Irrational for Americans to work unless above-median income can be earned

As we celebrate Tax Day (updated date for coronapanic) and you add up what you’re paying to the Feds and states, it might cheer you up to look back to this 2019 article from a former Senator and a former top executive at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a Wall Street Journal article on income inequality:

Official measures of income inequality, the numbers being debated, are profoundly distorted by what the Census Bureau chooses to count as household income.

The published census data for 2017 portray the top quintile of households as having almost 17 times as much income as the bottom quintile. But this picture is false. The measure fails to account for the one-third of all household income paid in federal, state and local taxes. Since households in the top income quintile pay almost two-thirds of all taxes, ignoring the earned income lost to taxes substantially overstates inequality.

The Census Bureau also fails to count $1.9 trillion in annual public transfer payments to American households. The bureau ignores transfer payments from some 95 federal programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps, which make up more than 40% of federal spending, along with dozens of state and local programs. Government transfers provide 89% of all resources available to the bottom income quintile of households and more than half of the total resources available to the second quintile.

Today government redistributes sufficient resources to elevate the average household in the bottom quintile to a net income, after transfers and taxes, of $50,901—well within the range of American middle-class earnings. The average household in the second quintile is only slightly better off than the average bottom-quintile household. The average second-quintile household receives only 9.4% more, even though it earns more than six times as much income, it has more than twice the proportion of its prime working-age individuals employed, and they work twice as many hours a week on average. The average middle-income household is only 32% better off than the average bottom-quintile households despite earning more than 13 times as much, having 2.5 times as many of prime working-age individuals employed and working more than twice as many hours a week.

Condensed version of the above: Your spending power will be roughly the same if you don’t work at all (and therefore don’t have to file tax returns, extensions, estimated tax, etc.) than if you work full time, unless you are a high-skill worker who can command a wage that is well above the median. The article includes a chart from 2017, before all of the Coronawelfare was ladled on top:

Note the flat shape of the “Net income” (i.e., spending power) curve until one is in the top 20 percent. The old sourpusses who wrote the article conclude with a scolding tone:

America already redistributes enough income to compress the income difference between the top and bottom quintiles from 60 to 1 in earned income down to 3.8 to 1 in income received. If 3.8 to 1 is too large an income differential, those who favor more redistribution need to explain to the bottom 60% of income-earning households why they should keep working when they could get almost as much from riding in the wagon as they get now from pulling it.

But, as Cicero noted more than 2000 years ago, “The cash that comes from selling your labour is vulgar and unacceptable for a gentleman … for wages are effectively the bonds of slavery.” Maybe the fact that we’ve created the world’s largest group of humans who don’t work is a feature, not a bug?

(Separately, I don’t see how the above calculation can be done accurately. Many of our brothers, sisters, and binary resisters who receive free housing and/or reduced rent are in private-sector apartment buildings that have been ordered by local governments to provide free or reduced rent. The rent subsidy is reflected in higher rents paid by market-rate tenants, not in a local government’s budget.)


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Americans were Shutdown Champions (at watching TV)

A European eyeglass retailer published a screen time index based on data gathered in mid-October 2020 (i.e., during coronapanic).

Americans were champions at watching TV, dominating all other nations (175 minutes/day compared to 119 minutes in Ireland and 113 in Switzerland). Colombia and Mexico were the only other nations that came close to matching our couch potato achievement.

And, before we wisely decided, in response to a virus that attacks the obese, to lock ourselves into our apartments and park next to the fridge, how were we doing with obesity? Our government loves to sort us by race:

Keep in mind that this is based on 2018 data and Americans are likely much fatter now.

What about “fat” rather than “obese”?

If you’re a white guy whom United Airlines doesn’t want to hire, there is a 75 percent chance you’re “overweight” (i.e., fat). If you’re a Black woman whom United Airlines does want to hire, there is an 80 percent chance you’re “overweight”. Maybe after a few of these quota-arranged training classes graduate it will be time to un-mothball the Airbus A380s (1,265,000 lbs. max gross weight)!

