A life well-lived

by on November 15, 2013 at 6:59 am in Economics, Food and Drink, Travel, Uncategorized | Permalink

This is from the obituary of economist Alexander L. Morton:

At 42, Mr. Morton was well on pace in the ascension of his chosen career ladder. He had a doctorate in economics from Harvard, had taught at the Harvard Business School and was finishing a four-year assignment as director the office of policy and analysis at the Interstate Commerce Commission.

He then quit.

He had made enough money in real estate deals and investments to guarantee an independent income for himself. For his remaining 28 years, he was almost constantly on the move, visiting dozens of countries and often going off the expected paths from Western travelers.

And this:

He rarely spoke about himself and never discussed in detail his reasons for retiring in mid-career as an economist to pursue a life of travel. But his sister said he was ready for a change, had the savings to and had done as much as he wished to in the field of transportation deregulation.

To continue along the same path, would have been a case of “been there, done that,” she said.

Here is Alex’s earlier post on traveling more.  Maybe Alexander L. Morton had some really good lunch partners.

1 CBBB November 15, 2013 at 7:46 am

Yes great I guess we’ll all just get Doctorates from Harvard and make millions off lucky investment deals.

2 prior probability November 15, 2013 at 7:48 am

Plus, he must have really hated grading papers and exams; reading the same tired arguments for (or against) deregulation

3 Slocum November 15, 2013 at 8:11 am

That misses the point — there are certainly others living similar lives starting with a much smaller nest egg. This woman, for example.

4 CBBB November 15, 2013 at 8:23 am

Oh right New York City (probably BigLaw) corporate lawyer, I’m sure she was just starving for cash.

5 Slocum November 15, 2013 at 11:26 am

Starving? No. But how much do you think the typical 20-something NY lawyer has saved after just 5 years on the job? Enough to retire for the next 50+ years?

6 Marie November 15, 2013 at 1:49 pm

She’s not retired, she’s just retired from law. She’s essentially leveraged her professional credentials into a different field which isn’t probably as financially lucrative (particularly in the long run) but which pays her to travel and write about it.

More power to her, but if you think your average Ohio public school high school graduate with writing talent can do the same thing. . . .

Now, an exceptional Ohio public school high school graduate can probably travel and survive, but not in the same way. She gets paid to deliver lectures at conferences on social media, etc. — you don’t get that without a certain kind of CV.

7 Slocum November 15, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Well, OK, here’s a better example of somebody living that life starting with almost no bankroll:


8 Marie November 15, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Yes, the new example is more what I would think your average Joe could do.

Then it’s more a matter of your tolerance of risk. Which, as a guy, doesn’t have to be quite as high as your tolerance of risk as a gal.

9 guest November 15, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Depends if she paid for law school or it was for a scholarship. If lived in Astoria with a roommate and was responsible with her spending she could have saved 40-50k a year so 250-350k depending on how much she owed for student debt.

10 Marie November 15, 2013 at 9:36 am

Yeah, she’s hyperprivileged, too.

Which is o.k.

I don’t think you can read this obit as a story where we should all aim for a life of adventure in world travel. I think you can happily read it as a case of someone who had great advantages and then *used them well*. The question is not whether the average Joe can do X, the question is whether as a very wealthy man he used his opportunities richly.

I’m neutral on that question, if it was good for him, that’s great. Our family made something of a similar choice (less exotic), and it’s worked for us.There are plenty of people who stay in their careers and use their wealth and resources well, too.

11 Jodi November 16, 2013 at 8:41 pm

Definitely aware of my privilege and how my background has enabled me to travel and build a life in this way, but I don’t think that detracts from the choices I’ve made. 🙂

To Guest’s point, I’m always quick to point out that as a Quebec resident my tuition for law school was 1600$ a year, at a time when the Canadian dollar was weaker than it is now. When people write asking about how they can do what I’m doing, that’s the first thing I say, because having no debt over my head has certainly influenced the decisions I’ve made; I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with saving as little as I am now vs. my prior lawyer’s job had I also 100k in debt.

