Category: Travel

My advice for a Paris visit

This is for another friend, here are my pointers:

1. Find a very good food street/corner and take many of your meals there.  I’ve used Rue Daguerre and around Rue des Arts (Left Bank) for this purpose, but there are many others.  Spend most of your money in the cheese shop, asking them to choose for you, but supplement with bread, fruit, and of course chocolate.  This beats most restaurant meals, noting it won’t be cheap either.  And yes it is worth paying $8 for a bar of chocolate there.

2. Do track down medieval Paris, most of all the cathedrals.  This will bring you by other delights as well.

3. Especially on the Left Bank, Paris is one of the very best walking cities.  Avoid Champs-Élysées and environs, a broad-avenued, chain store-intense corruption of what Paris ought to be.  Avoid Jardin Luxembourg and the surrounding parts as well, they are urban deserts.

4. Get a peek of the major bridges over the Seine, if only by traversing them.

5. You don’t in fact have to stand in line to see the Mona Lisa.  It’s a lovely painting, but at this point in human civilization it is OK to skip it.  You don’t need to hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” again either.  But you should go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  And in the Louvre, don’t neglect the Poussin room, the Michelangelo sculptures, or the Flemish and 17th century works.

6. The Louvre, d’Orsay, Cluny, and Branly (ethnographic) are the essential museums in town.  Check out Grand Palais and Petit Palais for possible exhibits.  When walking around, keep your eye out for posters (yes, posters) advertising exhibits and concerts.

7. If you want to spend forty euros for a very good but not revelatory lunch, find a “cool” area with lots of restaurants and poke your head in at their opening, at 12:30, to ask for a table.  By 12:45 it is too late and you are screwed and back to your favorite cheese shop.  By the way, I don’t think Paris is the best city in which to spend $200 on a meal.

8. In most of the parts of Paris you are likely to frequent, do not try to eat any Asian or “ethnic” foods.  The best restaurants of those kinds are in north Paris, on the way to the airport, but no one visits there.  Couscous in Paris is boring.

9. Belleville is the gentrifying Brooklyn of Paris, with relatively few tourists, if that is what you are looking for.  Avoid Montmartre.  For practical reasons, I’ve spent a lot of my Paris time near Unesco, in a neighborhood that is a bit sterile but very beautiful and it gives you a decent sense of well-to-do residential Paris life.  Develop your mini-Paris residential life somewhere, and make your time there more than just a tourist visit.  The site I should not enjoy but do is Le Dôme des Invalides, also the tomb of Napoleon.

10. The essential Paris movies are lots of Godard (Breathless, Band of Outsiders, others), Jules and Jim, and Triplets of Belleville.  Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 for those with an experimental bent.  Eric Rohmer for something light-hearted.  Amélie and Before Sunset are both rewarding, though at the margin Godard usually is what Americans are lacking.

11. Carry along Hugo and Balzac to read.  Flaubert and Proust are wonderful, but they are more “interior” authors and thus you can imbibe them anywhere.  Do not forget Houllebecq’s Submission.  I do not love most of the well-known non-fiction books on Paris; perhaps they become corrupted through the chance of being truly popular.  Do read Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France and try to dig up a useful architectural guide to the city.  I’m also a big fan of Hazel Rowley’s Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

12. Don’t go expecting Parisians to be rude, I have never (well, once) found that to be the case in more than six months spent in the city.

13. My overall take is this: Paris today is fairly sterile in terms of overall creativity, or for that matter business dynamism.  But Parisians have perfected the art of taste along a number of notable dimensions, like nowhere else in the world.  If your trip allows you to free ride upon those efforts in a meaningful way, it will go very well.

Will American mass transit make a comeback?

Transit ridership fell in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas in the United States last year, including the seven cities that serve the majority of riders, with losses largely stemming from buses but punctuated by reliability issues on systems such as Metro, according to an annual overview of public transit usage.

…Researchers concluded factors such as lower fuel costs, increased teleworking, higher car ownership and the rise of alternatives such as Uber and Lyft are pulling people off trains and buses at record levels.

I know, I know — if only we would spend more money, do it better, and so on.  An alternative and really quite simple hypothesis is that mass transit is largely a 20th century technology, it is being slowly abandoned, and in the United States at least its future is dim.  The more you moralize about the troglodyte politicians and voters who won’t support enlightenment, the harder it will be to give that hypothesis an analytically fair shake.

And what about the D.C. area?:

Metro’s ridership dropped by 3.2 percent. The trend was largely driven by a 6 percent decline in bus ridership. Dramatic losses to subway ridership, including a 10 percent decline in 2016, had appeared to level off by 2017, when the total number of trips fell by about a percent and a half.

