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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Is Travel Back?

According to the most recent TSA data, on December 21st of this year there were 1,979,089 people traveling by plane. That’s almost exactly equal to the number of people that flew in the US on the same date in 2019: 1,981,433 travelers. It’s also double the number of people that few on December 21, 2020 (about 992,000). These numbers are encouraging. Does that mean that we’re back to normal levels of travel?

Not quite. We shouldn’t read too much into one day of data, for a variety of reasons, but most importantly because while we’re looking at the same date, travel varies throughout the week and December 21st is a different day of the week every year (Tuesday this year, Saturday in 2019). It’s better to use a weekly average and compare it to 2019. Here’s what the data looks like for 2020 and 2021.

With this data, we can see that airline travel is back to about 85 percent of 2019 levels. That’s not bad, but airline travel was already back to 85 percent by early July 2021, with some variation since then, but generally staying in the 70-90 percent range for most of the second half of the year.

For those that are flying this year, there is good news in terms of prices (unusual to have good prices news right now): airfares are still about 20 percent cheaper than pre-pandemic levels. In fact, airline prices are the cheapest they have been since 1999. In nominal terms! If you are interested in even more historical price data, take a look at my May 2021 post on the “golden age” of flight.

And of course, flying is not the most common way that people travel for Christmas and the holiday season. According to estimates from AAA, only about 6 percent of holiday travelers choose to fly. This was true in 2019, and will be roughly true in 2021 (as usual, 2020 was the exception: around 3 percent). By far the most common mode of travel in the US is driving, accounting for over 90 percent of holiday travel.

If you are traveling by car, there isn’t much good news for prices. As you have no doubt heard constantly for the past few months, gasoline costs a lot more than it did last Christmas, on average about $1 per gallon more. But even compared to Christmas 2019, gasoline prices are almost 29 percent higher. The last time gasoline prices were this high (in nominal terms) around Christmas was in 2013.

I hope you all have safe holiday travels, and we’ll all look forward to better prices in the New Year!

You Need a Better Battery

As we did last year, Joy has asked us to recommend some gifts for our readers. My recommendation is simple: a battery.

But not just any battery. I’m not talking about adding to your cardboard box full of AAs, AAAs, and weird watch batteries.

Instead, what you and everyone on your gift list needs is a portable battery for charging your many devices. There are plenty of good options out there, but anything under 30 bucks with at least 20,000mAh (the standard measure for battery life) is what you want. Here’s a good one on Amazon right now which should be $25 after a coupon and gives you 36,800mAh of charging power.

How much battery life is that? An iPhone has around 3,000mAh of power. You can charge an iPhone over 10 times with this thing! That may sound like overkill, but if you are charging multiple devices on a long trip, this battery is worth its weight in gold (it weighs about 13.4 ounces, which would be about $24,000 worth of gold — maybe I’m exaggerating a little).

For better or worse, our devices are how we communicate, navigate, and entertain ourselves on a daily basis. Especially on long trips. You don’t want your phone to die when you land at a strange, new airport. You also don’t want your friend’s phone to die: more than once, I have been the “battery hero” by loaning my portable battery to a friend at a conference.

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Alabama Demographic Change

According to the 2020 Census, Alabama’s population grew by 5% since 2010. Recently, the death rate started to exceed the birth rate in Alabama, as I think it has in most states. Tom Spencer of PARCA reports that most of the population growth in Alabama was driven by people migrating to the state. From 2011 to 2016, those new people were mostly immigrants from other countries. International migration slowed down in 2017, but that is exactly when Alabama experienced a surge (well, a few tens of thousands of people) in domestic migration. I arrived, as it happens, precisely at the start of the domestic migration surge. See my earlier post on the nice weather here.

It’s pretty humid currently in mid-summer. Could that be why Alabamians take summer vacation so seriously? This place really shuts down around the 4th of July so that people can be undisturbed at “the lake”.

What Forex says about cheap travel

The 2007-9 Financial Crisis turned Iceland into a major tourist destination, as a newly cheap currency combined with affordable flights and natural beauty. For anyone with plenty of time and a moderate amount of money, chasing the newly-cheap destination seems like a good travel strategy.

Since January 2020, here are the countries where the US dollar has gained the most vs the local currency:

Calculated using https://fx-rate.net/USD/?date_input=2020-01-01
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Flying the Friendly Skies (Today and in the Past)

It’s almost summer. About half the US population has at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. For many Americans that haven’t had their employment impacted by the pandemic, their bank accounts are flush with cash and they are ready to do one thing with that cash: travel. See family and friends. See something other than the inside of your own home.

And for many Americans traveling this summer, they will fly. The airlines, no doubt, will appreciate your business. At this time last year, the world had so radically shifted that Zoom’s market cap was bigger than the 7 largest airlines in the world. In May 2020, air passenger traffic in the US was less than 10% of traffic in 2019. Today, we’ve recovered a lot, but we are still only back to about two-thirds of normal levels. And since airplanes are just a marginal cost with wings, flying all their planes at close to full capacity is crucial for airlines to return to profitability. They really need you to fly the friendly skies this summer.

