Category: Travel

Is it America or Europe which is overrated?

Bryan says Europe is overrated and here is one excerpt from a lengthy post:

…almost no one in Europe lives in places as comfortable and convenient as American suburbs: The houses are spacious, the cars are huge, cheap Big Box stores and chain restaurants are nearby, and (to quote South Park) there's "ample parking day or night.

Bryan suggests that American tourists like Europe so much because they are visiting it with U.S. incomes.  I am not sure which PPP calculation he is using but I disagree at a more fundamental level.  Bryan gives some good reasons why America is better for 37-year-olds with young children, namely lots of living space and easy shopping.  But I view much of Western Europe as better for the elderly, if only because it requires less driving and they are more likely to live close to their children and perhaps also they receive more respect.  Western Europe is probably better for children too, for reasons related to safety and health care.

My alternative view is that Americans rate European life so highly (in part) because the buildings from previous eras are so striking and attractive.  If all of the U.S. looked like U.S. postwar construction, the country would still impress more or less as it does.  If all of Europe looked like its postwar construction, Americans would be less likely to admire European policies and political institutions.  Yes I know about Lille, and contemporary Spanish architecture, but in reality most Americans would think of Europe as some kind of dump.

Addendum: Megan McArdle comments.

The economics of rural Thailand

I asked her why she did not wear the costume.

"I am part of a new generation, and I do not like it. It is hot and
uncomfortable," she said. But she noted that she might have to because
the chief is considering forcing everyone to wear the costume. "If the
chief orders us, we will do it." The chief of the village, a
52-year-old named Nanta Asung, told me that Thaijun was the only woman
in the village who did not wear traditional dress and that her choice
was unacceptable. "If you are Palaung, you have to wear the costume of
the Palaung," he said while chopping pork for dinner. "This is a must.
A must!"

Asung said they must wear the dress because of tradition, but he
also spoke excitedly about its appeal to tourists and noted that half
of the village's income of $30,000 a year comes from tourism. That
night an Australian family was paying $15 to sleep in his hut. "He is
very worried that visitors will stop coming," my guide, who served as
my interpreter, told me as we left and headed to our own hut.

As we walked across the village, Asung began broadcasting over
loudspeakers: "This is a reminder that all women should wear
traditional dress. Some foreigners just came to complain that some
women were not wearing their costumes." (We quickly returned to explain
to the tribal chief that I was asking questions, not complaining, but,
unsurprisingly, he did not issue a correction over the village

Here is the full story, which is interesting throughout.  A debate is raging as to whether it is ethical to visit villages that stacks rings on the necks of their women or elongate their earlobes.

Which vacation model is best?

Marko, a loyal MR reader, asks:

Compare and contrast US vs European vacation model.

How much vacation do we really need?

That is a good question for August.  I think of the European "minimum three weeks in August" model as resulting from lots of collective bargaining, small families, fewer large dependent pets, higher tax rates, and many nearby desirable locales which do not exhaust themselves easily.  Plus you already live near the kids' grandparents, so you either don't need the four-day trip there or you wouldn't consider a full three weeks with them.  Head to Morocco and hire a guide.

Rather than comparing the vacations per se you also can ask whether the preconditions for the European-style vacation are desirable.  Overall I see the European approach to leisure as having higher private returns but lower social returns.  It reflects a very coordinated but less flexible approach to labor allocation and it reflects a weaker obsession with work and children, both of which in my view have larger social benefits.  If there is nowhere fun to go, as for many Americans, or your pets and kids tie you down anyway, you'll maybe have a better time at home.

One ideal is to have an American-style income and tax rate and then some free time in May and September rather than August, combined with a willingness to take longer flights; I have most of this (though I teach in September) and we don't have pets.  It is Yana who leads the charge to go places.

Addendum: Matt Yglesias makes some interesting points.

How many interesting cities are there in Venezuela bleg?

That's a serious question.  I've never been to the country.  I was browsing on Wikipedia and I came across the following description of their second largest city, Maracaibo:

Maracuchos are extremely proud of their city, their culture, and all
of Zulia. They usually claim that Venezuela wouldn't be the country it
actually is without Zulia. Rivalry with inhabitants of other regions is
common, specially with Gochos (people of the Mérida state) and Caraqueños (people of the city of Caracas).