[My recollection is that taking an average within the NHANES data reveals that American “women” (whatever that term might mean) actually have a higher BMI than American “men”. That’s not necessarily inconsistent with the above tables, which look only at those who’ve exceeded a threshold, but maybe it is worth exploring.]

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Relocation to Florida for a family with school-age children

During my travels around the U.S. and in conversations with people from various European nations, I’ve come to realize that COVID-19 could be considered primarily a mental condition in that the same virus has radically different effects depending on an individual’s or society’s psychology. People in Sweden, Florida, South Dakota, for example, have the same information regarding COVID-19 that everyone else has, but they process this information differently than folks in Germany, California, or Massachusetts. Given the information that life has become slightly riskier, it isn’t inevitable that a human or group of humans would choose a particular course of action.

One thing that is unusual about the U.S. is that we have the power to move among radically different social, economic, and legal environments simply by moving from state to state. Think that having sex with a high-income person such as Hunter Biden should result in higher spending power than going to college and working? Move to Massachusetts. Think that college+medical school+working as a physician should pay more than having sex with a dermatologist? Move to Texas, where child support profits are capped. Agree with Bernie Sanders that Black Lives Matter, but don’t want to live with any Black people? Move to Vermont. Want to live among Latinx and pay a total tax rate of 4 percent? Move to Puerto Rico. Love guns? Arizona.

The same situation applies with reactions to Covid-19. If you want the governor to tell you when it is legal to leave your house, California and Massachusetts are great choices (ranking). If you don’t think shutdowns and school closures are effective ways to deal with Covid-19 and/or you simply think that continuity of education, social life, and fitness are more important than avoiding Covid-19, you could move to any of the states ranked 70+ on that list: Iowa, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Idaho, South Dakota, Alaska, Utah, Florida, Tennessee, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Arkansas, Wisconsin.

Can it make sense to move permanently in response to a temporary situation? COVID-19 will be gone soon, thanks to the vaccines, and we’ll be “back to normal”, right? My personal theory is that there is enough potential for the virus to evolve that people who want to be restricted will continue to seek restrictions going forward. I personally know quite a few people who, despite being vaccinated and/or having had actual Covid-19 (mild symptoms, but positive PCR tests) continue to be afraid to go out, wear masks even outdoors, etc.

(See also Tyler Cowen’s “Covid Has Made Where You Live Matter Even More,” Bloomberg, April 5: “Overall the Southeast would seem to be a big winner, as the psychological effects of low rates of unemployment may prove more durable than the effects of high rates of casualties.”)

It doesn’t make sense to move to a state with a state income or estate tax, however. Let’s intersect with income-tax-free states. Now we’re down to South Dakota, Alaska, Florida, and Tennessee. South Dakota is an awesome state for domestic asset protection trusts (along with Nevada, this is where America’s billionaires keep their trusts, but the ultimate protection may not work unless you live in SD or NV) and thus is a good place to preserve wealth from potential plaintiffs. It is a lovely place to spend the summer, but if you have school-age children you don’t want to be stuck there December through February. With apologies to friends in Anchorage, that goes double for Alaska! Now we’re down to Florida and Tennessee. Nashville, for example, is reasonably nice in January, with average highs of 48 degrees, but Tennessee is more of a working state than a fun/retirement state. If you’re going to move, why not move to a playground? And Miami, oddly enough, despite being much warmer in winter is actually slightly cooler in the summer than Nashville. Finally, I am not sure that the WalletHub ranking of Coronafreedom makes sense. The Tennessee governor declined the Central Tyrant job and did not order everyone to wear masks. However, unlike in Florida, where the governor forbade local tyrants from imposing mask laws with fines, the Tennessee governor simply delegated tyranny to counties: “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has not been a statewide mask mandate in place in the state of Tennessee, however, local authorities were given the authority to issue mask mandates within their own jurisdictions.” A state with empowered local tyrants is not exactly free! Thus, as so many fleeing Wall Streeters have discovered, it all comes down to Florida.

