Monday, September 26, 2011

New blog

I have started a new Khaki Economist blog at Please follow!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Soccer in Mexico

Mexico does most things pretty poorly. But that's the topic of my next post. This topic is about something Mexico does pretty well: fútbol.

Last night, I went to see the pre-season so-called "Tapatíos" match, that is, between the two biggest Guadalajara-based (Tapatío) teams, Chivas (Goats), and Atlas.

The match itself was about the same quality as A-League matches, which means `pretty low'. However, I enjoyed the match immensely more than I do most A-League matches. I think there were a few specific reasons:

-having two teams from the same city means there can be a noisy contingent of fans from both sides. It's good to see the A-League admitting second-team franchises from Sydney and Melbourne.

-A more liberal allowance of drums and musical instruments. They create atmosphere, which is a clear substitute for the quality of the game.

-Roving booze/food salespeople.

-Much better half-time entertainment. They had teenagers in jumpsuits running a Gladiators-ish obstacle course, which was genuinely funny--and perhaps more interesting than the soccer.

Unfortunately, Chivas, the team which I bought the jersey of, lost 0-1.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Making (special) Znoud el-Sit in Mexico

It started out a fairly simple task: I wanted to make for my new, extended family, my favourite Lebanese sweets---Znoud el-Sit. For those unacquainted with them, they are pure bliss. They are filo pastry wrapped around clotted cream, deep fried and drizzled in rose-water sugar syrup.

Easy, I thought.

The first problem I found was that filo pastry is not available in Mexico. They have no Turks, Greeks, Maltese, Italians, French, or Pan-Slavic people here. This meant I had to make filo pastry. It takes a five year apprenticeship to make good filo pastry, and with my limited (I read three recipes, and watched two YouTube how-tos) training, I failed miserably. The best description of my "sheets" of filo pastry would be "dough".

The second problem was that Ashta, or Lebanese clotted cream, is not available in Mexico. This meant I had to make it myself. This wasn't a complete failure. The instructions are pretty easy: take 5 tins of Carnation Milk, two tablespoons of flour, and simmer, stirring, for five hours.

Having wrapped my dough around my ashta, I deep fried them (they looked like pigs feet), and took to making the sugar syrup. That was meant to be easy. Sugar, water, rose-water. Unfortunately, rose-water is not (really) available in Mexico. Resigned to this fact, I made my sugar syrup the old fashioned way--just sugar and water.

Susana's mother, though, rocked up, just as I'd finished the sugar syrup. She had rosewater!

In Mexico, rose-water isn't used in cooking so much as it's used in cosmetics, as a skin-cleanser. The bottle she brought was almost a litre, so I stirred in a few capfuls, and poured them on top of the Znoud, garnishing with crushed pistachios (available in Mexico).

It was then, having spent no fewer than 8 hours preparing this horrible meal, that I thought to taste the sugar syrup. I dipped in my finger, and gave it a good lick, only to bend over gagging: the rose-water was almost half soap.

Nonetheless, I served the (cleansing) Znoud to my new family for Christmas dinner, and several went for seconds. One asked for the recipe--I wonder what she'd have done if I explained the secret ingredient?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Buying brides in Mexico

In Timor, a few years back, some of the locals told me that bride-selling was pretty much the norm. If you wanted to marry someone´s daughter, your parents would have to pay her parents the bride price, normally in livestock. This served as a massive incentive to have daughters. And often having daughters led to having sons.

In Mexico, there is no bride selling by families (fortunately: the price on Susie´s head would likely be beyond my budget). However, the custom has been taken up by the immigration ministry, who demand $2658Pesos from foreigners for a ¨license¨ to marry a Mexican.

This seems a hugely efficient tax. Demand for Mexicans spouses, presumably, would be very inelastic to the price of this license. I, personally, would pay double that for Susana, or triple.

In one of my many questions for the Mexican bureaucracy, I ask: how did they come up with the bride price of $2658?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Paul Romer, Town Planning, and Eating Gays in the Land of the Deep-Fried Taco

Sorry guys, the first post of this didn't contain the links.


Dear Friends & Colleagues,

Two weeks ago, I went to see The Brothers Bloom in a Mexican Cinema. In Mexico, most Western films are released in both subtitled and dubbed formats; people with thick-rimmed glasses and skivvies overly attend the subtitled sessions, and those with pick-up trucks choose the dubbed sessions. For me, the only memorable part of the film [two and a half stars], was when one brother Bloom said to another brother Bloom "I don't want to impugn an entire country, but Mexico is a terrible place". All the political science students in their berets giggled, nervous, and offended, but unwilling to not get the joke. They knew that fifteen thousand people have been murdered here since President Calderón stupidly declared war on the drug cartels, but are also tired of being the butt of supposedly affectionate jokes in the west. Being proud of being Mexican is difficult.

