The Shrinking Allied Social Science Association

For many decades the Allied Social Science Association (ASSA) meetings, anchored by the American Economic Association, have been by far the world’s largest gathering of economists each year, typically attracting well over ten thousand. But the meetings went virtual-only for the past two years, and when they finally return in-person in 2023 they will likely be substantially diminished.

Some of this is due to potentially one-off factors; some people don’t want to travel to Louisiana because of its state laws, some still want to avoid large conferences because of Covid, others want to avoid the ASSA’s response to Covid:

All registrants will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and to have received at least one booster to attend the meeting…. High-quality masks (i.e., KN-95 or better) will be required in all indoor conference spaces.

But the AEA made one big, apparently permanent change that means it could be a long time before we see a meeting as big as January 2020’s in San Diego- they gave up the job market. Prior to Covid the vast majority of first-round interviews to be a full-time US economics professor took place at ASSA. Naturally interviews moved online during Covid, but surprisingly the AEA has asked that they stay online, and in fact has specifically asked schools NOT to schedule interviews during ASSAs. This removes a huge source of demand for the meetings- the ~1200 new PhDs looking for their first jobs, the thousands of people there to recruit them (each hiring school typically sends 2-4 interviewers), and everyone trying to switch jobs. This was THE big thing that made AEAs special, that other conferences didn’t really have.

I’ll let everyone else debate whether this makes the job market better or worse; I’m agnostic there, but I’m sure it will shrink the conference. One silver lining to a smaller conference is that it is much easier to find a hotel room. Like usual I was waiting on the AEA website this Tuesday to book a hotel room on the first minute the AEA’s deeply discounted hotel blocks opened, because the good hotels tend to fill up near-instantly. But it appears this was unnecessary this year- two days later and even the headquarters hotel is still wide open:

I got the room I wanted at the Hotel Monteleone; I’ll be looking to grab a spot on the Carousel Bar, maybe see some of you there. I’ll present a poster at AEA, but mostly I’m just looking forward to spending real time in New Orleans for the first time since I moved away in 2017.

Yes, it rotates while you sit and drink

So I’m still looking forward even to a diminished AEA, but it does make me wonder- which other conferences will benefit most from AEA’s decline? I don’t know that anyone has put together the numbers for all the conferences enough to know what the 2nd-largest is, but my bet both for the 2nd-largest and most likely to benefit is the Southern Economic Association; I’ll be there too, in Ft. Lauderdale this November.

McDouble vs Big Mac: Why Inflation Hits the Bottom Harder

Since they were first introduced as part of the Dollar Menu in 1997, the McDouble and the McChicken have been my go-to choices when I visit Mcdonald’s. It was always hard to justify getting one of the fancier sandwiches like a Big Mac or Quarter Pounder, since they were 4-5x the cost of a McDouble but only about twice the size. This is part of why the McDouble has been called “the greatest food in human history“. But as we’ve seen with the plagues and wars of the 2020s, history doesn’t always progress in the direction you’d hope.

I hadn’t been to a McDonald’s for a while until last weekend, when I was shocked to see the McDouble and McChicken listed at $2.99. This wasn’t at an airport restaurant either, or even in an expensive big city; I stopped in Keene, New Hampshire on a drive home from Vermont. The price is up 200% from the days of the Dollar Menu! Meanwhile, the Big Mac has also got more expensive, but much less dramatically; it was $5.89, compared to the ~$5 I expect. So, 200% price increases at the bottom, vs 18% at the top.

This location may be a bit of an anomaly, but the big picture is clear; a typical McDouble now costs well over $2 in most of the US, while a typical Big Mac is still well under $6. You used to be able to get 4-5 McDoubles for the price of a Big Mac; now you typically get less than 3 and sometimes, as in Keene, less than 2.

What’s going on here? First, the McDouble was always absurdly cheap. Second, prices rise most quickly where demand is inelastic, and demand is less elastic for goods that are cheaper and goods that are more like “necessities” than “luxuries”.