This is a report on my own January/February exploration trip to Florida in the Cirrus SR20...

Covid Olympics. If you assume that masks are effective, from a practical disease transmission point of view, Florida should have roughly the same coronaplague rate as Maskachusetts. Just as in MA, people generally wear masks when inside retail stores. Just as in MA, restaurants are open and servers wear masks, but people don’t wear masks at the tables. Florida has a higher percentage of schools that are open (100% since October), but MA has enough schools open that Covid-19 can certainly spread. It is uncommon to see someone outdoors in Florida with a mask on, but #science hasn’t established that coronaplague is among outdoors. Death rate chart from the CDC, with MA in green:

The chart shows that the denial of education to urban children, wearing masks in the forest, sitting at home next to the fridge for 12 months, etc. here un Massachusetts have not resulted in a lower death rate statistic. But if you were to point this out to someone in Florida, most likely he/she/ze/they would respond with “So what? We didn’t send a team to the COVID Olympics.” The post-Covid priorities of the typical Floridian seem to be the same as the pre-Covid priorities. If he/she/ze/they has children, the priorities are ensuring that those children get a good education and a variety of mask-free fun after-school sports. If he/she/ze/they does not have children, the priorities are gathering with friends, working, staying fit, etc. (I was there in late January and few people had been vaccinated, so those over 70 would avoid crowded indoor spaces and seek to dine at outdoor tables whenever going to a restaurant.) Where someone in Massachusetts might talk about whether he or she felt “safe” [from Covid] doing something, the Floridian will simply talk about the activity itself.

Yard Signage and Bumper Stickers. Although Florida is a swing state and it is possible that a yard sign advocating for a political candidate might change the outcome of an election, yard signs occur at only 1/100th the rate of what we have in the Boston suburbs. The same goes for bumper stickers. Would you like to know whether Black Lives Matter to your neighbor? You’ll have to ask him/her/zir/them. Driving around and wondering “In this house, what do they believe?” You’ll have to knock on the door to find out unless….

Gainesville. Beautiful campus for University of Florida, but not a beautiful or vibrant town. Apparently when the smart young people graduate they go somewhere else. Particularly unsuitable for aviation enthusiasts as the (great) airport is on the opposite side of town from the nicer real estate (tucked away in suburban developments that have a minimal relationship to Gainesville). At least with respect to Covid-19, the students seem smarter than the (cowering out of personal fear) Ivy League to whom I’ve talked recently. “We’d behave differently,” one sophomore said, “if we lived with our grandparents, but we don’t. There is no reason for us to be afraid of getting the virus and we live more than 100 miles away from our older relatives. Classes are mostly remote, so the only people that we interact with are other young people who aren’t at risk.”

Guess which department has the ugliest building? Note the students hunting for shark’s teeth in a nearby park and the selfie park at the FBO.

Sarasota. Folks with kids will want to live on the mainland rather than one of the islands (great for beach access, but the traffic can be slow getting on/off for the various services and activities that kids need). The neighborhood around the Southside Elementary School is probably the most desirable, with Camino Real being the best street and anything east of the Tamiami Trail being cheaper. Overall, however, Sarasota is more geared around the retired than those of school age. Great airport shared by air carriers and general aviation, about 13 minutes from the Southside school.

The Ringling (world’s only fine art and circus museum!) and the latest condo development for oligarchs (from my friend’s boat).

View from my friend’s apartment and his neighborhood from the air on departure…

Naples. A nice walkable downtown area. Attractive architecture. World-class restaurants at Manhattan prices (if restaurants in Manhattan were open!). There are some young people in town, but they’re apparently mostly tourists. As with Sarasota, this is a place where people go to retire. Great airport, 10 minutes from downtown, that is used only for general aviation. It was so busy in late January that jets parked on the ramp were interlaced like jets in a hangar (i.e., it wouldn’t have been possible to get one out of the middle without an hour or two of tugging).

