We made it out of Odessa by bus. It turned out that we had just booked our AirBnB in a district that’s the equivalent of Atlantic City or Old Orchard (for you New Englanders). That is to say it was especially run down and seedy, by Ukrainian standards. The town center of Odessa was much better. It was still decaying badly, with buildings looking like they hadn’t been renovated since 1900 or so, but the people were better dressed and I didn’t feel like I was at any real risk of anything bad happening.
The bus ride was pretty cool. We got to see a lot of country, 7 hours to Kiev. At one of the rest stops some townies tried to pull an inept scam on us which involved dropping their wallet, which was the closet thing to something bad happening. Really though, incredible material poverty. We probably stopped 5 times at various rest stops. People aren’t starving here, but the material conditions are abysmal and the idea of the Ukraine joining the EU any time in the next 30 years is just absurd.
In one sense I think it’s good that Ukrainians can go to Poland or the UK or the US to escape this place where there really isn’t much opportunity. But on the other hand, emigration just means there’s a path of least resistance, a safety valve for the more talented people to boil off. It might be better if they instead stayed and worked to try to get the place on the same track as Poland.
Kiev feels like a different country. Much more developed and maintained in the city center where we are staying. The highways coming in were in good shape too, and the apartment buildings on the edge of the city looked almost like something you’d see in Finland or Sweden. Kiev could probably be a pretty good budget holiday destination for the moderately adventurous traveler. It feels safer, than say, Philadelphia or Washington DC (faint praise?) and unlike pricey hell holes like San Francisco, there are no homeless. I guess in Ukraine it’s not a human right to defecate in the street or camp on the sidewalk! I don’t know what happens to the homeless in Ukraine, but it’s probably not a happy story and they aren’t in the nice areas.
Kiev has lots of beautiful churches. The outside of them is a bit of an acquired taste, but the insides are stunning, almost beyond words. Its like being transported through time to Byzantium, really something special. I don’t know what it is, I’ve always been turned off by catholic church interiors, with the garish colors, musty old smell and creepy statues. I find Orthodox churches more welcoming, holy feeling and beautiful on the inside.
The food here is outstanding. We got ripped off at a fish restaurant that we probably should have left as soon as we realized it was a fish place. But the Ukrainian places are so great, really some of the best food I can remember eating. I like fancy cuisine I guess, but for me, something honest and straight forward like the Ukrainian borsch is hard to beet (forgive me).
I will go back to Texas in a few days. It will probably be strange to see the outstanding infrastructure, ugly modern buildings, hordes of debilitatingly fat, non Slavic faces. The idea of working remotely from a low cost country has always intrigued me, Ukraine would be on that list, but I’d also want to check out more countries in the former communist part of Europe. Ukraine is low cost, but it might not be worth pinching a few extra pennies if you could buy a more high-trust culture or functioning system for slightly higher prices.
This morning 04:30 we landed in Odessa. After passing through a quick passport check we went into an area with two small U shaped conveyor belts. There were people everywhere, pushing to get to the belts. When we got off the plane people cut ahead from the rows behind us, unlike a US flight where the rule is you wait for the early rows to clear out. It was like China in that regard, though the rush seemed more desperate than the Chinese more ritualized, half-hearted rudeness. The baggage claim was similar. I only had a moderate sized rucksack but they made me check it, so I was stuck in the mob, angling around to find my bag.
I had to track two conveyor belts at the same time, looking back and forth. After about 10 minutes of madness, trying not to knock over old ladies as I was pushed out of the way by people coming from behind me, I spotted my bag. It had fallen in between the U shape of the conveyor belt. I had no idea why they’d set it up like this, so that luggage could fall in between, but what the hell. When a gap in the bags appeared, I hopped my 240 lb self on to the belt and walked into the U shape, grabbed my bag and walked back over the conveyor. People seemed startled by this. I didn’t see another way to get the bag. if you’re going to run your airport like a goddamned madhouse I’m going to do what must be done.
We walk out front. There are throngs of people waiting to pick others up. All sorts of strange characters. There’s an ATM with a sign on it that says “Partner of BNP Paribas” I say to myself “I sure hope the Ukrainians wouldn’t set up a phony ATM!” and get a quick 1000 local currency units, the highest amount suggested on the first screen, this is $39.
We are told by our AirBnB host that a ride should cost 300 LCU. We hire a guy who looks like he’s on amphetamines, who wouldn’t balk at killing a rat for dinner, to drive us, negotiating down to 500 from 800. The son of a bitch.
The cabbie drove like a madman. The roads were surprisingly good, really no worse than Vermont, but he drove way too fast for them, passing all sorts of innocent people at high speed. He spoke a bit of English. We told him we were Canadians, he was miserable. He spoke on the phone with our AirBnB host, my friend says to me “he shouldn’t be talking this long” and he was right. In the US or Sweden or Germany, you’d get the communication done quickly so you could end the torment of speaking to a stranger “take them to xyz street, then call me, I’ll be waiting with my lights off, parked on the side of the road” but not in Ukraine apparently. They talked for about 3 minutes, long enough to negotiate who got the cash and who got the organ harvesting rights, presumably.
When we came to a dead end road, blocked by a big excavator digging machine, I was 25% certain we were about to be killed. But then he backs up, and takes a different street. It occurs to me that other Ukrainians I’ve known have been a bit long winded, so maybe it was normal for them to talk so long.