Earl (a great guy!) has built up his work with products (ebooks, tours, teaching work, etc) and entrepreneurial spirit. He left not wanting to return, whereas I thought I was just going for a year, and when I realized that I was able to leverage my travels and writing into the semblance of a new career, I figured why not give it a try. (Still admitted as a lawyer in NY State though.)

Agree that the obit is a good example of seizing opportunities that come your way to build something meaningful to you. YMMV and all that.

12 Marie November 17, 2013 at 9:38 pm

There used to be an idea of noblesse oblige, which didn’t include world travel so much but encompassed the idea that those who have been given good things should use them well.

My point, just to be clear, is not to criticize. I just think it’s fair to acknowledge that all choices are not equally available to all in the same way. I’m guessing that if you, Jodi, wanted to drop everything and suddenly become a hunting guide, a software programmer, a competitive surfer, or a resident of a housing project in Chicago, you’d probably have to take a different path (and exert more effort) than the average person in any of those situations would have taken to get there. Totally all I meant, for my part!

13 Cliff November 15, 2013 at 9:53 am

Everyone else’s success is luck. Mine is all skill!

Seriously, real estate deals are rarely a matter of luck, unless he was a speculator or something.

14 ummm November 15, 2013 at 10:21 am

seems like a lot of envy in these posts

15 Marie November 15, 2013 at 1:51 pm

I think it’s o.k. not to envy or admire him, just be glad if he got to live as he wanted without doing evil, and hope the same for all of us.

16 John November 15, 2013 at 10:01 am

He never married/had kids, likely made good money for most of his career, and seemed to spend much of his time in very cheap countries. If you follow this path and you happen to be very frugal in your working years, I’d guess that it would be easier to accomplish than it seems.

17 Effem November 15, 2013 at 10:15 am

He made some money but also lived in an era when you had some guarantee of a reasonable rate of interest…must have been nice.

18 Michael November 15, 2013 at 8:18 am

I did something similar at 32. Although I hadn’t saved enough money to travel the world, I did have enough passive income where I didn’t have to work anymore if I had a very humble lifestyle. So I quit my job.

I wound up doing some part-time freelancing work that turned into a full-time job, and have since doubled my net worth and raised my standard of living. I may quit in a few years when my portfolio reaches my target.

This is really a viable option for anyone in the first world, although I see already some grumbling complaints about lucky investments. I think the mix of part-time work and lower labor utilization in general is going to make this a more popular option in the future.

19 Curt F. November 15, 2013 at 9:39 am

There is an entire movement of early retireme–excuse me, I mean Early Retirement folks out there on the internet. I personally like Mr. Money Mustache. http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/ It is a nice mix of optimisim, financial prudence, and refusal to admit more than a teaspoon or two of unreasonably good luck.

20 JWatts November 15, 2013 at 10:49 am

I liked Mr. Money’s post on Obamacare until he got to the conclusion, where he seems to have ignored all his previous paragraphs and turned a 180.

So we would be doubling our premiums, but cutting the deductible in half, as well as gaining prescription drug coverage (a $20 copay after deductible) and some other goodies. And the new plan is HSA-eligible, which means all costs will be covered with pre-tax money. More insurance for more money – not my favorite bet to make, but also not completely devoid of value.

So, umm, Obamacare doubles his premium and he admits it’s not as good as what he currently has, but he’s for it anyway?

And just to maintain this country’s libertarian principles, you still retain the choice of opting out of the whole program. The penalty for failing to sign up is fairly painless – $95 for lower-income single people and rising to about $900 for a family of three making $100,000. So despite all the talk of lost liberties, your range of choices with the new health insurance law are better than ever.

And here he apparently misunderstands the law. The penalty is 1% of income with a minimum amount of $95 for the first year! It doubles in year two, to 2% (min. $325) and goes up to 2.5% in year three (min. $695).

