Discover more from Samstack
Notes on my travels
I recently spent a few months visiting some different countries with my girlfriend: Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the US, Spain, and Israel. In the US, we went to DC, SF, Hawaii, New Orleans, and NYC. Here are some reflections:
No matter where they’re from, young people seem to think that their own country is uniquely fucked. South Koreans point to the fertility rate, the working hours, and bad gender relations. Brits moan about Brexit (especially about no longer being able to migrate to EU countries), low salaries compared to the Americans, and dysfunctional politics. Spaniards mention the youth unemployment rate. In Catalonia specifically, lots of people were annoyed about the former Barcelona mayor Ada Colau’s attitudes to business. See this FT piece on how Barcelona lost its way:
Even as the Covid-19 hangover that so many cities suffered fades, [Barcelona] is beset by a sense it has lost its way, lost its energy. Many residents who want to love the city lament that something is going wrong, whether they detect it in street robberies, litter-strewn avenues and clogged traffic, or a lack of new infrastructure and cultural attractions.
In a survey published by the city government in December, two-thirds of residents said Barcelona’s condition had worsened in the past year. They identified its biggest problem as insecurity.
A young New Yorker I met working for Lockheed Martin complained that $130,000 wasn’t enough to live on in NYC and that I wouldn’t get it because New York is FAR, FAR, FAR more expensive than London or anywhere else. (It isn’t.)
On GDP and social status
GDP seems less important to me than it did before the trip. San Francisco is obviously astonishingly wealthy (GDP per capita is apparently $131k in the metro area and $290k in the city proper) but it’s still a much less pleasant place than London, Tokyo, or NYC. You’ve heard the stories: shit on the streets, insanely high crime rate, houses cost stupid money. They’re all true and it’s probably worse than you’ve heard.
I saw people smashing car windows a few times, mentally ill people screaming in the streets were extremely common, I learnt to ignore needles strewn across the ground. I wouldn’t generally leave my AirBnB/hostel after 9pm, unless I was Ubering both to and from some event I wanted to go to.
But should this really make me so much more sceptical of GDP? San Francisco is a weird case, and most of the time GDP is correlated with everything being better, right? Well, I suppose so. One thing I did notice in the US is that lots of people are uniquely obsessed with status in a way that Brits aren’t. It seemed like Americans spend much more money on positional goods, and there were waaaay more luxury cars and SUVs than I’m used to seeing in London. I couldn’t help thinking that a lot of the extra income that Americans have is basically going to waste.
A lovely young entrepreneur I met in NYC was confused by the fact that I didn’t have a clear view of what the highest status jobs are in the UK, ‘Are you seriously telling me you’re not sure if a successful start-up founder is more respected than a successful investment banker in London?!’. I think he thought I was BSing him to give the impression that the UK doesn’t have any weird status games (which it definitely does have). I genuinely didn’t know!
On Japanese social trust
Man, Japan is awesome. When I was thinking about how to describe why I love Japan so much, I wanted to say that one of the best things about Japan is the unbelievably high level of social trust. But after Googling, apparently the percentage of Japanese people agreeing with the statement ‘most people can be trusted’ is only 35.9%, compared to 39.7% in the US. What’s going on there?
Normally, I try to be a ‘when the facts change, I change my mind’ kind of guy. But for this, I’m tempted to quibble with the “facts”. Japanese people routinely leave their homes unlocked, they leave their laptops on the table in coffee shops when they go to the bathroom, they let their young children go to school alone. There’s no behaviour I noticed that suggests to me that they don’t trust other people. Everyone in Japan seems insanely, weirdly trusting.
Maybe there’s something going on with comparisons between countries that don’t really capture how people actually feel. I remember reading that South Koreans rate themselves lower on conscientiousness in the Big Five than people in most other countries do, even though South Korea has much longer working hours than the average OECD country. In the South Korea example, it seems pretty likely that people are comparing themselves to people they know. Someone might think they’re pretty lazy if they’re only working 50 hours per week while Kim Min-Jun down the road is doing 60 per week. Is something similar happening in Japan?
Either way, Japanese people are very trusting, regardless of what the stats say. And why wouldn’t they be? Crime is extremely low, and in fact if you happen to drop your wallet or phone somewhere, it will almost definitely be handed in to the local Kōban (a sort of miniature police station where you can hand in things you found or report minor crimes).
On New Orleans
When I was in New Orleans, the friend we were staying with kindly invited us to a house party. It was technically a ‘crawfish boil’, although the focus wasn’t really on the food, it was on the alcohol. Once you finished a drink, you had to throw the glass as hard as you could at the garden wall, and everyone cheered if it smashed on the first attempt (rather than bouncing off the bricks). It’s actually slightly trickier to smash a glass bottle on a wall than it sounds - about ⅓ of throws failed to smash for one reason or another.
There were beer funnels, lots of guns (some mounted on the wall, some carried by the partygoers), and a few unusual games that I hadn’t played before. One game, Hammerschlagen, involved throwing a hammer into the air in such a way that makes it spin around repeatedly, catching the hammer as it fell, and attempting to quickly smash down a nail in a tree trunk below immediately after catching the hammer. I decided not to play, because I’m such a klutz and didn’t think the combination of alcohol and airborne hammers was likely to result in anything good. But still, it looked fun.
Many Americans are happy to broadcast their political views in a way and make an attempt to confirm that you’re a member of the in-group. The guys hosting this party had a load of libertarian/right-wing posters that said things like ‘you can pry my guns out of my cold dead hands!’.
Some of the cars had political bumper stickers, and people really did have those signs in their front yards saying things like ‘In this house we believe trans rights are human rights’, or whatever message they wanted to broadcast. I guess I sort of expected this stuff, but it makes much more sense to me now why Americans are so obsessed with culture war stuff. How couldn’t you be, when it’s everywhere?