Metro has said about 30 percent of its ridership losses are tied to reliability issues, with teleworking, a shrinking federal workforce, Uber and Lyft, and other factors to blame for the rest.

Here is the full WaPo story by Faiz Siddiqui.

My Tokyo advice for Scott Sumner

Eat both quality French and Italian food there.

They still have real CD shops, if that matters to you.

Spend some time in the underground/subway city parts, maybe Shinjuku station, a few others.

Not sure if the old fish market is still up and running, worth a visit if it is.

Get your iPhone ready for translate functions, print and voice.

Getting lost there is great, don’t obsess over sights.

National Museum. The Western museums are decent but also not essential.

Look for a neighborhood with immigrants.

Sample Tokyo at all possible hours, if you can.

Kinokuniya bookstore is quite good. Overall I don’t love the Roppongi part of town, though, fancy bars and restaurants for expats, though fun in its own way.

Visit a Japanese working class district, such as Ikebukuro, also a major subway stop.

Look for vending machines and collections of vending machines.

The arcades there, including for children, are pretty amazing.

Try Pachinko once.

Tyler

Addendum: Here are the suggestions from Scott’s readers.

My Conversation with Chris Blattman

The very very highly rated but still underrated Chris Blattman was in top form, here is the transcript and audio.  We had a chance to do this one when he was in town for a week.  We talked about the problem with cash transfers, violence, child soldiers, charter cities, Rene Girard, how to do an Africa trip, Battlestar Galactica, why Ethiopia is growing rapidly, why civil war has become less common, why Colombia and the New World have been so violent, the mysteries of Botswana, and Chris’s favorite Australian TV show, among other topics, including of course the Chris Blattman production function.  Here is one excerpt:

BLATTMAN: There’s this famous paper on Vietnam veterans in the US where they find that being conscripted into fighting in Vietnam had positive effects on the wages of blacks and negative effects on the wages of whites. The reason was, it was really down to, what was your alternative labor market and training experience in the absence of this war?

We found something similar in Uganda, something eerily familiar, which is that the women economically weren’t so worse off. I wouldn’t say they were better off, but they weren’t necessarily affected adversely in an economic sense — they were adversely affected in other ways 5 or 10 or 15 years down the road — while the men were.

It spoke to just how terrible women’s options were. Being conscripted and abducted to be a rebel wife, to some degree, wasn’t that different than what your marriage opportunities looked like if there wasn’t a war.

For men, it just meant that you were out of the civilian labor market, getting a bunch of skills that had turned out not to be very useful. It was bad for them. A different war, a different context, and a different labor market, and that can switch.

COWEN: How many northern Ugandan child soldiers have you interviewed?

BLATTMAN: A few hundred. At least a couple hundred, maybe more. It depends if you count someone who’s involved for a month versus two years. Certainly, the long, long-term soldiers who were there for many, many years are few, maybe only a couple dozen.

COWEN: Those contacts, those conversations, how have they changed your outlook on life emotionally, intellectually, otherwise?

And:

COWEN: True or false, most humans are bad at violence?

BLATTMAN: I think they learn quickly. Probably they’re bad at first.

COWEN: In the micro evidence on violence, and the more individual-level evidence, and then finally macro evidence — like will there be a civil war? — do you think there’s ultimately an overarching theory that ties these all together? Or are they just separate levels of investigation, where you have empirical results, and they stand somewhat separate, and they’ll always be distinct areas?

How optimistic are you about a grand unified theory of violence?

BLATTMAN: I think these individual, how I react in the moment, fight-or-flight-type mechanisms are quite distinct from the way that small groups or large groups or nations go to war. But once you get beyond that to the level of small groups and larger groups and nations, I see a lot of unity in the theory.

Do read or listen to the whole thing.  By the way, he says the Canadian political system is overrated.

The surprise vacation (markets in everything)

Companies like Magical Mystery Tours and the Vacation Hunt, both based in Washington, D.C., have made surprise vacations their specialty, while more traditionally oriented operations like Rustic Pathways, which focuses on teen travel, and London-based luxury outfitter Brown + Hudson have added mystery trips to their already robust lineups.

The company picks the destination and does all the work planning the trip:

So, how does a destination get chosen? Most American mystery travel companies, including Pack Up + Go, require clients to take a survey. When booking my trip, I was asked where I’d been recently, and where I’d be heading soon, so the company could avoid those places. I was also asked to select from a long checklist of interests and to write in additional comments. I didn’t request a warmer destination, though I easily could have.

