Facebook is usually my networking and gossiping space, rather than for conversation, so I’m transplanting a mini-discussion that got going there over here.

A elderly relative of mine is ill in hospital, generating a stream of emails and phone conversations from me to various family members back home. Sadly they are the horribly practical kind of conversations that go along the lines of ‘will he make it to Christmas, or should I drop everything and come home now?’. This is the kind of situation I have imagined having to deal with ever since I moved abroad, as I suspect every person who emigrates for some period of time does. One of those horrible cases where your normal sense of helplessness is compounded by being unable to do anything from a distance. There’s not much you can do other than send flowers and wait for someone closer at hand to make a judgement call.

Anyway, its looking like things are getting bad, so I started to browse flights last night with the aim of seeing how feasible it would be to go home for a few days before the quarter starts. And that’s what generated my immense shock at the discovery that taxes on flights have gone up an astronomical amount in the last few months. In some cases, the taxes were triple the cost of the flight! A non-last minute flight, even, is looking at being around $200-300 for the flight and $400-500 in tax on top of that. (And before anyone dares say to me that its not that much in pounds, I get paid in dollars. $800 is nearly two months rent, and over half of my termly wages for a graduate student teaching job.)

Partly the reason it seems so bizarre is the intensely annoying policy of not listing the tax as part of the cost. Something that, incidentally, makes budget shopping for anything in the US difficult if you are not particularly maths savy. On all purchases the price on the ticket is without tax, so its always more when you get to the till. Three years later and I still can’t make accurate guesses about how much the tax will be and so still get surprised at the till each time. Very annoying, especially if you are trying to stick to a budget. The only advantage I can see is that at least it makes it more obvious how much of the cost is, actually, tax.

Jim’s joke about my comment on the rise in tax on facebook was that it was socialism. Sadly I think that it probably is not. Tax is a sore point for me. On top of the normally high taxes here in the US, I get the ‘you’re a dirty foreigner tax’, which means that all my stipend and wage cheques in the US are taxed by a third. A third of my already below the poverty line income goes on taxes. And for that I get no health care, no decent public transport, if I had kids they would be in disgracefully bad schools and still have to pay for university, no free public cultural institutions… and so on. I do get a to help pay for a war though. And as a dirty foreigner, of course, I have taxation without representation because I can’t vote. Unlike in the UK, where you don’t pay tax until you reach a (admittedly very low) level of income, and students don’t pay tax at all other than NI, here its the rich who get out of paying taxes.

So yeah. While I’m in favour of taxes, I’m also in favour of them being fairly applied and spent on something other than a war. Each time I look at my pay cheque and my health insurance bill I get quiet bitter about the fact that this is not the case. Taxes alone do not make socialism.

But then back to airfares, because I’ve often heard the argument that I ought to be boycotting air travel because its damaging to the environment and a luxury. No doubt many argue that higher prices will serve as a deterrent and stop people flying so much. Well I disagree. Higher prices when there is no viable alternative will not make people stop travelling, it will just make it harder for poorer people to travel, and generate bigger profits for those in the loop. Travel should not be a luxury, in the same way that communication with the rest of the world (internet, telephones, mail services that work and so on) should not be a luxury. Luddite laments that life was grand when we all lived in our place and thought people from the next town were foreigners are something I will never have much sympathy with. Then again, the howls of derisive laughter over statistics that show Americans hardly ever travel outside their country are rarely balanced by approval that they are saving the environment either.

Air travel should be regulated, because its a disastrous and wasteful mess. But the answer is neither to make it more expensive nor to call for it to be boycotted altogether. I would rather see the moral outrage channelled into generating alternatives that don’t mean we all have to sit in our own backyard the rest of our lives, trapped in the jobs, lives and socio-cultural circumstances that fate happens to have thrown our way.

So lets think of alternatives instead. For a start, everyone who has ever had to do it knows that short distance air travel is ridiculous. It takes hours longer than advertised (a half hour flight involves at least 3 hours in waiting, delays and ‘security’), is – like all air travel – hideously uncomfortable and intrusive, and could easily be replaced by a more convenient, cost effective and environmentally sound alternative. If some of those taxes were being spend on developing train systems that made it actually possible to travel across the US by any other means than plane or car, then that would be a viable alternative.

Air travel is hopelessly inconvenient, stressful, and disorganised. It needs to be better organised and run for the purposes of allowing people to move around rather than for making profits. But there we run into that same old problem again, the one that begins with a big ol’ capital C. And we won’t get any closed to S for socialism through boycotts and taxes.