This is why I think the McDouble is worth highlighting- its part of a more general trend of where inflation hits. I’ve noticed this in the grocery store as well; the price of standard ground beef is up much more than grass-fed organic beef, likewise with standard eggs vs free-range organic. How different would the Economist’s Big Mac Index look if it used the McDouble instead?

With falling inflation we may see the end of this necessity vs luxury price compression. But I doubt we’ll ever see the glory of the standard $1 McDouble again.

The New Hampshire McDonalds was disappointing, but Vermont was nice

Birmingham AL Coffee Shop Crawl

There are lots of fun coffee shops in Birmingham. I’m going to limit this list geographically to make it a “crawl” that you could potentially bike around. I’ll list the cute places I know that are between Railroad Park downtown and Samford University south of Birmingham.

Starting at the North end, coffee shops that border Railroad Park:

Red Cat: Website | Instagram | Facebook

Honorable mention to Hero Doughnuts that operates two locations within the Crawl Area and serves great coffee.

Starbucks does operate here, although I assume that’s of less interest in terms of local color.

Moving South to Five Points:

Domestique (operates in multiple locations on the Crawl)

Filter Coffee Parlor: Website | Facebook | Instagram

Moving South, crossing into Homewood:

Caveat: Website | Facebook | Instagram

O’Henry’s (multiple locations)

Santos: Website | Instagram | Facebook

Chocolate America is not a coffee shop but the caffeine levels are high enough to make the Crawl.

It’s just slightly out of the crawl zone to the West, but I can’t leave out:

Seeds: Website | Instagram | Facebook

From the Seeds Instagram

See New York City for free

When writing in the capacity of an economist, one should never pitch an experience as “free”. Going anywhere has opportunity costs, especially if you have to pay several tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike. That said, if you want kids to see New York City as part of a road trip, consider Liberty State Park.

You can enter and park for free. There is a playground, picnic tables, and lots of trails. You can see the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Manhattan across the river.

Taken from a nature trail inside the park. There is also a clear view of the statue next to the river.

At the northern edge there is a memorial for those lost on 9/11.

If you have hours to spend, you could also pay admission for the Liberty Science Center. Currently, my family has free admission because of the ASTC Travel Passport Program.

From the Maine Woods

No big post this week, I’m in the Maine Woods without reliable internet or electricity.

The one economics angle to all this is that like many seemingly ancient Maine forests, the one I’m in used to be a farm. Notice the barbed wire running right through the middle of a huge old tree; the farm was abandoned so long ago that the tree had time to grow that big around it.

Why was the farm abandoned? Maine is cold and our soil is rocky, so agriculture tends to be unproductive relative to the Midwest. Many people left their farms in the late 1800s and early 1900s for new land in the West or, more commonly, manufacturing jobs in the cities. Maine used to be half farms, but now its land is 90% forest.

On Vacation, Does the Law of Demand Apply?

I’m on vacation this week. But no, I’m not just saying this to get out of posting this week, or to brag. Americans really have started going back to the normal routine of vacations after a long break during the pandemic.

You might think that the high price of gasoline will slow down summer travel. Not so, according to estimates from AAA. While the total number of estimated travelers for Independence Day weekend is still slightly below Summer 2019 (by about 1 million travelers), travel by car is predicted to be just above 2019 levels (by about 0.5 million travelers), with 42 million Americans traveling by car. Air travel has been a mess lately and quite expensive (even compared to pre-pandemic levels), and is predicated to be about 0.5 million below 2019. Bus/train/cruise travel is still the big loser, well above the past two summers, but still 1 million travelers below 2019. (These are all estimates, of course, but AAA is in the business of knowing this data well.)

What gives? Basic economic theory would tell us that if the price of something increases, people should buy less of it. And traveling by car is much more expensive than in Summer 2019. We should also think about substitutes, and airline travel is certainly a substitute for car travel. But if we look at what has happened to both airfares and gasoline prices since July 2019, we can see that gasoline prices have increased much more (about 60% vs. 25% for airfares).