Here is the full story from Matthew Kronsberg at the WSJ.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Samir Varma.

Truly driverless cars

California regulators have given the green light to truly driverless cars.

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles said Monday that it was eliminating a requirement for autonomous vehicles to have a person in the driver’s seat to take over in the event of an emergency. The new rule goes into effect on April 2.

California has given 50 companies a license to test self-driving vehicles in the state. The new rules also require companies to be able to operate the vehicle remotely — a bit like a flying military drone — and communicate with law enforcement and other drivers when something goes wrong.

That is from Daisuke Wakabayashi at the NYT, via Michelle Dawson.

Work habits while traveling

Brian Hollar writes to me:

You spend quite a bit of time traveling and seem to remain highly productive while doing so. I was wondering if you’d be willing to share your work habits while you are on the road? I’ve read several interviews with you about your work habits, but am particularly interested in what is the Tyler Cowen productivity function while on the go?

My biggest piece of advice is simply to get something written every day.  No matter what, whether you are traveling or not.  No matter where you are or what you are otherwise doing.  The enemy of academic or writing productivity is “days spent doing nothing,” not “I didn’t get enough written today.”

Another piece of advice is to try what I call “the work vacation.”  Go somewhere — perhaps somewhere dangerous or disgusting — and simply plan to spend your full, normal work/writing day there.  Don’t try to see any sights or to meet any locals.  Of course you’ll end up going for walks and the like and see and meet them anyway.  But with zero pressure and more spontaneously, and in the meantime think of all that work you are getting done.  By the end of the trip it will feel like a full vacation anyway, that’s how silly your memory is.

And to address some of Brian’s specific questions (from later in the email):

I prefer physical books and printed paper to Kindle, and will pack a bigger bag to accommodate them.  I always bring a laptop and an iPad, always.  I’ll keep up with Twitter, on my iPad, during my downtime while walking around a foreign locale.  Most of my writing I do early morning and late evening.  I don’t keep any notes about my travels, except what I write on MR.  It is always possible to travel without making many plans in advance, except for a few weird holiday seasons (e.g., China) when you shouldn’t be traveling anyway.

My Conversation with Charles C. Mann

Here is the audio and transcript, Charles was in superb form.  We talked about air pollution (carbon and otherwise), environmental pessimism, whether millions will ever starve and are there ultimate limits to growth, how the Spaniards took over the Aztecs, where is the best food in Mexico, whether hunter-gatherer society is overrated, Jackie Chan, topsoil, Emily Dickinson, James C. Scott, the most underrated trip in the Americas, Zardoz, and much much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: But if you had to pick a leading candidate to be the fixed factor, I’m not saying you have to endorse it, but what’s the most likely fixed factor if there is one?

MANN: Well, water is certainly a big candidate. There just really isn’t that much fresh water.

COWEN: But we can price it more, and since we have growing wealth — global economy grows at 4 percent a year — we can subsidize those who need subsidies…

MANN: You’re right. But water’s obviously one of them. But hovering over it is these questions about whether these natural cycles . . . is kind of a fundamental question about life itself. Is an ecosystem an actual system with an integrity of its own, with rules of its own that you violate at your peril? Which is the fundamental premise of the environmental movement. Or is an ecosystem more like an apartment building in which it is just a bunch of people who happen to live in the same space and share a few common necessities?

I don’t think ecology really has settled on this. There’s a guy in Florida, Dan Simberloff, who is a wonderful ecologist who has kind of made a career out of destroying all these models, these elegant models, one after another. So that’s the fundamental guess.

If it turns out that it’s just a collection of factors that we can shift around, that nature’s purely instrumental and we can do with it what we want, then we have a lot more breathing room. If it turns out that there really are these overarching cycles, which seems to be the intuition of the ecologists who study this, then we have less room than we think.

And:

COWEN:  Jared Diamond.

MANN: I think an interesting guy who really should learn more about social sciences.

COWEN: Economics in particular.

MANN: Yes.

COWEN: Theory of common property resources.

MANN: Yeah.

And finally:

MANN: …What I think is the underrated factor is that Cortez was much less a military genius than he was a political genius. He was quite a remarkable politician, really deft. And what he did is . . . The Aztecs were an empire, the Triple Alliance, and they were not nice people. They were rough customers. And there was a lot of people whom they had subjugated, and people whom they were warring on who really detested them. And Cortez was able to knit them together into an enormous army, lead that army in there, have all these people do all that, and then hijack the result. This is an act of political genius worthy of Napoleon.