Miami. The ultimate party town now that Los Angeles and New York have locked themselves out of the running and probably even before. “I can never get any work done here,” said one of the private equity guys I was with. KTMB is the preferred airport and it is along haul from Miami Beach (nearly 40 minutes without traffic). KOPF is a little closer, but nobody seems to like it. If you aren’t going to hit the clubs and don’t have to be in the city for work, why put up with the congestion, traffic, and high real estate prices?

The Wynwood Walls (decluttered now that they’re charging $10 to get in), breakfast cereals for the Age of Coronapanic (Franken Fat, Cap’n Corn Starch, Obesie Os from Killkidds), transportation on which it would be good to get Dr. Fauci’s opinion regarding safety, and a group of #ScienceDeniers gathering at a rooftop club.

On the way out of town, the illegal-to-operate cruise ship pier:

Key West. We went there in a Cirrus Vision Jet to visit a friend who is a passionate Massachusetts Democrat and just happens to live here for 183 days per year (that way he skips on state income tax and folks other than him can pay for the bigger government that he advocates…). In such a small place I think it would be tough to find specialized teachers, coaches, doctors, etc. for the modern-day helicopter parented child. The airport has a short-ish runway (5,000′) and is monopolized, with associated monopoly rates, by Bill Gates’s Signature Flight Support (jet fuel for those as concerned as Bill G about climate change). Fun to say that you’ve been here.

Fun fact: Pan American World Airways began here. Cuba was 90 miles away, but it is getting a little closer with every $1.9 trillion government spending bill… Found the Icon A5 on the ramp at KTMB (my flight in the A5 at Oshkosh).

Wellington Aero Club. West of Palm Beach, right up against the $25 million horse barns of America’s billionaires, you can open your garage door and taxi your twin-engine turbojet out to the 4,000′ private runway (FD38). Good public schools. Great country club for golf and tennis next door. I had a nice time here visiting a friend whose wife is a serious horse rider, but I wouldn’t want to be this far from the beach (30-40 minutes, depending on the specific beach). (See “How a Sleepy Florida Town Became the Horse Riding Capital of the World” and the 30-horse single-family stable below) My friend in Wellington (also a

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Why not heated furniture to fight coronaplague?

In their righteous muscular efforts to “control” coronavirus, some state governors and city mayors have ordered restaurants shut down, except for outdoor dining. In response, restaurants have built four-sided tents filled with CO2-emitting propane heaters. It is unclear why this is different from being indoors, other than the lack of a real HVAC system. The tent sides are necessary, though, because otherwise the propane heat will blow away.

Why not heat the customers instead of the air?

Back in 2010, I wrote Heated Furniture to Save Energy?

A lot of cars have heated seats. When the seat heater is on, most drivers will set the interior temperature 3-7 degrees lower than with the seat heater off. Why not apply the same technology to houses?

Imagine being at home in a 65-degree house. Even in a T-shirt and jeans, it would probably be comfortable to walk around, stir a pot on the stove, carry laundry, scrub and clean, walk on a treadmill while typing on a computer (as I’m doing now!). However, if one were to sit down and read a book, it would begin to seem cold. Why not install heat in all of the seats and beds of the house? And sensors to turn the heat on and off automatically? In a lot of ways, this would be more comfortable than a current house because the air temperature would be set for actively moving around while the seat temperature would be set for sedentary activities.

There is a fine line between brilliant and stupid, of course, but could it be that coronaplague has pushed this idea over the line?

A Dutch company, sit & heat, seems to have thought of this: heated cushions that can fit into a standard frame. Serta makes a chair-shaped electric quilt (could not survive outdoors) for only $64. A plastic chair with a built-in 750-watt heater is $900 (Galanter & Jones; they have sofas too at roughly $6,000 and claim they are “cast stone”).

If heated chairs were mass-produced in Asia, presumably the cost per chair would be only about $100 more than a regular outdoor chair. That should be affordable for a restaurant.


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Coronapanic lockdowns will devalue independent living retirement homes?

The elderly folks whom I know that live in “independent living” retirement homes have now been locked down for six months. They can’t socialize, which was their motivation for moving into the dorm-style environment. The dining rooms are closed and meals are brought to their apartments. The shared athletic and activity facilities have been closed. Many are widows who are essentially locked into solitary confinement.