So, do we just throw up our hands and say: “it’s just too complicated, lots of factors at play”?

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Notes on Austin and Health Economics

I was in Austin Texas for the first time this week for the first in-person meeting of the American Society of Health Economists since 2019. Some quick impressions on Austin:

  • Austin reminds me of many Southern cities, but Nashville most of all. Both historic state capitals that are booming, lots of people moving in and new infrastructure actually being built, forests of cranes putting up new glass towers. Both filled with bars, restaurants, and especially live music. But even with so much happening and so much being built, they don’t *feel* dense, you can always see lots of sky even downtown.
  • Austin seems to be a bizarre “pharmacy desert”, I think I walked 14 miles all through town before I saw one. Contrast to NYC with a Duane Reade on every block. In fact downtown seemed to have almost no chains of any kind, restaurants included; I wonder if this is just about consumer preferences or there’s some sort of anti-chain law.
  • Good brisket and tacos, as expected
  • Most US cities have redeveloped their waterfronts the last few decades to make them pleasant places to be, but Austin has done particularly well here, many miles of riverfront trails right downtown.

Thoughts from the conference:

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Post Pandemic Vacation Arbitrage

My wife traveled to Ireland with a friend after she graduated with her bachelor’s degree. She had lived in Europe as a child and had travelled for mission trips. But travelling to the Irish Republic as a young adult, for the singular purpose of celebration and leisure, made a big impact on my eventual wife and she recounted it for years.

Remember pre-Covid when life was so easy? Many of us had planned trips, for business and leisure, that were interrupted. By now, the vast majority of people are back to ‘normal’ (I think?). Classes are in-person, masks are largely optional, and there is no more line stretching out down the sidewalk near the Trader Joe’s. With all this normalcy, one might ask:

Where’s your next vacation?

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Is Las Vegas decadent?

By one definition of the word, Las Vegas is the textbook example of decadence. Is the physical structure of The Strip evidence of American decline? Ross Douthat specifically mentions Disneyland and Las Vegas together in his book, The Decadent Society. He calls them “consumer sublime” which, along with the iPhone, creates a fake experience rather than building something real (like Space Travel).

In his CWT, Douthat expounds on Vegas explaining that, “it represents a kind of simulated sublimity where you are creating models of all of the great achievements of the human species in the modern world and practicing various forms of entertainment around them. So in that sense, it is under my definition too, not just the chocolates-and-bondage-dens definition. I think it is decadent.”

I wrote about Disney World last month and I happened to have just been to Vegas. These places are nice, especially in Spring when it is sunny but not yet too hot.

The New York-New York resort was built in Las Vegas in 1997, followed by the opulent Bellagio in 1998. Paris and the Venetian, both nods to Old World centers of art and culture, were finished in 1999. This construction explosion was all happening during my childhood, and now it is established in modern culture by films such as Ocean’s 11 and The Hangover.

One thing Vegas has all to itself is its sign.

It also boasts to be a place where you are encouraged to overdose on drugs, alcohol, sex, and gambling. That’s not great, but it’s not what Douthat means by decadent. What I noticed is that it’s a loosely regulated place where they will sell you anything that gets you to take out your credit card. There are marijuana stores right across the street from Gucci stores. You pass slot machines on the way out of fancy restaurants.

Tattoo shop next to weed shop, directly across the street from upscale fashion boutiques.
l’Arc de Triomphe brought to you by Martha Stewart

The entertainment-by-spending-money enterprise (Walt Disney World was expensive, too) all takes place in a cool physical setting. The pedestrian bridges on the main streets make it fun and practical to walk around, right past all the stores. The Strip is bordered by shiny tall hotels that each have a theme. The centerpiece, in my opinion, is the Paris resort.

