A Humbling Act: Perspective on Being Born in America

Travel is a constant reminder that there, but for the grace of God, go I. I was lucky enough to be born in the churning economic monstrosity that is America. I’d only feel guilty for that if I tried to deny the same to anyone unlucky enough to be born outside it. Had I lived in almost any other country, I couldn’t afford to travel at all.

Granted, Athens, Ohio has a low cost of living that made it easier to build a travel fund. And not drinking compounds the savings.

And yet.

It is a rare privilege to work for a few years, then have enough to travel on. That is not the norm, even in some parts of central Europe. It wasn’t like my last job was lucrative, either. Even in the Czech Republic, though, eyes light up when I explain how I’m traveling around for an indeterminate period of time. GDP per capita in the United States in 2013 was about $53,000. In the Czech Republic, it was just shy of $19,000.

It’s a reminder that, in spite of all the horrific flaws with America, its economic strength is staggering. And the value of an American passport goes beyond most. Though Americans don’t do it often, travel is well within the budget of most, inside or outside the country, if it’s prioritized. Not that choosing to travel is an objectively better choice, of course.

For all the smug satisfaction in articles about how Americans don’t take vacation days, it’s naive. People have different preferences, and to mock and pity people who don’t like to travel is ignorant. It’s sort of wonderful how, in America, people have the option to work as much as they do. A culture that derides anyone for choosing vacation over work isn’t the best, but so what if someone prefers to work on a Saturday? It’s a reflection of cultural differences and government policies that modify the trade-off between leisure and work. If my tax rate was as high as the rates in Scandinavia, then yeah, I might want an extra week off instead of a marginal gain in income.

It’s not that the United States is so economically dominant that no other country could give the same opportunities to a 24-year-old. If I didn’t have student loan debt to repay, I could travel longer (though, with the government driving up the cost of college with cheap loans, the solution isn’t exactly for the government to do more about college costs. It should do less). Western Europe provides similar opportunity. But it’s a useful reminder that this sort of economic prosperity is not a given, and remains elusive. It forces a recognition on anyone traveling to be aware of his or her luck in being born in such a place, and places a responsibility on the traveler to observe, in whatever country, the differences. Eat, drink, and be merry. Don’t forget, however, how improbable it seems for similar people in other countries, let alone to Americans of a generation ago.