One of the reasons that so many Americans are able to fly in today is because flying is, compared to historical prices, very cheap.

How cheap is flying to today compared to the past? Let’s look at some historical price data for flights.

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If you are ever in Birmingham AL…

Alabama is not a top international tourist destination, and I’m not going to argue that it should be. However, if you are ever in Birmingham, AL…

The restaurant scene if amazing. There are really excellent James Beard award winning restaurants. You can find authentic Southern cooking and BBQ. This is one of the most affordable places to make a foodie weekend. BhamNow curates some good articles on local restaurant news.

Our most famous place is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The struggle for civil rights put Birmingham on the map (I don’t mean in a good way).

Something to understand about the city is that it’s small and easy to get around by car. You can do lots of things in one day. You could quickly go from the Civil Rights Institute over to the Art Museum (free admission).

If you like history or big machines then you will appreciate being able to walk through Sloss Furnaces. This is what remains of a real 20th century blast furnace. Unlike the Art Museum, I would say come see it now before it gets demolished or closed.

Also related to the defunct iron and steel industry is the park around the giant Vulcan statue. The park offers a great view of the city. There is a small museum about digging iron ore out of Red Mountain and how people could die in the steel mills. At this point I will mention, for our international audience, that Birmingham was named after the city in England. We aspired to be the “Birmingham of America”.

If you want to hike Red Mountain, a giant network of hiking trails is just a 15-minute drive from the city. The dirt is red. You can tell this was a rich iron seam. Two other good hiking spots are Ruffner Mountain and Moss Rock Preserve. None of the mountains around here are dramatic, but these are nice places to go when the weather is good. You might want to hike so you can justify eating more.

For kids, I recommend Railroad Park. It’s a nice city park where freight trains go by regularly. Birmingham was not built around a river – it was built around a railroad. Close by is the McWane Science Center that has lots of hands-on exhibits for kids. I would not recommend McWane for adults, although their IMAX movie offerings could be of interest and the Pizitz Food Hall across the street is fun.

If you live in the American South and have not yet visited Birmingham for a weekend, then you are missing out! Of course there are many more things I could say about the city, but just what I listed above will keep you busy.

Dan Wang’s 2020 letter on China

Dan Wang is a writer who currently lives in Beijing. He’s released another long letter about what is going on in China. I’ll share the part that caught my attention.

Waiting politely in line is a pretty strong norm in America. I had heard from several sources that Chinese norms for waiting in an orderly line were weak. Here’s an update on that:

And for years, Xi has emphasized following clear rules of written procedure, under the rubric of “law-based governance.”  Since then, the state has improved regulatory systems, for example in setting clear standards for license approvals and in securities and antitrust regulation. The state has removed some of the arbitrary aspects of governance, thus bringing serious enforcement actions following the passage of relatively clear regulations. That has improved facts on the ground. Companies and lawyers tell me that a decade-long effort by the State Council to ease doing business has yielded real results. Obtaining business licenses no longer requires a relentless pace of wining and dining, and has instead become close to a matter of routine. I haven’t been able to verify this fact for myself, but one of my friends told me that the office of the National Development and Reform Commission used to be ringed by some of the fanciest restaurants in Beijing, offering mostly private rooms; many of these restaurants have now closed, following the professionalization of business approvals.

The lived experience of being in Beijing has improved in parallel. I remember what a nightmare it was to buy a high-speed rail ticket for the first time years ago, which involved lots of yelling and multiple people cutting in line. Today, I purchase one on my phone, with no need to obtain a paper ticket, and the lines to board are more or less orderly.

China is changing.

Incidentally, I tried to start a company when I was about 19 in New Jersey. Applying for a tax ID number for my sole proprietorship was quick and easy. All I had to do was fill out a form and pay a small fixed fee to some government office.

Number of Nice Days

I’m relatively new to Birmingham, Alabama. I was nervous about moving to a place with famously long hot humid summers. My intuition since moving here is that there are many days throughout the year when, at some point in the day, the weather is nice for doing something outside with my kids.

Yesterday, Sunday, was very nice. To have such a nice warm sunny day in mid-December is strange to me. I grew up further north where Decembers are chilly. Here is a picture of a neighbor’s son enjoying the summer-like feel of this technically-winter day. This picture was taken at noon.

Although I am grateful for this particular day, I also think about the hot summer days when noon is a time to hide indoors with air conditioning. Is it nice here? How can that question be answered scientifically?

There is actually a great map of answers, available on several websites, credited to Brian Brettschneider, thanks to data from Iowa State.

This map confirmed my intuition. My old life in New Jersey was in the dark green zone, and my new life in Alabama is one level better, in terms of how many “nice” days you can expect in a year.

If you don’t have climate control, then you might be more worried about weather extremes. If you are lucky enough to have a regulated indoor environment, then a nice place to live is largely a question of how many days you get when it’s nice to “go out”.

This map accounts for “nice days”. I wonder if New Jersey would seem closer to Alabama if the measure changed to “nice daylight hours”. Yesterday was beautiful, but it was dark by 5pm. When I get time, I’m going to make a map of where in the lower 48 you can enjoy dinner outside after work many times per year (and why is it Southern California?).