Paying a fine of 2.5% of your income for opting out is not maintaining this country’s libertarian principles. It’s pretty much the exact opposite.

21 Curt F. November 15, 2013 at 11:47 am

Yeah contrarian optimism is probably a good summary of Mr. Money Mustache’s philosophy. He probably carries it too far from time to time. He doesn’t want to be a “complainypants” (his word, not mine).

22 Jan November 16, 2013 at 7:36 am

Well credit to you for at least posting the benefits of his new options, i.e. halved the deductible, gained Rx coverage, expanded HSA eligible services. But then you ignore the benefits of the new plan and act astonished that he’s cool with it.

23 David R. Henderson November 15, 2013 at 8:38 am

If this is the same person everyone called “Sandy,” I think I knew him. I was a summer intern and acting senior economist under Herb Stein at the Council of Economic Advisers in the summer of 1973 and was pushing transportation deregulation. I think I met him at a meeting or two. Again, if memory serves, virtually everyone liked him.

24 dearieme November 15, 2013 at 9:24 am

“Sandy” is a common Scottish abbreviation of “Alexander”.

25 Beliavsky November 15, 2013 at 9:24 am

He did not get married or have children, which made quitting his job at 42 possible. Since intelligence and personality are highly heritable, it is important for intelligent and productive people to have children. Individuals will make various choices in their lives, but there would be negative consequences if too many people made his choice.

26 GC November 15, 2013 at 9:40 am

“Some day we will realize that the prime duty – the inescapable duty – of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.” T. Roosevelt.

Wise words or racism predating nazi eugenetics? Discuss.

27 john personna November 15, 2013 at 10:10 am

A good example of the risk of gene pool restriction. Even beyond the possible evils, you might in short order discover you rather needed that blood type.

But then D. Adams covered this with the parable of the telephone sanitizer.

28 GC November 15, 2013 at 10:19 am

On a purely theoretical point of view, I disagree there is any gene pool problem. it’s pretty much demonstrated that in advanced society genetic doesn’t really explains social outcomes, which means there is ample genetic diversity in both the highest and lowest social layer for *either* (or both) to be eliminated without being genetically dangerous for the remaining parts.

29 john personna November 15, 2013 at 10:41 am

I was thinking more of disease risk, more or less the monoculture risk.. Though certainly, big-picture, we humans have been through some near-extinctions in our past with very restricted gene pools, and bounced back.

30 Beliavsky November 15, 2013 at 10:42 am

“it’s pretty much demonstrated that in advanced society genetic doesn’t really explains social outcomes”

You don’t think IQ is highly heritable or that it does not explain social outcomes? Lots of data indicates that it is and it does.

31 john personna November 15, 2013 at 10:45 am

My point, Beliavsky, is that you’re talking to a dead guy. You’re suggesting what, that his hypothetical, counterfactual, kids would be “better?”

32 Urso November 15, 2013 at 11:43 am

“it’s pretty much demonstrated that in advanced society genetic doesn’t really explains social outcomes…”

33 GC November 15, 2013 at 12:06 pm

@Beliavsky “You don’t think IQ is highly heritable or that it does not explain social outcomes? Lots of data indicates that it is and it does”, sure it is hereditary, but there is a ton of studies that show in modern societies starting social position and family wealth explains the outcomes much more than anything else. Are you seriously suggesting that if you kidnapped two twin brothers at birth, and placed one in a 0.1% family and the other one in the lowest quintile, their social outcome wouldn’t, by that alone, be *almost* surely different, with the earlier being almost assured to remain in the top 25% and the latter in the lowest 25%, whatever their intelligence?

I’m sure that a given level of intelligence (and hard work and luck) is correlated to a better or worse end state starting from more or less the same economic situation, more or less geographical location and with access to more or less the same education, but that’s it.