Self-recommending, and I am delighted to again express my enthusiasm for Charles’s new The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.  Here is Bill Easterly’s enthusiastic WSJ review of the book.

Skyscrapers, Slums, and the Floor Space Index

Rent control is not the only problem plaguing housing in Mumbai, India. Mumbai also makes it very costly to build skyscrapers. In this video, I discuss the floor space index (FSI), a regulatory tool used around the world to tradeoff plot size and height. Higher FSI lets builders economize on land, reduces sprawl, and increases the value of public transportation. The lessons in urban economics go well beyond Mumbai. Check out the video. It’s one of the best in MRUniversity‘s India series.

Rent Controls and Affordable Housing in Mumbai

The slums are the only free market housing in Mumbai.

That’s me in the latest video from MRUniversity, an on-the-ground look at the consequences and political economy of rent controls and affordable housing in Mumbai, India. Rent controls have been in place for so long in Mumbai that buildings are literally collapsing. Moreover, the approval process is so slow that just about the only new housing being built is condos for the well-off while at the same time a large fraction of the housing stock lies vacant.

Reuben Abraham is very good on how government housing is captured by the rich and why any solution to the affordable housing problem must focus on increasing supply.

The culture that is San Francisco solve for the equilibrium

A man threw his body onto a self-driving car — a GM Cruise AV — causing a car vs. pedestrian collision at the 16th and Valencia intersection earlier this month, the DMV reported Wednesday.

Operating in “autonomous mode,” the Cruise AV was stopped at a green light, facing northbound on Valencia, waiting to make a right turn onto 16th Street as pedestrians crossed.

Suddenly, a man ran across Valencia Street against the “do not walk” sign, shouting, and struck the left side of the car’s rear bumper and hatch with his entire body. This is all according to a report the self-driving car manufacturer must file with the DMV in the event of a collision.

The man sustained no injuries, but the car did. It suffered “some damage to its right rear light,” according to the report.

Here is the full story.

Why it is fun to travel around China

I submit that really every part of China is worth seeing, not just Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing. Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan are very different from Guangdong and Fujian, which are not at all the same as Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning, which are so distinct from the Jiangnan, and on and on, to say nothing of the far west. Each Chinese province has roughly the population of an EU country; there may not be as many differences between each province as there are between European countries, but they’re still huge.

One can’t so easily find accounts of how much fun it is to travel around China. Those who haven’t ventured far beyond Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing underestimate the sheer number of totally random stuff that happens to you. In stores, traffic, restaurants, and on the streets, I regularly come across behaviors and fixtures that I had no idea were a thing. You might be driving along miles of farmland, when suddenly a massive high-tech factory with the logo of a well-known foreign company looms up on the horizon; in a restaurant, I was asked one time to help with the cooking because chefs had to go out to buy more ingredients; you never know who might come up to you and tell you an interesting story. The lack of professionalism in nearly all things is sometimes frustrating but mostly hilarious.

That is from Dan Wang’s “What I learned in 2017,” many more topics at the link, including learning and books.

What should I ask Charles C. Mann?

I will be doing a Conversation with Charles (no public event), what should I ask him?  Charles is one of my favorite writers, as he is the author of 1491, 1493, and the new and excellent The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Here is yet another excerpt from the latter book:

Rodale died in 1971 — bizarrely, on a television talk show, suffering a heart attack minutes after declaring “I never felt better in my life!” and offering his host his special asparagus boiled in urine.

I thank you all in advance for your wisdom and inspiration.  Here is Charles’s home page, he also has many excellent magazine articles.

Why don’t cities grow without limit?

In other words, why don’t they put everything into Atlanta or Los Angeles?  Paul Krugman has a good blog post on that topic, here is one of his points:

…once upon a time dispersed agriculture ensured that small cities serving rural hinterlands would survive. But for generations we have lived in an economy in which smaller cities have nothing going for them except historical luck, which eventually tends to run out.

Krugman suggests that eventually many smaller cities will indeed fade away, although the process of equilibration may be a long and slow one.  All of his points are well-founded, nonetheless I can see a few factors favoring the continuing existence of small cities on a greater scale than many might be expecting:

1. As Alex points out on Twitter, rents are permanently lower, and many people don’t value big city amenities very much.

2. Congestion is likely to be lower.  Why should the larger city have worse traffic if it has proportionately more roads?  That may require a blog post of its own, but part of the problem is geographic specialization within the larger city, which is not simply some number of smaller cities placed side by side.  In other words, sometimes you have to drive all the way across town.  Many people don’t like geographic specialization, but wish to find most everything in a small downtown or Walmart (or on Amazon).   From this point you can see that Amazon may favor larger cities more than small towns.  If it bugs you that in a large city all the shopping of a particular kind is on the other side of town, just order those goods on-line and stay within your cozy neighborhood.