For folks who had only 4 years of life expectancy remaining, in order to protect them from a 5-20 percent chance of dying from coronaplague, they have now had a 100 percent chance of losing out on most of the things that they valued for 12 percent of their life expectancy.

(A friend’s mom has actually lost nearly 100 percent of the things that she enjoys for 100 percent of what turned out to be her remaining life. This widow was locked down in March, giving up her four weekly exercise classes and her multiple hours per day of socializing and excursions. She was feeling worse and worse. Eventually she got to see a doctor and was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She is almost certain to die befor the lockdown is lifted.)

On the other hand, the elderly folks that are living in regular houses or apartment buildings are free to visit family members, free to socialize with each other, free to go out to stores (whichever ones the governors and state license rajs will permit to open!), free to go to the beach, etc.

Independent living facilities are fairly expensive. Hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy in (co-op or condo) and then thousands of dollars per month for services, most of which are now shut down. Why spend this money and put oneself at risk of a multi-month or multi-year lockdown, whatever the state governor feels like ordering? Why not instead stay in an ordinary house or apartment building and hire a helper for a few hours per day if needed?

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Get rid of single-family zoned suburbs?

“It’s Time To Abolish Single-Family Zoning” (The American Conservative, so you know already that it can’t be right!):

The first of many ironies, of course, is that single-family zoning became the standard for American suburbs during the New Deal when the Roosevelt administration, through various programs such as the Home Owners Loan Corporation, required it for home refinancing assistance.

These onerous regulations were further mandated for new construction by the Federal Housing Administration as well as the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

So if you want federal support for your housing, build a single-family home. If you want to live in that downtown shop with the house on the second floor, convert your house to a two- or three-unit building and rent it out—or do any number of normal and reasonable things that humans had been doing with their property for centuries to build their own wealth and prosperity—don’t expect assistance from the government.

Regarding some new proposed laws and regulations:

So, suburban governments, you won’t get the subsidy this time unless you repeal the regulation we required you to enact decades ago to get the subsidy we were offering back then. And we oppose this today because we are conservatives?

This article seems ill-timed in light of the fact that Americans, as evidenced by recent policy and spending, care about only one thing: coronavirus infection. Isn’t the bleak isolated car-dependent suburban lifestyle (“broad lawns and narrow minds”) the best defense against the evils of Covid-19?

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Coronavirus will make the suburbs cool again?

A friend has a beautiful house, decorated to a museum standard, here in our boring suburb of Boston (Zillow). I thought that it would be snapped up by an eager buyer, but it has been on the market for a while.

I’m wondering if coronaplague will push a rich Back Bay condo dweller to say “If we’re going to have lockdowns every few years, I want to live in 6,000+ square feet on 2+ acres.”

“The End of New York: Will the pandemic push America’s greatest city over the edge?” (Tablet):

Cities like New York pay a price for being both dense and cosmopolitan. As a new study from Heartland Forward reveals, the prime determinants of high rates of infection include such things as density, percentage of foreign residents, age, presence of global supply chains, and reliance on tourism and hospitality. Globally, the vast majority of cases occur in places that are both densely populated and connected to the global economy. Half of all COVID-19 cases in Spain, for example, have occurred in Madrid, while the Lombardy region in Italy, which includes the city of Milan, accounts for roughly half of all cases in the country and over 60% of the deaths.

In the long run, the extraordinary concentration of COVID-19 cases in New York threatens an economy and a social fabric that were already unraveling before the outbreak began. The city’s job growth rate has slowed and was slated to decline further, noted the New York City Independent Budget Office. Critically, New York’s performance in such high wage fields as business services, finance, and tech was weakening compared to other American metros. Half of all the city’s condos built since 2015 lie unsold as oligarchs, drug lords, celebrities, and others lose interest in luxury real estate now that cash, much of it from China, is drying up.

What happens when folks who say that the deplore inequality all get together in one big city?