Unfortunately, the city of Maracaibo has no facilities to treat domestic sewage.

Actually for a short visit I don't mind the sewage bit; the lack of sights of interest is more off-putting.  I have loved every part of South America I have visited (and that includes many poor places and indeed most of the continent, short of Paraguay and Venezuela), yet when I read about the cities of Venezuela I cannot muster much enthusiasm for seeing them.  Does Wikipedia simply fall flat on this topic?  Or does some factor make these cities boring?

Yes, I know about Angel Falls and the wood sculptures of Mérida.  But of the major cities of Venezuela, how many of them are interesting to see and visit?  And is there a theory behind your answer?

How to travel to Europe after college

Jason, a loyal MR reader, asks as a request:

I'm a graduating senior who is planning on taking the much cliched trip
to Europe after graduation. I'm also an economics major and, naturally,
want to maximize my time spent there. I have never been to Europe. Do
you recommend travelling around Europe and seeing a little bit of
everything, or is it perhaps better to focus on one particular area? If
you'd recommend focusing on one area, which would it be?

I am of the mind that when it comes to travel you won't know in advance where you will like — especially on a first trip — so diversify.  Not long ago I offered up five spots to visit in the United States.  My five spots for a first European trip would be:

1. Paris. Duh.

2. Rome, the major city of antiquity plus still a major national capital.

3. Süsten Pass in Switzerland, or Zermatt on a clear day.  Rural Europe, and scenery, with a Germanic slant.  I love Germany but am hard pressed to pick out a single locale to make this list.

4. Prague, with architecture from all major periods of European history since medieval times.  Plus you get a dash of Eastern Europe and corruption, as well as some Germanic and Jewish history.

5. Rural Albania, maybe Shkodra or Girokaster.  See how much of Mediterranean Europe lived in the 19th century.  Recall a Malthusian world.

Don't tell Natasha I said this, but Russia to me is really a part of Asia.  England belongs to the northern orbit, which maybe someday gets a post of its own.

Southland freeway interchanges

vm, a loyal MR reader, asks:


You mentioned that the freeway/interchange views of Los Angeles are
one of your favorite aspects of the city–care to name a few? My
personal favorite is the 10-E to 110-N carpool interchange.

That's probably my favorite too.  What else?  The views from the 405, heading north from the airport, and from parts of the 10, are superb.  The number of palm trees visible is a good working metric for the quality of the freeway view.  Here you can read about the East Los Angeles Freeway Interchange, once considered an engineering marvel, but it is not a favorite of mine.  Here are photos of that interchange.  Here is the 405-105 interchange.  I hold the unusual view that Los Angeles is probably America's most beautiful city.

How to travel in the U.S.

Seth, a loyal MR reader, writes:

I thoroughly enjoyed your 'Discover Your Inner Economist Book' and I was particularly interested in your advice related to restaurants, and on how to read menus.

Perhaps it's a stretch, but I was wondering whether you have similar advice for traveling in the US?  If someone who has never previously visited the US asked you for five places they should visit in the US, what would be your advice?  Or perhaps more generally, what should  they look for in their destinations?  Assume they're driving, and budget isn't an issue, and that it's not a requirement to see the most popular tourist spots.  What's the best advice to properly see and experience the US, in all its diversity?

Most of all, drive as much as possible and do not shy away from a few days in the "boring" (yet wondrous) suburbs.  After that, here is my list of five:

1. Manhattan

2. Detroit and the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn

3. Memphis and the Mississippi Delta

4. San Francisco

5. Grand Canyon and southern Utah

I feel bad about missing so much of "the new South," but how many stellar sights does it have?  Miami and New Orleans would make a top ten but each is too unique and insufficiently representative to make a top five.  Maybe Chicago should replace Detroit but the latter has greater shock value and isn't that half of what travel is about?  Los Angeles is too hard for most outsiders to grasp.  At least one of the Dakotas should make a top ten list.  Boston would please a European but not in a truly instructive way.  It is criminal to leave off Texas, which I love, but which single place can sum up the state?