34 john personna November 15, 2013 at 12:47 pm

Or, look at how a bunch of Bloody Vikings are now considered too docile and civilized for comparison with Americans.

35 Keith November 15, 2013 at 2:19 pm

The first half of this statement is simply not true, and the second half is even worse.

36 Careless November 16, 2013 at 5:23 pm

Boy, GC, if only someone had ever thought of doing studies of twins separated at birth to see how they turned out so this wouldn’t have to be a rhetorical question.

37 GC November 18, 2013 at 4:34 am

@Careless: I’m aware of studies done on separated twins on psychology and education subjects, but not of any study done on economics prospectives, in particular on economic achievements starting from different bases so, if you know of any and care to share them, rather than being just smug, I’d love a pointer.

38 freethinker November 15, 2013 at 9:49 am

What if he had earned enough to quit his job even if he had married and had kids? Perhaps what he may not have been able to do is to indulge his passion for travel as much as he could if his family hated travelling, especially to rather unpleasant places. quitting his job may not have been a big deal.

39 Millian November 15, 2013 at 10:01 am

This is a more accurate analysis, I think. If you’re very rich (as this gentleman seems to have been), it doesn’t matter how much your dependents cost, as you will probably have enough left over to do crazy stuff. However, rich or poor, your family would quite like you to continue to be alive and to avoid high-risk situations like Sudanese desert railways. We can’t all live for our own pleasure alone, lest we curtail the pleasures of future generations.

40 john personna November 15, 2013 at 10:08 am

Why do smart people owe the world smart descendants? I can think of several counterarguments. Maybe beauty is more important? Maybe you only really need 1-2% smart people to invent the iPhones? In the long run we’re all dead anyway.

(But really you should be talking to the girls, not to the Mr. Mortons of the world.)

41 GC November 15, 2013 at 10:27 am

Ahem, there are some studies that actually argue that Intelligence and beauty go together (which actually is a concept that dates back to the kaloi kai agatoi of ancient Greece), altho the explanations tend to vary (is it genetic? is it because pretty people are more self confident in addressing adults/teachers/the world at large and learn more? is it because their families had access to better food before others? …): for example, http://personal.lse.ac.uk/kanazawa/pdfs/I2011.pdf or http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201012/beautiful-people-really-are-more-intelligent

42 john personna November 15, 2013 at 10:44 am

When I remember my High School’s “accelerated class” (as I think they called it then), I don’t recall us as the prom kings or queens.

43 Urso November 15, 2013 at 12:24 pm

So they were people in the top 5% of the smarts distribution. Imagine the people in the bottom 5%. Which group was more attractive?

44 john personna November 15, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Sorry, Urso. I just imagined actors and beauty contestants. (There are unfortunates who are both dumb and ugly, but it might be The Conjunction Fallacy [I remembered!] to think them more numerous.

45 Norman Pfyster November 15, 2013 at 1:09 pm

The valedictorian in my class was gorgeous.

46 john personna November 15, 2013 at 1:19 pm

But Norm! That’s Conjunction Fallacy as well. The selection committee has eyes.

47 msgkings November 15, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Selection committee? Isn’t the valedictorian the one with the highest GPA?

48 john personna November 15, 2013 at 2:17 pm

I was mostly having fun, but I know at my nephews school they call everyone with a 4 years 4.0 a “valedictorian” and then use a different name for the speechgiver. I’d assume that even in places with wider grade curve, there’d be some flexibility on selection Perhaps that is my cynicism talking.

49 GovCo November 15, 2013 at 12:42 pm

I bet even money that some of his genes have propogated among native populations but he didn’t bother mentioning it.

50 freethinker November 15, 2013 at 9:33 am

The page had a link to an article about localities in American cities some foreign governments consider dangerous for their citizens to visit. I never heard of Anacostia but guessed that if it is dangerous to visit “day or night”, it must be predominantly African-American. I checked and I was right. Is this is the case with the other localities listed too?