Today the top 1% in New York are taking in over 40% of the city’s income—about double the top 1-percenter income share nationally in the United States—while much of the city’s population find themselves left behind. Even the epicenter of gentrification, Brooklyn, actually got poorer in the first decade of the new millennium.

This reflected in large part a precipitous fall in middle income jobs—those that pay between 80% and 200% of the median income. Over the past 20 years, such jobs barely grew in New York, while such employment soared 10 times as quickly in Texas cities and throughout much of the South and Intermountain West. Of the estimated 175,000 net new private sector jobs created in the city since 2017, fewer than 20% are paying middle-class salaries. Amid enormous wealth, some 40% of working families now basically live at or near the poverty line.

(Let’s hope AOC will reverse this trend!)

Readers: Is it possible that virtual socialization tools and habits honed during the coronaplague will make the suburbs cool (again?)? My pet idea would be a video wall in every home that would let a family’s best friends visit virtually (similar to my pet idea for a video wall that can show a life-sized co-worker). At a minimum, will coronaplague help the suburban real estate market? (At least here in the Boston area, downtown real estate has performed much better in recent years.)

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Move to avoid estate tax before coronavirus kills us?

Now that the grim reaper seems to be among us, is it time to move away from the 12 states that assess estate taxes? Massachusetts, for example, deprives heirs of 10-16 percent of the value of their inheritance, for estates valued at over $1 million (i.e., for anyone who dies while owning a decent apartment or house in the Boston area). The highest state tax rate is reached even for those whose estates aren’t worth enough to be taxed at all by the Federales.

What about income tax? A lot of us will have to work from home for the next two years. Why not do this from the Ritz Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico and cut income tax to 4 percent via Act 22? Puerto Rico seems to have eliminated its estate and gift taxes in 2017 so even if 183 days per year of heat and humidity don’t protect you from coronavirus your savings will be protected.

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What’s the best money you’ve ever spent?

A Facebook friend posted the following:

What’s the best money you’ve ever spent? (Money you think was particularly well spent, that is.)

This generated over 200 responses. Sample of those related to children:

No question, the extremely high price tag of buying our eggs, creating embryos and having women carry them to term for us. Worth every penny though. Nothing better in the world than children!

[bunch saying “private school”]

The Paperwork and admin fees of adoption

IVF [my jet-owning physician friends will be happy to read this!]

Car potty with three kids under 7. Best $20 spent.

[inspiration for the not-yet-parents] The Lice lady who came to our house and spent 5 hours on O’s head when he was little!

Divergence of responses from those with female versus male first names:

  • My divorce
  • yes, amen, my divorce also.
  • God bless the broken road
  • on my very worst day I can always say, “well, at least I’m divorced!”
  • [male] Getting a vasectomy.
  • [male] The prenuptial agreement for my first marriage. [but he did it again? note that a prenup wouldn’t have cut down on any of the litigation depicted in the movie Marriage Story; see also Massachusetts Prenuptial Agreements for why these have no effect on the most common and intensive family court lawsuits]

The original poster’s friends are nearly all righteous denouncers of Donald Trump and the Hate for which He stands, yet only one person out of 200 said anything about charity:

  • change I gave to a homeless man

Responses such as “Private Disney World Guide” and other personal luxuries were common, on the other hand.

Readers: What would you say to this question?

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A philosophy of travel

Destination Earth: A New Philosophy of Travel by a World-Traveler, by Nicos Hadjicostis, describes what the author learned during a 6.5-year trip around the world.

As you might expect from selection bias (he traveled for 6.5 years while others did not), he’s an enthusiast:

The Chinese proverb “It is better to travel 10,000 miles than read 10,000 books” is more pertinent than ever. For the experiences gained by travel are pulsating and permeated by the breath of human experience and interaction. Book knowledge helps us obtain a basic understanding of subjects and categorize them; it moves in one dimension. Travel is multidimensional: It connects the various branches of human knowledge that are held isolated in unconnected mental compartments; it gives flesh and bones to the world’s nations; it introduces us to new sounds and smells and an infinite variety of circumstances. Travel is not only the Ultimate University but also the only one that is alive!

