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Around the World in Forty-Eight Hours: The Evolution of Human Flight

Blog Post | Air Transport

Around the World in Forty-Eight Hours: The Evolution of Human Flight

In 1872, the average American couldn’t have hoped to travel around the world at all, let alone accomplish the task in less than three months.

Summary: Human flight has evolved from a dream to a reality in less than two centuries. This article traces the history of aviation, from the first balloon flights to the cutting-edge innovations of more recent times. It also analyzes how flying has reshaped the world, enabling quicker and cheaper travel for international cross-cultural exchange.

When French science fiction writer Jules Verne wrote his novel Around the World in Eighty Days, he imagined a wealthy traveler rushing to circumnavigate the globe in under three months. Around the World in Eighty Days was published in 1872, when the primary forms of international travel were trains, steamships, and hot-air balloons. Verne’s protagonist spent £19,000 on his journey – over $2 million in 2021 – and barely made it back to London in the eighty days required to win the wager he made with his friends. Today, the same amount of money could send you around the world more than 1000-fold, each time in less than 48 hours.

How did humanity go from Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days to an era in which almost anyone can circle the Earth in less than two days?

This leap forward is primarily due to advancements in air travel and a worldwide increase in average income. Since the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, air travel has become exponentially safer, faster, and cheaper. In 1914, it might have taken seven days to cross the Atlantic from London to New York on a steamship. In 2021, it takes just seven hours on a jet liner.

In the early decades of the 20th century, aircraft were often developed for military, rather than civilian, use. In the First World War, militaries used airplanes to spy on enemy positions. In the 1940s, aircraft carriers helped propel the Allies to victories in the Mediterranean and Pacific theaters. But after half a century of government-led innovation, air travel remained overpriced and inefficient for the average American.

When commercial flights became available to the public in the late 1950s, air travel was still expensive – so expensive that most people couldn’t afford to fly. Business Insider magazine reports that in 1960, a flight from New York to London cost $300, the equivalent of $2600 today. “In 1974,” documents The Atlantic magazine, “it was illegal for an airline to charge less than [$1635] in [2021] inflation-adjusted dollars for a flight between New York City and Los Angeles.” Yet by 2021, even though the cost of fuel has risen drastically in both real and nominal terms, the price of flying has fallen substantially. In the United States, this market miracle is mainly due to one factor: the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act.

From the advent of U.S. commercial flight, airline routes and prices were determined by regulators, creating inefficiency and stifling competition. Then, in 1978, the Carter administration deregulated air travel, forcing airlines to compete over the same routes. Ticket prices dropped almost immediately. The average U.S. airfare in 1979 (equivalent to over $2300 in 2021) fell by 25 percent in five years and has continued to decline ever since. As airfares became affordable, the number of passengers swelled, boosting ticket sales and encouraging investment in new routes and technologies. This investment led to further growth in a virtuous cycle that has made flying far more convenient and affordable.

In 1872, the average American couldn’t have hoped to travel around the world at all, let alone accomplish the task in less than three months. In 2021, almost anyone can complete the journey in less than 48 hours. According to the OECD, the average American earns almost $50,000 in disposable income each year – enough to take them around the world 28 times. A flight from New York to London costs roughly $295; from London to Tokyo it costs $613; from Tokyo to New York it costs $866, for a total of $1774 to circumnavigate the Earth. Modern air travel is one of the great successes of deregulation, innovation, and human progress.

Blog Post | Space

‘Space Barons’ & Advantages of a Free Economy

Inequality is the midwife of progress, which depends on the flourishing of the talented.

Summary: Private entrepreneurs are opening up new frontiers of space tourism and innovation. Inequality is a driver of progress, and competition and efficiency is likely to eventually make space travel more affordable and accessible. This article challenges the negative portrayal of these pioneers as exploitative and greedy, instead celebrating their achievements as examples of human ingenuity and freedom.