3. Governance may become worse in a very large city.  Furthermore, separate and specialized lobbies, as would correspond to geographically specialized parts of a large city, may be a bad influence.  Here is a paper on the public choice of mega-city governance.

4. Very large, rich, and famous cities tend to become financial centers, or perhaps movie-making centers, and that is not in the interest of all city residents.  Some of this is a matter of rents, in other regards a matter of culture and ethos.  Anonymity also increases with size, as does (I think) sexual promiscuity.  Smaller locales will have more faux conformism and more real conformism too, which some people prefer.  People not wanting to live amongst all the specialization of major cities really is a significant and enduring factor in these comparisons.

5. If you are building a firm for eventual export success, you will prefer to put that firm in a larger city to begin with (“built to scale”).  That in turn tends to price out companies and people with less interest in exporting.  The larger city will become all that much more globally oriented, which not everyone will wish to pay for or even wish to have at zero price.

6. If I were offered an extra 50% of total salary (nominal, to make this comparison in real terms across all goods and services eliminates the very difference in locales) to move from Fairfax to Washington, D.C. (15-20 miles away), I would decline the offer.

7. The very fact that smaller cities are used to consume non-pecuniary amenities suggests their inhabitants are more diversified than it may appear at first.  The shift of gdp into services further enhances this diversification, and the new crop of semi-small cities may be more resilient than the older lot dependent on manufacturing.

8. A significant and enduring trend is the move into warmer and sunnier climates.  So while Rochester and Flint decline, Chattanooga and Birmingham are on the rise.  I predict the more time you spend in the South, the more optimistic you will be about small and mid-size cities.

9. Here is a good Duranton and Puga piece on the costs and benefits of city size.  Here is a short McKinsey piece on complexity as a limit on size.  Here is a discussion of city size in Civilization VI.

Thoughts about Morocco

1. Fez is perhaps the place in the world with the clearest continuous connections to the time of late antiquity.  Maimonides and Ibn Khaldun worked there, and walking through the medina that is not hard to imagine — you can dine in a small restaurant in the home of Maimonides (recommended, most of all the vegetables).  Fez has the world’s oldest university, dating from the 859, and the world’s oldest continuously operating library, from 1359.

2. The country has been remarkably stable relative to the rest of the region, whether you take that to be the Middle East, MENA, or Africa.  But the nature of the associated stability lessons remains unclear, read more here.

3 Social capital is higher than it was during my last visit twenty years ago.  That said, every transaction is still a potential swindle waiting to happen.  And if any English-speaking Moroccan climbs into your train cabin, and claims his brother is the most wonderful guide in town and offers up his phone number…simply decline any further contact.  Especially if the guy has a scar on his face.

4. From the OEC:

The top exports of Morocco are Cars ($2.95B), Insulated Wire ($2.46B), Mixed Mineral or Chemical Fertilizers ($1.83B), Phosphoric Acid($1.14B) and Non-Knit Women’s Suits ($1B)…

It could be much worse, but the dangers of premature deindustrialization are real.  Their exports are too dependent on Spain and France, two countries with many other trading partners and also relatively slow growth rates.  Agriculture still accounts for 40-45% of employment.  Tourism continues to grow, but service culture in the country is not top-notch.  They export a lot of marijuana too.

5. The country has the (distant) potential to evolve into an Atlantic economy — check the map — and I don’t just mean the history of Rabat/Salé as a pirate state.  Nonetheless the actual trade of the nation paints it as a Mediterranean economy, and most Mediterranean economies have not done very well lately.

6. Moroccans do not seem very religious.  Counterintuitively, that may be why, when they are living in Europe, they are especially vulnerable to radicalization. They are not already “filled up with belief,” and experience anomie, which is then exploited by terror groups.  Arguably the same is true for Uighurs in China, by the way, who are recruited by the thousands for foreign ISIS crusades and the like.

7. More and more of the country’s gdp is concentrating in and near Casablanca, which is underrated as a visit.  The famous Grand mosque, as Yana pointed out, in fact resembles a cavernous mosque-clock tower-opera house-French railway station, with even some elements of a medieval cathedral.  Not all devout Muslims are happy with it.

8. The best bistillah is in Meknes, where it is moister and less sweet.  In Casablanca I recommend the seafood stalls in the Grand Marché, and the roast chicken joints, always with french fries.