Mexican national pride, from what I can reckon, is based on cuisine, custom, and saying "bugger off" to the Spanish, one hundred and ninety-nine years ago. In 1810, a charismatic priest called Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, irritated by the authorities in Madrid ordering private vineyards destroyed, including his (they would threaten the Crown Monopoly), raised an army and took the silver-mining town of Guanajuato. His attempt at gaining Mexican independence was immediately unsuccessful---the Spanish shot him in Chihuahua, then cut off his head and put it on a spike in front of the grain warehouse in Guanajuato (for a decade, to let the message sink in). Eleven year later, though, Hidalgo's "bugger off" resonated with a greater proportion of those in power, and Spain ceded control.

After seeing the film, Susana and I visited Guanajuato, staying in a hotel metres from where Hidalgo's head was. The town itself is unlike the rest of Mexico; it seems to have `got it together'. It is a tourist town in the purest sense. Throngs clog its cobblestone streetlets for the permanent carnival atmosphere, take tours of the dungeons, castles, and silver mines, or drink tequila in the lane-way bars. It is a lucky town, with something to sell: picture the Warrumbungles, minus the trees, with all the seventeenth century pomp of a pious European city, glued together with the walkways, parks, and restaurants of Sydney's The Rocks, in permanently mild weather. The physical beauty, however, is not the sole reason to go to Guanajuato. For Mexicans, visiting the town is an escape from their dirty, industrial Mexico, where pedestrians give way to cars that give way to trucks. In Guanajuato, pedestrians have de facto right of way; cars get around in their underground cobblestone tunnels, and there are no trucks. Guanajuato exists in a different kind of normal.

Normal, unsurprisingly, is a fairly important concept in development economics. As pointed out by Daron Acemoğlu, an important development economist, Mexico´s normal is comparatively dismal:

"On one side of the border fence, in [Nogales,]Santa Cruz County, Arizona, the median household income is $30,000. A few feet away[, in Nogales, Sonora], it's $10,000. On one side, most of the teenagers are in public high school, and the majority of the adults are high school graduates. On the other side, few of the residents have gone to high school, let alone college."

Economists call the different versions of normal that exist on either side of the fence bordering Arizona and Sonora institutions. Institutions are not schools, or hospitals (unless they are), but the shared common accepted rules between a group of people. Kissing hello is one institution. My lentil burgers are another. Today I saw a fantastic example of a proud Mexican institution: a bus had been pulled up by a motorcycle police-man, for running a red light. Underemployment in Mexico is around the quarter of willing workers, and the driver---knowing that he could be easily replaced---"fixed" the policeman right there, five metres from Susana and I.

It has been a source of constant fascination for me how the physical layout of a city can influence these institutions, and how they become re-enforcing. Guadalajara, for example, is a big city--about the size of Sydney--and has about the same quality of roads and transport as Sydney would if no maintenance work was carried out for 5 years or so. The size, coupled with the presence of plenty of heavy industry and cheap petrol, means the pick-up truck (American style, not the more efficient Japanese type), is omnipresent. In many industries, owning a pickup-truck can be the deciding factor in one's employability. These factors further result in traffic problems, road damage, and a potential enormous "friction" when Mexico eventually faces a real oil constraint.

But pick-up trucks are not a bad institution per se, and nor are sprawling cities necessarily riddled with corruption and "isolated communities". There is something else going on.

If I were to have to pick a single metric for development, it would be the level of maintanance of the space between a road and houses. Certainly, poor footpaths do not cause a poor society; in contrast, they are the weather-bell of development. In general, people look after their houses. It has ceased to surprise me that in supposed "slums" one can find well-maintained dwellings with more mod-cons than I had in my Brunswick share-house. Similarly, in some of the poorest parts of the world, I have travelled on beautiful, smooth roads (I admit, fairly infrequently).

People take care of their houses because they stand to directly benefit from it: economists say their time spent housekeeping is consuming a "private good", in that others cannot freely consume it. Roads (public goods) are a different story. In general, good roads only happen in places where those who stand to benefit from the roads have some power or economic importance (ie. farming districts, or infamous smooth-highways-to-the-
governer's-house examples). Footpaths, though, are a necessity only for the marginalised (the blind, the crippled, and the old), and it is no surprise their existence, let alone quality, is the marque of a society that has got it together.

More geekily: the existence of high quality footpaths indicates that people implicitly care about the existence of footpaths (a public good) almost as much as their own houses, and do this either by taking care of the footpaths themselves, or paying a tax in order to have an administrator do it for them. This general idea--that development occurs due to institutions equating perceived private returns with public returns--is fairly central to the work of Douglass North, who won the Bank of Sweden (Nobel) Prize for economics in 1993, and who all economics students should be forced to read.

