this point earlier, “What do you want,” she asked, “acreage or values?”

Today we have Larry Summers, Dr. Ruth, and a course on game theory from Aumann. Strange but interesting.

P.S. The rugelah at the Marzipan bakery was excellent.

Plato visits Sicily and Siracusa

With these thoughts in my mind I came to Italy and Sicily on my first visit. My first impressions on arrival were those of strong disapproval-disapproval of the kind of life which was there called the life of happiness, stuffed full as it was with the banquets of the Italian Greeks and Syracusans, who ate to repletion twice every day, and were never without a partner for the night; and disapproval of the habits which this manner of life produces. For with these habits formed early in life, no man under heaven could possibly attain to wisdom-human nature is not capable of such an extraordinary combination. Temperance also is out of the question for such a man; and the same applies to virtue generally. No city could remain in a state of tranquillity under any laws whatsoever, when men think it right to squander all their property in extravagant, and consider it a duty to be idle in everything else except eating and drinking and the laborious prosecution of debauchery. It follows necessarily that the constitutions of such cities must be constantly changing, tyrannies, oligarchies and democracies succeeding one another, while those who hold the power cannot so much as endure the name of any form of government which maintains justice and equality of rights.

The link is here, hat tip goes to Yana.

Does Brasilia work?

That Brasilia is a monstrosity of a planned city, reflecting all of the worst excesses of rationalist constructivism and other Hayekian bugaboos, is a common cliche.  But the evidence does not support that picture.

Here is one eloquent paean to the livability of Brasilia (short pdf), it’s worth the quick read.

Admittedly, Brasilia does not work as well as Curitiba (also quite planned), but I would rather live here than in most other parts of Brazil, including Rio de Janeiro.  The Le Corbusier open city plan is wonderful for sunlight and relatively low congestion.  The city made its peace with the automobile a long time ago and it was planned for heavy auto usage.  There is still plenty of room to expand.

No one lives on the Washington Mall either.  The outlying areas feel normal and walking and shopping is easy.  The city’s “bad rap” from the 1970s and 80s seems to be gone.  I am told that the food and cultural scene is much better.  Brasilia is more expensive than most parts of Brazil but that is common for capital cities.  It’s a fair criticism that some of the commutes from outlying areas are too long.

Not everyone likes the architectural style but I would rate it as one of the top ten attractions of the New World and if I lived here I would be proud of it.

There are a few quick lessons:

1. Sorry Jane Jacobs fans, planned cities do sometimes work.  Take a look at postwar Germany too.

2. “Planned” cities are often less formally planned in their entirety than you think, and that is true for the greater Brasilia area.  Brasilia is a mix of planned and unplanned elements, and it’s the mix which (mostly) works.  We should not demonize either the “planned” or “unplanned” aspects of that blend per se.

3. Even when matters are quite screwed up from the policy or optimality side, mobility enforces an equality of average rates of return.  This is one of the most neglected insights of economics.

I thank Leonardo Monasterio for a useful conversation on these topics; here are his tips for visiting Brasilia.

China arbitrage story of the day German flight attendants arrested in quantitative easing scheme

Six Lufthansa employees, including four flight attendants, have been arrested after sneaking in more than 63,000 pounds of out-of-circulation, €1 and €2 coins from China back to Germany over the last four years.

Euro coins have two color tones, gold and silver, and when the German Central Bank takes the coins out of circulation, the two colors (see picture to the left) are separated then sent to China to be melted down into scrap metal.

A wily group in China reassembled the coins rather melting them, then sent them back to Germany with four LH flight attendants serving as “mules.”…The FAs would then take the coins to the Bundesbank (only the central bank in Germany accepts damaged coins) and turn them in for bills.

The story is humorous throughout, and for the pointer I thank none other than Air Genius Gary Leff.  Here is further detail (NYT) as to how the arbitrage worked and relied on low Chinese wages to reassemble the coins in a cost effective manner.

Costa Rica bleg

Michael A. asks me:

As always, appreciate all your prodigious information output.  I am traveling to Costa Rica this summer and was wondering if you might be able to give me any info about Best of Costa Rica — specifically foods, wines, etc. to hit as well as music and books to check out beforehand, sights to see, the usual Tyler Cowen treatment.

I haven't been to Costa Rica in a long time, but here is what lodged in my memory:

Monkeys and birds, hanging sloth is hard to see, excellent dialect on Caribbean coast, eat palmitos [hearts of palm], like it or not beans and rice for breakfast, cross the country by taxi in a day, if you mispronounce the volcano it rhymes with the last name of David Boaz, Spanish paella in the capital, "Tica," music is mediocre, worst Chinese food anywhere, the least interesting locale in Central America but the best trip for most Americans.  Glad I went but won't return.

The economics of travel visas

Bob Lawson and Jayme Lemke write:

This paper examines travel visa restrictions in 188 countries. We measure travel visa requirements (1) facing foreign visitors into a given country and (2) facing citizens of a given nation traveling abroad. Our analysis shows that countries are more likely to impose visas on foreign visitors when they are large, but less likely when they are rich and economically free. Citizens from richer and more populous countries face fewer travel visa requirements when traveling abroad. Countries are less likely to impose visa requirements on similar nations.


Better than the filibuster?

To avoid a vote on a proposal to limit collective bargaining rights in the state of Wisconsin, 14 legislators have fled the state, to an undisclosed location. I am not sure if there is a precedent for this. The reason they crossed state lines was to dodge the Wisconsin police.

It turns out that "Republicans hold a 19-14 majority, but they need at least one Democrat to be present before voting."  The link is here and for the pointer I thank Brian Hooks.