How do you signal that civilization is here, when you are in the middle of Nevada-Mars? Meme the heart of European culture. Considering how yucky activity can get on the Strip, that nod to Europe provides a veneer of respectability to lure in rich people with families. I don’t only think of it in that cynical way. Plenty of Las Vegas is unique and new, but humans can only handle so much new at once. The Eiffel Tower is code. It’s a form of language that people understand. It makes us feel safe and perhaps even makes us safe by setting a tone for the style of partying.

Tourists are in a new place surrounded by strangers. Are we going to attack each other? Are Russian soldiers about to come through and massacre us? Do we agree about what is admirable? Everything feels like it is going to be fine, because we are here in civilization. If Americans ever do settle Mars, we’ll build an Eiffel Tower there, too.

This might all seem trivial, except that I have heard multiple people saying something about how Putin thought he could attack Ukraine at this moment because “he thinks the West is decadent.” That makes investigating the issue seem worthwhile.

As I concluded about Disney World, the problem is not that we have a few nice areas to practice escapism. A progressive society would build more of these places with access for more people. Let’s build a bigger Eiffel Tower in the desert that more people can fit under. If the French object, then make it a fake Empire State building. Big Ben, anyone?

The non-superficial problems Douthat mentions are serious. Our declining birth rate has plunged further since he published his book. Our political system seems just as sclerotic (Vegas is the place where developers got a “yes” while every other American city was saying “no”). As I said in my previous post, everyone should read his book and ponder.

To leave Las Vegas, I took an Uber for a morning flight. My driver came from Afghanistan three years ago. I told him I was glad he made it out before the Taliban took over and he said that it is bad there right now. He had to learn English in 6 months out of dire necessity so that he could get better jobs. Now he dreams, like so many Americans, of “getting out of this town”. What does he think of Las Vegas? His complaints are that it is too sunny and boring.

The destinations of his dreams are San Francisco or New York City. I informed him of the places I know that have less sunny days. I wish we could have talked more, but from what I can tell he has embarked on his American Dream. He was located with his parents (and perhaps more family members) in Las Vegas directly from Afghanistan. He’s young and dreams of leaving. However, he said his parents like where they are and want to stay put now that they have found a secure home. That puts the city in a new perspective. It may not be the aesthetic that Ross prefers, but families have found a home where there used to be uninhabited wilderness.

Disney World is not Decadent

Last week I went to Disney World for the first time. The decorations live up to the hype. The whole enterprise down to the efficient parking systems was impressive.

Galaxy’s Edge is a new Star Wars themed area in Hollywood Studios

In his book The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat argues that following the Apollo mission, Americans underwent a period of economic stagnation, demographic decline, and intellectual and cultural repetition. I think he makes good points, and every American should grapple with his proposition.

He specifically mentions Disneyland on page 36-37:

But has anything that fits this description happened since the moon mission? … There has been a growth in what [David] Nye calls “the consumer’s sublime” of Disneyland and Las Vegas. … But the hyperloop is a blueprint, Las Vegas is a simulacrum…

Has Douthat been to Orlando recently? Walt Disney was not complacent, and neither are the Disney employees who continue to carry out his vision. Orlando is a place where Americans have built stuff in the past few decades instead of trying to veto all progress.

Perhaps it is a decadent society that overvalues the Disney World pilgrimage. My parents never took me, so I am proof that you can have a good childhood without it. However, to build this zone and enjoy it seems like a perfectly legitimate peacetime activity for a country. People desire to stroll down a safe, beautiful, clean, walkable street with their families. The problem is that so many Americans can only do that for a few days per decade and empty their savings to Disney for the privilege.  

There is a pernicious idea that respectable Americans live in towns that look just like 1950 and they do tourism at sites that look like 1850. Walt Disney obviously did not think that way. On Twitter, @EliDourado and @mnolangray are agitating every day to build more better stuff. We don’t need Donald Duck on every corner, but we could create cities that serve families better.

One surprise I found inside of the Tomorrowland zone of Magic Kingdom is an old ride called The Carousel of Progress.

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