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Tucson and Kashmir


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
July 11, 2011

Most people have no idea what the U.S. is really like. Folks from outside the U.S. certainly do not, but even most U.S. natives are unaware of the richly diverse and bizarre country in which they live. The media contribute greatly the problem. TV and movies show an America that is 90% Los Angeles, 9% Manhattan, and 1% the amorphous rest of the country (to the extent that it differs from Los Angeles). And cultural homogeneity, which reaches even beyond the U.S. borders, can go only so far. Consider Staten Island, the place that time and most of the world forgot, or Tucson.

Tucson leapt back into my consciousness this past January with the horrific shooting of their congresswoman and several innocent bystanders in front of a Safeway supermarket where a political Q&A session was just beginning. This event had more of an impact on me than the typical dreadful occurrence because of my long association with Tucson, which for many years was a global center for research in experimental economics. I had been in that same Safeway on several occasions over the years because it was in a strip mall that was the shopping area nearest to the Westward Look Resort (not a resort by coastal standards) at which meetings of the Economic Science Association were frequently held when they were in Tucson. Moreover, at the exact same time the congresswoman was shot, I was attending an event honoring my wife attended by our local congressman, which is something that I have never done before, but may luckily do again someday.

The media view of Tucson during the round-the-clock cable coverage of the shooting totally missed the point that Tucson was not just any place, but is rather unusual. If anything, the media made the place out to be a place where everyone totes guns around 24-7, ignoring the fact that like most university towns Tucson is quite liberal, which would explain why their congresswoman was a Democrat. While Tucson is atypical in many ways, an unusual (by U.S. standards) attraction to guns is not one of those ways. It is was in Austin, not Tucson, where I saw signs on municipal buildings reminding me to leave my concealed weapons behind, and it was in Research Triangle, NC, not Tucson, that I explored a firearms superstore well before the days of my adventures in retailing. The most notable superstore in Tucson is the Summit Hut, the place to go for all your mountaineering needs. (Tucson is bordered by mountains on all four sides and the typical young Tucsonian is definitely "the outdoor type.")

Tucson is a difficult place to understand because many things are going on there at once. Most obvious is that it is high (about -mile above sea level), hot (temperatures regularly hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit on summer days and often much higher than that), and surrounded by Saguaro cacti (the iconic symbol of Arizona). There is no way that the media can adequately convey what it is like to be there on a hot day in early summer at high noon. It takes a lot of sun to burn me and I usually do not notice anything until I begin peeling hours later, but in Tucson I could actually feel my skin being incinerated in real-time, as if I were a bug under a magnifying glass. When it rains in Tucson it not only pours, it floods. One of the most spectacular things I have ever seen was a massive Tucson lightning storm from the safety of a balcony in the foothills north of the city.

The most important part of the University of Arizona for the local economy is its fine medical school. The elderly require more medical services and naturally prefer being burned to being frozen, so they are a good fit with the University's teaching hospitals. With the elderly come sprawling homes big enough to house both their children and grandchildren. Retirees and golf courses are a good fit as well. Tucson used to be the place to go to escape airborne allergens, but the artificial greening of Tucson destroyed its appeal as an oasis from pollen decades ago. 

The new, green Tucson more than made up for it lost in clear air with great food. Taking its cue from Santa Fe, which from personal experience I can tell you is another strange Southwest city, Tucson became a culinary light of the mid-1980s with the opening of Terra Cotta restaurant not far from the aforementioned Safeway. A mandatory stop on my visits to Tucson, the food at Terra Cotta (and the local competitors that quickly sprung up) not only bested the top Manhattan restaurants (at a fraction of their price), it inspired one what for a time was one of Manhattan's top restaurants, Arizona 206. While both Terra Cotta and Arizona 206 are gone, their influence on American cuisine lives on.

For all its newness, Tucson still retains hints of the Old West. Tucson came under U.S. control as part of the Gadsden Purchase, which as I recall from sixth-grade U.S. history was necessary to provide the optimal path for a transcontinental rail line upon which Tucson was a major stop. As recently as ten years ago I would see old coots dressed up like Buffalo Bill sauntering around town. Since mining, especially for precious metals, was the killer app of the Old West, it is no surprise that one of the premier "rock shows" in the world is held in Tucson. The annual Tucson Gem and Mineral Show fills up the city with colorful characters like guys with diamond rings on every finger (and often a young lass or two in tow). Although the Economics Science Association meetings in Tucson used to be scheduled to coincide with this event, I regretfully only mingled with the attendees around town and never went to the show itself.

Finally, and this is where Kashmir comes in, Tucson is a city of cars. Even more than LA, you cannot meaningfully get around Tucson without one. Tucson is built out on a giant grid of roads that is fitted into the terrain. On my last trip to Tucson four-and-a-half years ago, I spent much of my Tucson driving time listening to Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir". Even though it blanketed the airwaves when it was released in 1975, I paid little attention to Physical Graffiti and the songs on it, especially "Kashmir" The way that I (re)discovered "Kashmir" was during a fit of insomnia I listened to WRUC, the ultra-low-powered radio station on the campus of Union College that has the honor of being the first college radio station in the U.S. The station was on some form of auto-pilot in which about six songs were being played repeatedly in random order. One of the songs was "Kashmir." After about the third time I heard it in my self-deprived state I realized what a great song (and complex) song it was.

Shortly after my arrival in Tucson I purchased Physical Graffiti and after a cursory listen to the entire double-album, I put "Kashmir" on repeat for the remainder of my visit to Tucson. Now those of you who follow me obsessively and remember everything I write may recall that I wrote a piece in Daily Speculations about my travels in Tucson at that time indicating that I bought and played a CD that contained the second greatest song of all time while I was in Tucson. Well, the song was "Kashmir." As to the greatest song of all time, I will leave that for a future column.

Next month, my thoughts turn back to school, which begins for me three weeks after that next commentary appears. It will be the first reading assignment for my students and in it I will discuss my current philosophy of teaching graduate finance.

Copyright 2011 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to