Shortly, we make it to our destination. Our host is a man in his late 40s, with a beard, an honest face, faded tattoos and a BMW 7 series. This is all very comforting. He asks me if I speak Russian, I say “no”. He looks at as if to say “well then”. To reassure him I repeat the Russian phrases I’d learned he says “your pronounce good, like Russian”. Was kind of him.
I’m on what the English call a “holiday” in Prague. I’ve finally recovered from my jet lag and am glad I didn’t publish the first post I’d written when unable to sleep and suffering its effects.
This is the first time I’ve been to Europe in five years, six years since I was really on the continent (does Scandinavia count?). It’s also the first time I’ve been to a Slavic country, though I have been to Hungary. It’s quite beautiful. It actually feels like a coherent, rooted society unlike urban north Texas, which is really just a place to make money and go shopping. Though I like Texas, don’t get me wrong.
What also stands out, compared with Texas, are the near total absence of the waddling obese or even regular old fat people. This, combined with whatever selective process made the Slavic phenotype distribution, also means there’s, you know, impossibly high numbers of gorgeous women. So that’s pretty cool. The buildings are great too. A nice mix of everything from the middle ages up to the early 20th century, which was a good place to stop. There are plenty of 1990s and 2000s buildings, and thankfully modern architecture had become a bit less of an insult to the human spirit by that time.
One thing I want to look into over the next few years is buying property, if it is possible as a foreigner, in one of the Visegrad countries, or possibly the Baltics. I understand that one can’t do this in Poland, due to understandable concerns that the Germans would try to buy their land back, buy hopefully it can be done in some of the other high-functioning central European countries. I expect tourism to boom in central Europe in coming decades, and perhaps even for western Europeans to move here in some numbers. It’s really nice.
I was just drinking a Bitbuger shandy (about as good as it gets), and it occurred to me that with beer, there are real limits on how much trouble you can get yourself into.
Think about the really dysfunctional drinking cultures: The Irish, The Russians, The Weekend Swede, American Cowboys. All of these are fueled by spirits. Contrast this with the jolly west-Germanic-language-group beer drinker, or the various Black sea and Mediterranean sea wine cultures.
Obviously there’s an element of population adaptation here, the longer you’ve been under agriculture the more your genes have been selected to be resistant to alcoholism, and thus Italians and Lebanese are damn nigh impervious to alcoholism. I used to find it amusing when I’d drink with Finns, how I’d always be the last man standing, as my North Sea dairy farmer genes, bested their hunter-gatherer, forest-elf genes. Apparently many people in South China have a gene which makes them physically ill when they drink booze, now that’s a protective adaptation, unless you’re trying to close a business deal in Beijing, but that’s a story for another time.
The point is that we should be discouraging kids from drinking hard liquor, by encouraging them to drink beer. I remember back in high school all sorts of hilarious things happening because people were drinking hard liquor, or attempting toget it, which was prized in the high school party economy for its compactness and stealth properties. We should just let people aged 16 and over buy nasty light beer, 3.5% ABV or less.
Here’s a book title for you to write, if anyone has free time on his hands:
Australian Economics: How the Lucky Country Refutes the Economic Dogma of Crazy People on the Internet
Seriously, Australia should have had all sorts of booms and busts by now, what with the central banks ‘artificially’ steering interest rates. Yet it’s 25 years without a recession.
I see headlines and blog posts about “stocks at an all time high”. After the tendency of financial media to report daily changes in the DOW or S&P 500 in terms of meaningless index points, instead of % changes, this is my single biggest peeve in the area of stock discussion.
Stock prices are linked to long run expected corporate profits, and some discount rate on those profits. It doesn’t matter if many or even most traders in the market don’t play the game of forecasting corporate profits, some can be hedging, some can be randomly buying and selling. What matters is that corporate profits are ultimately what disciplines the market, you can see this in how sensitive stock prices are to individual company news, as well as central bank statements which affect the big macro aggregates and by extension aggregate corporate profits. If equity prices didn’t tend to line up with reasonable expectations of future discounted profits, there’d be free money sitting in plain sight for investors to swoop in an pick up, buying stocks cheap (or shorting dear) and waiting to reap the out-sized profits from the dividend payments and buyouts.
In an economy with inflation, or an economy with more or less no inflation, but some growth, stocks should always be drifting higher, because profits will be drifting higher. Thus, it’s nothing special at all that stocks are currently at an all time high, they should be! You know what else is at an all time high? The CPI! and Nominal GDP! and just about every other nominal spending/income aggregate series! It doesn’t mean the economy is doing particularly well, merely that stocks are slowly being bid up in line with expected long run, discounted, corporate profits. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be.
In general I’m disdainful of academia, and think 95% of economic research papers are much less useful than cab driving or toilet cleaning. The typical academic economist is, when you think about it, totally wasting his/her big brain, especially if he/she is not an effective teacher, and focuses on irrelevant research. In fairness though, you’d be far less likely to make the mistake of getting worked up over “all time highs” in an environment of waning monetary momentum such as ours, if you’d taken some econ classes, than if you’d learned econ from cranks on the internet with no training in mainstream macro. So anyway, don’t get worked up over all time highs, look at the big picture.
If we’re going to have a democracy we might as well set it up for maximum drama.
Here’s what we should do: instead of have the general election on one day, we should spread it out over months, like the primaries. Have an few states vote every week for like six weeks. That’d be exciting, and would mean more debates.