He points out that Hainan Airlines’s $650 round-trip fare from Boston to Shanghai is an example of what is new for the human race:

This is the first time in the history of humanity that millions of people have the ability and means to travel around the world. What was once the privilege of historians like Herodotus, emperors like Hadrian, royal emissaries like Zhang Qian, intrepid explorers like James Cook, or simply the aristocratic few is now within the reach of the middle class.

Let me put in a plug for the smartphone too! It has its pluses and minuses when at home or at work, convenient, but also a distraction and an isolation device (since we don’t talk to people in public places as much). But for the traveler, the smartphone lightens our luggage by 20 lbs. or more (leave out the books) and enables facts and history to be looked up whenever curiosity motivates us. I would read a sign in an ancient garden in China, for example, and then learn more about something described on the sign via my phone and the $10/day in Verizon roaming fees.

Why not put on the VR goggles and travel from the air-conditioned comfort of one’s living room?

There is a widespread belief among people who do not travel that it is not necessary to actually visit other countries because one can get a good sense of them by watching travel programs, leafing through magazines, or reading travel-inspired books. A new species of “armchair-travelers” who sit in front of their television sets watching travel documentaries has emerged in the last decades. This suggests that it is possible to travel without departing from one’s home! The underlying presupposition is that travel is seeing places, and that instead of actually going to places one may bring them into one’s living room. This mistaken view has to be firmly debunked. The relationship between taking a cruise along the Li River in China and experiencing the otherworldly landscape of the Guilin karsts enveloping the boat – full of fellow Chinese travelers – and the watching of a film about Guilin is akin to the relationship between seeing a photo of a person you love and having the actual person next to you. The visual portrayal of a place, whether it be a photo or a movie, as well as any verbal description of it, are incommensurable with the immersive living experience. There is no comparison between Guilin-the-photo and Guilin-the-place-and-experience. Another analogy is comparing the photo of a French cheese platter with eating the real cheeses. One is dead, the other alive. The real cheeses have a wealth of smells, textures, and tastes; the photo is a mere representation. Often, modern man lives in his mind and forgets that Guilin is a real place situated in a three-dimensional universe with a sky above it, a real river running through it, and surrounding rice fields with farmers tending them. No digital reproduction or literary description, however good or poetic, can replace the feeling of a breeze on one’s face or the little droplets from the river’s spray. At best, any description is a pointer to what one may experience if one gets off the couch and sets out to discover the actual place.

He divides up travel into four possible categories. A “one-dimensional” trip is taking an organized tour or flying out to see a new city’s main sights. A “two-dimensional” trip seems to be the same thing, more or less, but a bit longer, e.g., two weeks on a fixed itinerary. Real travel begins with three-dimensional trips of at least three weeks and without prearranging hotels beyond the first few nights. The ultimate:

The four-dimensional journey is much longer in duration and usually involves more than one country. This is travel with infinite degrees of freedom. It opens up a whole new universe of sights, sounds, smells, but also new ways of seeing the world and of understanding mankind in general and oneself in particular.

Examples of total travel are a nine-month journey around Latin America or a six-month journey in West Africa, where one will basically be on one’s own and discover his way around as he moves.

Traveling around the world is a special case of four-dimensional travel. It is the most ambitious and all-encompassing type of travel and belongs to a category of its own. The whole of life becomes the field of exploration of the world-traveler.

Who among us can take off months or years to do this, though? Plainly the young can do it, backpacking among cheap hostels. The author says that this is suboptimal because (a) the traveler lacks sufficient life experience, and (b) going cheap means the traveler misses out on a lot of the social environments of each country. He suggests that a person should be at least 35 years old to fully appreciate a round-the-world four-dimensional journey.

What about those of us who have to love Royal Caribbean and its organized shore excursions (thanks, Mom!)?