On July 11, 2021, the British businessman Richard Branson fulfilled his lifelong dream of flying into space. At 8:40 a.m., Branson’s Virgin Spaceship (VSS) Unity 22 and its mothership Eve took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Having reached an altitude of over 50 miles, which is the U.S. government’s definition of space, and zero gravity, Unity 22 delivered the crew, consisting of Branson and five Virgin Galactic staffers, safely back to Earth. The flight, which was a culmination of 17 years of planning, research, development, and extensive safety testing, could mark the beginning of commercial space tourism.

It is difficult to overestimate Branson’s accomplishment. Our ancestors used to stare at the night sky, imagining an ethereal world populated by powerful and vengeful deities in need of appeasement. Today, a number of private companies, including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, are pursuing goals that are similar to Branson’s: to bring space travel to the masses. Initially, the thrill of space flight will come at a steep price—Virgin Galactic tickets sell for $250,000 per flight—but thousands of relatively well-off people throughout the world can look forward to seeing our beautiful planet from above in the coming decade.

How, then, did parts of the American clerisy choose to commemorate Branson’s achievement? The headline “British billionaire Branson flies above 50 miles in his space plane, becoming first ‘space baron’ to qualify for astronaut wings” conjures up images of 19th-century American businessmen, such as Astor, Carnegie, Hearst, Mellon, Morgan, and Vanderbilt, who used supposedly exploitative practices to amass their wealth. Perhaps the most hated of these figures was J. D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil Company’s share of the refined-petroleum market increased from 4 percent in 1870 to 85 percent in 1880. Often forgotten is that Standard Oil reduced the price of refined oil from more than 30 cents per gallon in 1869 to 8 cents in 1885.

Sure, Branson, Bezos, and other space entrepreneurs are going to grow richer still, but competition, economies of scale, and the concomitant efficiency gains are bound to reduce the price of space tourism over time. The cost of the Ford Motor Company’s Model T, for example, fell from $825 in 1909 (or 4,853 hours of work at a blue-collar wage of $0.17 per hour) to $360 in 1927 (or 692 hours of work at a blue-collar wage of $.52 per hour). That amounts to a time-price reduction of 86 percent. The once-close-to-unattainable luxury is now ubiquitous, with 93 percent of U.S. households having access to at least one car in 2019, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

The same is true of electricity, plumbing, radios, refrigerators, clothes washers and dryers, air conditioners, dishwashers, color television, microwaves, computers, cellphones, VCRs and DVD players, etc. What’s more, the speed of adaptation of new technologies, as W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm of Southern Methodist University have shown, is increasing. It took about half a century from the invention of the telephone to the time when 50 percent of U.S. households owned one. In contrast, after only twelve years of smartphones hitting the stores, 50 percent of individual Americans possessed one. That is what the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter had in mind when he noted that the

capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production which unavoidably also means production for the masses. . . . It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls.

In fact, I am willing to extend a $10,000 wager to the editor at the Washington Post who came up with the “space baron” headline that in ten years’ time, a Virgin Galactic flight equivalent to the one taken by the British billionaire will cost less in terms of hours of work than it costs today.

Over at NBC News, the headline read “Richard Branson space flight beats out Jeff Bezos. But all of humanity loses.” According to the author, Chandra Steele, “the stratification of who gets to leave the stratosphere is not another division we need.” In the past,

astronauts did not go in the stead of the rest of the planet; they were pioneers on behalf of the rest of the population. . . . It seems unlikely that the billionaires who travel to space will engage in a meaningful way with the broader population afterward, in part because they’re so far removed from other people. In fact, their privilege has put them at such odds with Earth’s inhabitants that many don’t want them to come back.

Where to begin? First, the word “privilege” does not mean what Steele appears to think it means. The English word “privilege” derives from the Latin privilegium, which, in turn, consists of two Latin words: privus (private) and lex (law). And so, for about 2,000 years, privilege meant “a law for just one person, a benefit enjoyed by an individual or group beyond what is available to others.” In a highly stratified society, such as Europe before the Enlightenment, different groups enjoyed different privileges and guarded the latter jealously and, sometimes, violently.

