Guns & Butter: A Better Way to Travel

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The definition of economics is the allocation of scarce resources to satisfy unlimited wants. Despite a bachelors in economics from the University of Michigan, I still fight this principle by trying to do too much with very little. Luckily, points bridges the gap where my finances fall short allowing me to see a lot of the world for a lot less.

Money aside, the biggest constraint on travel besides dinero es tiempo. You can have all the money in the world but will always wish you had one more day to do one more thing. Nothing is worse than coming back from a trip and hearing, “Oh you didn’t visit…” then having to rationalize that Mount Fuji is covered with garbage anyway so missing the tour bus after a late night out was worth it.

I never purchase Lonely Planet guides not because they aren’t full of insight but because I’m not going to be able to do the 200 pages of what is written about inside. Furthermore, I’m not a fan of planning ahead so I rely on luck or word of mouth to point me in the right direction. Occasionally, I do turn to the New York Times’ 36 Hours series for help but, the idea of doing that much, that fast can lead to unnecessary anxiety.

So for all you lazy enthusiasts out there that enjoy reading travel guides but don’t want to wade through the minutia of a 16 part report of how I arrived at the airport, picked up my bags, detoured at the bathroom, waited to check into a hotel, and on and on, only to book an overpriced tour booked through the resort, these posts are for you. (For my points purists, please find the pictures of the hotel room toilet and welcome gift in the Hotel Reviews section.)

If you want to really know what you should do when you only have one night in Bangkok, worry not, ThePointsOfLife economist limits your choices to guns and butter.

Way back in economics 101, I learned the microeconomic theory of opportunity cost, the value of the best opportunity foregone between two mutually exclusive alternatives. The pedagogical way to teach this theory is by graphing the production of two wholly unrelated goods, the two famously being guns and butter. Using this model, a country has to choose between producing more guns at the expense of producing more butter and vice versa.

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I trust this horrific graph will look familiar to my fellow economists.

The downward sloping curved line represents the Production Possibility Frontier (PPF) showing all the efficient combinations of producing these two goods. Anything to the left of the curve represents an inefficient allocation of resources because the country can do better by moving out to the PPF and producing more of both. Anything to the right of the curve represents an unattainable combination given the available resources.

Translating this into travel English we are left with the following:

Point A represents our ideal vacation if resources were infinite: I want to climb a volcano, I want to party all night, I want to visit every beach. While it would be ideal to do it all, it doesn’t lie on the PPF (Production Possibility Frontier) i.e., the downward sloping line, making it impossible to complete.

Point B represents an inefficient trip because resources were not used optimally: I wasted my time at tourist traps, I visited bars that ended up being brothels, I spent too much time sleeping, flustered by the limitless possibilities of this new city.

Point C and D represent efficient allocation of your travel time and resources i.e., if you knew a local in every city, what would he tell you to see and do. Take note that producing more butter, e.g., going to the beach results in a reduced production of guns, e.g., a zipline tour through the jungle.

The choice of opting for one activity over another is the opportunity cost. 

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with a convoluted explanation developed within an economic framework for what you critically must see and do when you are traveling to a new destination.

Simply stated, I will cut TripAdvisor’s Top Things to Do list from 500 to 2 choices.  Not only will I tell you straightaway why these are two of the best choices for what to do in a particular city, but also I will help you make the decision of which one you should choose in the event you cannot do both. That way you don’t get overwhelmed from having too many choices, skip the essentials, then make excuses as to why the Great Wall is not that great.

In the end, I’ll keep it simple: guns or butter, the choice is yours.

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