Yet, out of fear of the unknown, a large part of the world’s population never travels. At its heart is the fear that one’s needs will not be taken care of, that one will wander alone and helpless in the world. That is why the majority of those who travel choose to do so in a manner that allows them to feel as though they have never left their comfort zones. The majority of travelers who choose to join group tours do so not just to save money but also to feel safe and secure and to have the certainty that nothing will go wrong. Behind modern mass tourism lies an unexpressed fear of the unknown. A second fear is that of not being in control. The modern travel agency or tour operator solves both: It makes the unknown seem known by showing photos of the places to be visited, and it deals with the fear of the traveler not being in control by offering its own control over the way one will travel – it provides fixed itineraries and detailed schedules. The traveler therefore buys the illusion of both security and control over his journey by relinquishing his freedom. However, by doing so, he paradoxically turns the journey into something that is beyond his control, since everything has already been planned by others.

After talking down the organized tour, a few pages later the author describes his experience as an independent traveler:

I had already been cheated many times across the whole spectrum of my dealings with the Vietnamese. Taxi drivers, hotel managers, and fruit sellers were overcharging me at every possible opportunity. Being an experienced traveler, I was amazed at how I was being exploited like a novice every time I slightly dropped my guard. All the daily little robberies, exploitations, and occasional bullying by the Vietnamese are effective because the majority of tourists allow it. Visitors come to Vietnam to have a good time, and they don’t want to constantly argue about the price of everything.

Maybe there is some value in letting the tour operator do all of the commercial negotiation in advance!

He discovers that what’s off the beaten path is sometimes beating

To take another example, on the way to explore the Hamar tribe in Ethiopia’s South Omo Valley, we may come upon a market at which locals invite us to witness the young men’s rite of passage featuring ritual whipping, by which young men prove their manly abilities and are permitted to claim a wife and start a family. We end up in the forest witnessing a few handsome teenagers whipping female family members on their backs until they bleed. It is easy to rush into premature conclusions and think that this behavior is the product of a violent male-dominated society. Yet if we defer judgment and are attentive, we will observe that the women are actually willing participants and persistently demand that they be whipped! Rather than judging, we may seek to better understand the situation by unabashedly asking the locals to enlighten us, and by reading about the custom later. As it turns out, the custom serves a deeper purpose: that of strengthening familial bonds and of initiating young men and women into adulthood.

He learns that, even in countries not run by Donald Trump, citizens believe their own country to be “great”:

… many people in many different countries think that they live in the best country in the world. It was always enlightening to hear the rational arguments these people invented in order to support their already-formed ideas and prejudices. It never crosses their minds that they have been brainwashed by family or school into thinking that their country is the best. Nor do they consider that because they grew up adapting to the environmental and cultural specifics of their own country, they ended up turning these into the weights and measures of evaluating all other cultures. Nor does it occur to them that they came to love those specific elements in their culture that they themselves had acquired, and thus their love for their own culture is in great part another expression of self-love! … If you don’t believe me that your country is neither the most beautiful nor the best in the world, then visit France. And if you are French, stay put!

What about loneliness? The author adopts an attitude that the traveler is not alone because “He is almost always surrounded by people, be they locals, other travelers, or passersby.” and that it is possible to communicate with these people primarily nonverbally. He suggests getting into a mindset in which it doesn’t matter that specific people aren’t there and not trying to photograph and share the experience with the folks back home.

The people you love are not a fixed, unalterable set! We would dare say, they should not be a fixed set. Friendships are created through a conscious mutual effort that involves openness to the unknown person and a movement towards him. There was a moment in time when each of your current friends was not a friend. At some point, even your spouse was as unknown to you as every person you meet in your travels. Every friend you have ever had was as much a stranger to you as this old Papuan man you have just met, who sleeps in a thatched hut with his pig. Yet if you would start talking to him with openness and an earnest desire to come to know him, you would soon discover that not only is he an extraordinary person but that, in spite of your age difference, your different cultures and upbringing, you could become friends. Before you know it, you would realize that you have made a new friend, Papete. You would know that you will remain in the heart of one another for the rest of your lives, even if you never meet again.

One does not have to agree with the author to

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