During the Enlightenment, privileges, such as serf duties owed to the nobility and the tax-exempt status of the clergy in France, came under sustained attack from the advocates of equality before the law. Since the French Revolution in 1789, which “adopted equality of taxation and redemption of all manorial rights” (in the words of the historian Georges Lefebvre), the use of the word privilege steadily declined, Google’s nGram viewer shows, until it was resurrected about seven years ago by the American Left and perverted to denote “luck,” “fortune,” “advantage,” or “opportunity.”

Branson’s success rests in the British billionaire’s propensity toward entrepreneurial insight and a good measure of hard work, rather than an entitlement or “privilege” granted by the state. Though, in fairness to Steele, it is perfectly understandable why the equalitarian Left would want to blur the lines between privilege as “good fortune” and privilege understood as inequality before the law. In the world inhabited by Homo progressivus, talent and conscientiousness (not to mention other important desiderata, such as intelligence) are distributed equally and differences in socioeconomic outcomes must be a result of systemic forces, rather than sheer dumb luck. And that, progressives believe, is a legitimate subject of government interest and correction.

Second, Steele asserts that “all of humanity loses” from commercial space tourism, presumably because, as she notes elsewhere in her article, space exploration used to lead to “a unifying commitment” to “improving life on the planet,” whereas now space tourism is at risk of becoming just a plaything of the wealthy. That’s nonsense. Branson and Bezos do not detract from space exploration; they add to it. The dawn of commercial space tourism does not mean that Steele’s preferred way of space exploration (i.e., one paid for by the taxpayer) has to stop. The European Space Agency, NASA, and the Russian and Chinese governments are in no way impeded from doing what they have been doing for decades—albeit slowly and expensively.

Third, Steele writes that unequal access to space, which she calls “stratification,” is “divisive.” That assertion, which is unsupported by any empirical evidence, could be interpreted as an expression of Steele’s personal disappointment at being unable to do what Branson did. The conclusion of her article, in which she notes that “it’s unsettling to watch them [Branson, Bezos, and Elon Musk] flex the power to leave the planet, particularly in such troubled times,” certainly points in that direction. Be that as it may, Steele misunderstands the role that “inequality” plays in fueling all kinds of human progress.

Let’s start with economics. The financially well-off, who will be the initial customers of Branson’s and Bezos’s ventures, will infuse both enterprises with cash that will, in turn, result in more spaceships being built. Attracted by the scent of profit, other space-travel companies will be launched. Competition and additional supply will reduce the price of space travel until, one day, it will come within reach of NBC columnists. That’s how a mobile phone went from the “greedy” hands of Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street into the pockets of Kenyan farm workers and Bangladeshi fishermen.

Let’s now turn to politics and society. The American Revolution led to a representative form of government that set the United States apart from all other political entities on earth. True, the franchise was highly restricted (mostly, though by no means exclusively, to propertied white men), but a much greater share of Americans got to choose their own government than was the case elsewhere. That resulted in a kind of institutional inequality—one that other nations first observed, then found uncongenial, and finally deemed worthy of eliminating by becoming more democratic.

Or take the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, liberty, and dignity, as well as religious toleration, freedom of expression, pursuit of happiness, equality before the law, etc. It took centuries before the values of the Enlightenment were more or less fully implemented in the West. But, over time, Western societies grew more tolerant and freer. That too resulted in global inequality in such things as the treatment of women, ethnic and racial minorities, homosexuals, children, etc. And while the values of the Enlightenment may be in retreat in some parts of the world, including the West itself, remember that for decades oppressed people in dozens of countries aspired to close the Enlightenment gap and become more Western.

Finally, let’s look at culture. The Soviet bloc was economically stagnant and socially retrograde, and culturally (as well as environmentally) it was a wasteland. Relative to the West, communist art was highly stylized and uninspiring. Its literature (with the important exception of persecuted writers, such as Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak) was stultified and unreadable. Its film industry was primitive, ponderous, and propagandistic. Its fashion and design industries were close to nonexistent. And so, throughout the communist period, the captive nations behind the Iron Curtain longed to wear American jeans, read American magazines, watch American movies, and listen to American music. In a word, they wanted to close the cultural gap by becoming more American.

The Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker once quipped that “intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress.” The question is: Why? Perhaps one of the reasons for that curious attitude is not the clerisy’s opposition to progress as such, but to the means by which that progress is being achieved. Since the Enlightenment, we have become richer, healthier, better fed, longer-lived, more educated, and, as Pinker himself showed, gentler and nicer. Not only did most of that progress come about in free-enterprise countries during the free-enterprise era, but progress happened despite the constant warnings from the clerisy that free enterprise would achieve the exact opposite.

Inequality of outcome is inherent to a free economy, which tends to reward the most talented. Since talent is unequally and arbitrarily distributed, free enterprise and its resulting inequality of outcome are unpalatable to the equalitarian Left. Yet progress depends on the flourishing of the talented. That means that inequality is truly the midwife of progress. And that’s why progressives hate progress.

A version of this article appeared in National Review.

Blog Post | Air Transport

How Prosperity Democratized Global Tourism

As in so many areas, a luxury that was once reserved for a tiny sliver of society is now available to an ever-increasing number of people.

An airplane taking off on a runway

In a January 4 article in The Telegraph, Anne Hanley reminisced about her recent trip to Venice. “Venice’s inhabitants were outnumbered by visitors,” she observed. “Around 54,000 under-pressure locals shared their city with just over 62,000 incomers … [and] that, for La Serenissima, is a ‘quiet’ day,” she continued. The city, she concluded, is being “killed” by tourism and will not be saved by new taxes levied on visitors.

As disposable incomes in previously underdeveloped countries increase and transport costs decline, global tourism will continue to expand. Overcrowding in major tourist spots, like Venice, can be unpleasant. I know. I have seen and experienced it firsthand. But, democratisation of travel has an upside. Millions of people are getting the opportunity to see the world for the first time and that is something worth celebrating.

As with so much else in the past, travelling was difficult and often dangerous.

Roads, where they existed, were rutted. Sailing was hazardous. Highwaymen and pirates were ubiquitous. Moreover, a great many people were not free to travel. Serfs and slaves could not journey without their masters’ permission. Similarly, women were discouraged from travelling unaccompanied. Most people could not afford to buy or rent a horse and had to walk long distances. Travel was also limited to daylight hours, meaning the window of opportunity was much smaller, especially in winter.  And when on their journey, travellers were often preyed upon by unscrupulous innkeepers.

That said, a small percentage of the population did get to travel – for trade, on pilgrimages, and into war.

Travel for pleasure or out of curiosity is a relatively modern phenomenon. It was popularised, at least in the European context, by wealthy young noblemen who, beginning in the 17th century, started to undertake “The Grand Tour” of European cities, including Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome, to take in the ancient monuments and works of art. These educational rites of passage were expensive and time-consuming. Consequently, they were restricted to rich “gentlemen of leisure.”

The cost and convenience of travel dramatically improved with the advent of the steam engine. In the 19th century, trains enabled unprecedented numbers of people to travel within countries, while steamships sped up international travel. Early steamships cut the sailing time from London to New York from about six weeks to about 15 days. By the middle of the 20th century, ocean liners like the SS United States could make the trip in less than four days. Today, an aeroplane can fly between the two cities in 8 hours. Commercial air travel took off between the world wars, but flying remained expensive for decades to come. In 1955, for example, a one-way ticket from London to New York cost over $2,737 in today’s money. Economy class didn’t exist, so only the very rich got to fly. Today, it is possible to get from New York to London for as little as $200.

The quality of travel has changed as well. In his 1998 book, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, Michael Ignatieff notes that in the spring of 1944, the British philosopher “found himself on an interminable transatlantic flight [from Washington, D.C.] to London. In those days the cabins were not pressurised and travellers had to spend the long hours in the dark, breathing through an oxygen tube. Unable to sleep – for fear that the tube would slip out of his mouth – Isaiah remained awake throughout the night in a dark, cold, droning aircraft, with nothing to else to do but think.” What Berlin lost in discomfort, the world gained in philosophy.

