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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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”.