Footpaths are, of course, fairly insignificant in the scheme of things, but they are a good allegory for public good-provision in general. The people of Guanajuato (and their clean streets, which are, incidentally, primarily cleaned by the residents, not council) left me with something to think about: they care for their footpaths because the rest of Mexico would judge them harshly were their streets filled with litter (the norm in Mexico). Why is there not the same degree of shame attached to Mexico's other ills: drug crime and corruption? If Landscape Architects and Urban Planners have the capacity to engineer our emotions to accept ownership of land that is not ours, and treat it as so, is it not the task of economists and other policy-makers to figure ways to attach popular sentiment (and more importantly, action) to behaviour in the public good?

An interesting thinker on the topic of Cities and Institutions is Stanford Professor Paul Romer, whose Charter Cities idea has been quite a hit this year. The general concept is this: poor countries' governments have proven to be fairly bad administrators, for whatever reason; similarly colonialists didn't do a really flash job managing the same countries either, and so re-colonising countries is not a palatable option. However, cities are a fairly proven method of improving livelyhoods, and most cities in rich countries are run well. It follows that if rich countries were to establish cities and allow people from poor countries to populate them (accepting the rules and institutions of the city), everyone would benefit. The best example of this sort of thing, historically, is Hong Kong, which was administrated by the UK until 1997, and is one of the most prosperous cities on the planet. Here are a list of candidates proposed by Romer.

On balance, I think the idea is a fantastic one, though not without some flaws, which I'll write on another time. My biggest criticism is, so far, the lack of detail of what a charter city would look like. I would not say that contemporary suburban design inspires "ownership" of a city in the way the nooks, hills, and churches of Guanajuato do. Urban design can, simply, make the job of instilling good institutions easier.

To get a better idea of the so-called "International Best Practice" in urban design, I plan to go this year to the Shanghai Expo 2010. I will likely go in July, if the Treasury wants to give me some time off. If you're interested in joining me, shoot me an email.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Mexican Food and Language

This year, while trying to write a thesis, I put on almost 10kg. After a few of my closest friends made a few comments ("Jim! You're looking so... portly!") I went on the CSIRO diet with my parents, and lost almost all of it. That was before coming to Mexico.

The Mexicans, I can safely say, are a fat bunch. Among the hundreds of pieces of mother-to-daughter knowledge that are passed down (bi-carb in the fridge keeps the smells away; bless yourself in front of a church or be condemned to hell; cut--don't rip--the plastic bag you put in the tortilla maker, etc.) the link between fat content of food and the fat content of people has not been made.

In contrast to the CSIRO diet---which is easy, tasty, and removes almost all fat and carbs from the diet---the Mexican diet consists of tortillas (carbs), melted cheese (min. 40% fat), and fibre (beans), give or take some cilantro, onion, lime and chili for savor. Every meal is washed down with soda. It is no surprise the former CEO of Coca Cola here, Vicente Fox, became president: it wasn't a great increase in influence for the man.

Needless to say, I'm losing the fight of keeping that weight off.

I am, though, happy to report that my Spanish is improving, slowly. Learning a language is a difficult process, especially when there are small differences between the innocent and offensive. I recall a good friend of mine, from Russia, once asking a female tram driver "Does this tram go to St Kilda Bitch?", and buying a "bottle of cock" from 7/11.

My 7/11 experiences have been no better. For the first two weeks, at every store I visited, I asked the price of the store attendant "¿cuánto cuestas?" where I should have asked for the price of the product "¿cuánto cuesta?"

After spending a while scrubbing myself up (I needed scrubbing) to go to Sue's Uncle's new gay club, I stood in front of her family and proudly announced "Yo como un homosexual", in place of "Yo parezco como un homosexual". The latter translates as "I look like a gay", and the first as "I eat a gay".

Saturday, December 12, 2009

High points of the last week

This is the end of my first week in Guadalajara. Here are the high points:

1. Last night I went to the opening of Susana's uncle's new gay club, Velvet. It was fun, though not my scene (something about being straight). We also went to Circus, one of his other gay clubs. It was far more grungy, and a lot more my style.

2. Today, I was making some gnocci and prawns, which required rosemary and basil. Susana's mother is basically a disinfecting machine (apparently it's a common Mexican trait). She scrubbed and disinfected the rosemary and basil. There is no chance of me picking up any bugs here.

3. I went with Chewy, Susana's brother, to the wholesale markets. These markets put Melbourne's to shame. There are stores which sell nothing but onions, by the tonne. Others sell just piñatas. A fantastic experience.

4. We bought some wedding rings.

5. Books started this week:

Boswell: life of Samuel Johnson

Dambisa Moyo: Dead Aid

Gareth Evans: Responsibility to Protect

Freakonomics (Thanks, Dean!)

And I've finally hit the second half of David Kilcullen's The Accidental Guerilla. I will write a review of it next week.