Today, those of us stuck at the back of planes often bemoan the discomfort of long-haul flying. But, compared to mid-20th century air travel, flights today are positively blissful. Unsurprisingly, the numbers of international passengers keep rising.

According to The World Tourism Organisation, 524 million people got to travel to a foreign country in 1995. That number grew to 1.245 billion in 2016, a 138 per cent increase. Over the same time period, the share of global travel undertaken by residents of high income countries declined from 72 to 60 per cent. The share of travellers from upper middle income countries rose from 8.5 to 27 per cent. Residents of lower middle income countries increased their share of global travel from 2.5 percent to 11 percent. As in so many areas of modern capitalism, a luxury that was once reserved for a tiny sliver of society is now available to an ever-increasing number of people throughout the world.

This first appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Adoption of Technology

A Reminder of How Far Transatlantic Travel Has Come

Columbus's 1492 voyage took over two months; today it would take 9 hours.

Trans-Atlantic travel times decreases over the centuries

August 3 will mark the 526th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s 1492 departure from Spain to the West Indies. The occasion is a reminder of just how dramatically transoceanic travel has improved in terms of lower cost, safer conditions and quicker travel times.

First, consider the cost. Columbus had to petition King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Spain for two years for the exorbitant funds needed to make his voyage. The voyage cost approximately 2 million Spanish maravedis. According to physics professor Harry Shipman at the University of Delaware, 1 maravedi would be about 50 cents today, which would mean Columbus’s voyage cost a million current U.S. dollars.

Such trips are no longer limited to those with access to a royal treasury. In fact, more people than ever are able to afford international travel, including across the Atlantic. Competition that followed deregulation of U.S. airlines in 1978 slashed the price of tickets to make flying more accessible to more people, and progress is ongoing. A record 3.7 billion people flew in 2016.

As Marian Tupy has written, “Between 1990 and 2013, the average international round-trip airfare fell from $1,248 to $1,175 (in 2013 U.S. dollars).” A trip tracing Columbus’s journey from Madrid to San Salvador Island would cost slightly more than $1,000 in 2018. And flights from Madrid to India, which is where Columbus had originally wanted to go, are even cheaper.

By the time that the pilgrims on the Mayflower made their journey from England to the New World, the cost of crossing the Atlantic had fallen to around five pounds or $1,000 current U.S. dollars. But it is difficult for those accustomed to modern transatlantic travel to comprehend the danger and length of that rocky voyage by sea.

One passenger wrote that the Mayflower “encountered many times with cross winds, and met with many fierce storms, with which the ship was shrewdly shaken, and her upper works made very leaky.”

Another passenger died on the ship – a normal occurrence during transatlantic journeys of the era, just as many of Columbus’s crew died from scurvy, a disease caused by poor nutrition, a century earlier. Sea voyages entailed cramped living quarters, a diet of hard biscuits and beer, and the existential threat of storms that could wreck the ship. For most people, the most dangerous part of the trip nowadays is the possibility of leg cramps on a long flight.

And let us not forget that transatlantic journeys have shortened from several months to a matter of hours. For his first voyage in 1492, Columbus departed from Palos de la Frontera, Spain, and landed somewhere in the Bahamas. His journey took a grueling two months and nine days. The first steamship to cross the Atlantic did so in 207 hours in 1819. Today, a flight from Madrid to Nassau in the Bahamas would take an average of 9 hours on an air-conditioned plane with fresh food at the ready, proper restrooms, and most likely televisions with the latest movies.

Some may groan about the inconveniences of transatlantic flights. But they are nothing compared to the horrors of crossing the Atlantic in years past. The very first journeys were prohibitively costly, took months and involved tremendous risk. We can thank technological progress, competition and increasing prosperity for making the trip more affordable, safer and faster.