Thursday, November 27, 2008

Las Vegas: Paying a Price to be Left Alone

It's sometimes funny how often you can look at a thing and then suddenly it gives you a new idea. A recent trip to Las Vegas helped focus an idea that we probably had been working on for awhile, but it took Vegas to tease out.

Reading some of our earlier posts on theories of consumption and wealth, as put forward by the likes of Thorstein Veblen, we have, in the past, toyed with the idea of purpose and uses of wealth. Last week, Vegas helped illustrate that wealth is anti-social and insular. Walking around the tourist areas, proved the inspiration for this.

Tourists areas are by nature supposed to attract people, giving one ample opportunity to study crowds and crowd behaviours, so one of the interesting things we noticed about Las Vegas was the general trend that geography and social density are related to wealth. True, this has been pointed out before, that zoning permits tend to group like economic groups together, something that is reinforced through real estate prices. Also it is true that the distribution of wealth is uneven, there are the numbers of wealthy people decreases as the value of wealth increases. However, quite a few tourist areas are free, or have a significant portion of their attractions available for free. This leads one to suggest that the distribution of tourists, whose goals are to see attractions, would be relatively even across destinations.

This is not true, however, in part because the ancilliary services (like food and souvenirs) to support these attractions are expensive. The prospect of visiting an attraction and paying six dollars for a cup of coffee dissuades a number of people, in effect turning the extra few dollars per cup into a premium some are willing to pay in order to have a cup of coffee in less crowded conditions. A survey of restaurants can yield the same interpretation: witness the crowding of buffet lines and the sparse attendance of the Michelin-starred restaurants. With restaurants particularly, but also many other services, such as shopping, not all of the price differential can be attributed to what we'll call a "privacy premium". Part of the price differential is to recoup costs from superior or rarer ingredients, as well as the higher real estate prices. Furthermore, some higher end shops also include a more personalized shopping experience as part of their price differential: fewer customers in a store increases the likelihood that the shopper can receive individual attention, either informally or through appointment. This extra attention can often help identify a better suited item for purchase, just as eating more expensive food can result in eating food with healthier ingredients.

Again, we find wealth a fascinating area of study, especially the ways in which the possession of even a little bit of wealth helps to reinforce or maintain the benefits of wealth.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Cinema Whispers

Face it, you're all talking about it . . .

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Sixties Are Finally Over

Back in March, in a post entitled "The Ghosts That Haunt Us (Richard Nixon Lives)", we mused about the ebb and flow of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements, specifically in the context of the French Revolution and the tumultuous American 1960s. At the time, we talked about the current Bush II government having its roots in the Nixon administration, and drew some analogies to the French Revolution, in the wake of Barack Obama's presidential victory last night, we'd like to extend that idea, suggesting that now, finally, the United States can begin to move past the divisions that erupted during the 1960s. No longer will they haunt every political argument. Sure, the short-term  will probably see a lot more talk about the 1960s, but a post-Obama U.S. will be one that faces new problems, instead of rehashing old ones. A post-Obama U.S. will finally admit, the Sixties are over.

Back in March we talked briefly about the reign of Louis Phillipe, the last King of France, and so-called Citizen King after his liberal tendencies. Louis Phillipe came of age during the French Revolution, that starting date of which most historians point to 1789. That his coronation came in 1830 does not lessen the claim that Louis Phillipe was a child of the Revolution. Despite ten years of Revolutionary government, followed by reign of Napoleon, who pronounced the Revolution officially over, the return of the Bourbon monarchy after a twenty-five year absence saw an effort to unwind many of the changes made during the Revolution. After the death of Louis XVIII in 1824, matters only escalated under Charles X, creating support for the liberal backlash that enabled Louis Phillipe to assume the thrown in 1830.

Part of what happened in the years after Napoleon was the aging of the Revolutionary generation. The men of 1789, who might have been in their thirties and forties at the time, were by 1815 in their sixties and seventies, and by 1830, in all likelihood, dead. The generation that had to live during the transition from Napoleon to the Bourbons did much to give rough shape to what the legacy of the Revolution would be, and it was their children that grew up to support Louis Philipe in 1830.

We have often referred to the 1960s as a failed revolution, but this assumes that all revolutions have as their aim a political regime change. As a social revolution, the 1960s have left the United States a vastly different place than where it was in 1959. Watch AMC's Mad Men and you get to see some of those differences, but there are all sorts of formalities, traditions, and rituals that did not survive the 1960s. The back and forth between Republican and Democratic presidents can be seen as part of an on-going debate over which aspects of the 1960s should be allowed to endure, which carried forward, and which overturned. 

Just as Louis-Phillipe absorbed the lessons of the Revolution in his youth and they provided a context for society under his reign, Obama is literally a child of the sixties (born 1961), and they provide part of the framework for his vision of the United States in a way that George W. Bush (born 1946), Hillary Clinton (born 1947), and John McCain (born 1936) cannot match. For Obama, the sixties were a reality to be lived, not argued over. 

The sixties are over. The future is now.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Who Says There's No Global Warming

Everybody wandered around town today in something of a daze. The first day of turning the clock back an hour left everyone somewhat off their game, but the real confusion lay in the recent warm weather. The high today reached 17 degrees celsius - an unsual feat for a northern Canadian prairie city. True, Calgary is home of the fabled "Chinook" or "snow-eater" a warm high pressure system responsible for unseasonably high temperatures in winter, and the telltale Chinook-arch cloud formation was visible all last week, but nevertheless it makes one wonder . . .