51 Mike November 15, 2013 at 11:36 am

This is a much better troll than normal.

52 Millian November 15, 2013 at 11:54 am

On MR, does that really count as trolling? I count it as a normal comment.

53 mike November 15, 2013 at 12:06 pm

I guess the term “troll” is like “fascism” – it has a very specific meaning, but has also come to encompass “anything I don’t like.”

54 dead serious November 15, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Meaning you liked it. Sounds about right.

55 ummm November 15, 2013 at 9:55 am

Good news: New York Manufacturing Index Falls to 6 Month Low
that means more QE
University economists and other experts typically endorse less regulation. The only people that want more regulation are doom & gloomers that will benefit such as Schiff and Nicolas Nasism Taleb , and Bill Gross or liberals that view economic failure as a repudiation against capitalism and wealth inequality.

56 Hadur November 15, 2013 at 10:11 am

I’ve seen friends in the Tech industry do something like this. They work for a startup, or for a big company like Amazon or Google. At some point, they tire of their job and quit. They take a year or two off, spend it traveling, or spend it living in a shack in the woods.

Then, they come back to California, and get another job with another respectable IT company.

I could never do this, because even though I have enough savings to travel, if I quit my job and did nothing for two years, I would be unemployable. I don’t know if this is a culture difference beween IT and other fields, or if its just that IT skills are so in demand that employers will put up with all sorts of random stuff.

57 Turkey Vulture November 15, 2013 at 11:57 am

This is what I want to do, but I don’t have any skills, only credentials.

58 Keith November 15, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Biotech is starting to be like this too. I met a guy who lived in a tent on the premises of a biotech startup. He worked there for a few years, and then went traveling.

An even better idea is to do what a guy I know does. He is perpetually traveling and funds it by trading stocks while in the countries he is visiting. As long as the trades are good, he never goes home.

59 Assad November 15, 2013 at 10:12 am

Travel is doable long term for many- just don’t have kids/mortgages and take your time. Get a travel partner and cheap hostels/camping.

Takes courage and is infinitely rewarding. What you encounter doesn’t easily fit with sanitized academia though.

60 Urso November 15, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Also take into account that HR types, for whatever reason, look with extreme disfavor on resume gaps.

61 Millian November 15, 2013 at 12:47 pm

Quit once, may quit again.

62 Tyler Fan November 15, 2013 at 10:51 am

I find the point where people would cash out and the decisions not to retire to be revealing. A lot of economists would go the route of an Art Laffer, Myron Scholes, etc. and just keep trying to rake it in as much as possible. It’s somewhat hard for many people to fathom the motivations of the Sean Parkers, Peter Thiels and Warren Buffetts. I find it hard to imagine myself being very motivated past $10mm and $500k a year in passive income.

63 Urso November 15, 2013 at 12:26 pm

Power & prestige, I imagine. I have to assume Buffett really doesn’t care about his bank account per se. He wants to keep making money because it means that people hang off every word that comes out of his mouth, which must be intoxicating.

And he probably enjoys the intellectual challenge of it, like playing chess.

64 john personna November 15, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Buffet is rather an outlier though. Most people do retire, or at least slow down, with much less. How much did Ted Turner have when he ran off to ranch?

65 GovCo November 15, 2013 at 12:44 pm

I’ve always assumed that thing that allows them to get past $10 million can’t be switched off (and the thing that would compel me to retire at +$10 million prevents me from obtaining it).

66 msgkings November 15, 2013 at 1:10 pm


67 Ak Mike November 15, 2013 at 10:52 am

I would refer to this as the Gioachino Rossini approach. Rossini was younger and more successful when he stopped working, and lived longer, than Morton.

68 GovCo November 15, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Or the Lord Byron approach, etc.

69 David Zetland November 17, 2013 at 8:17 pm

I’m 44, no kids and 90 countries visited (at least once). I’ve got my PhD and found that the drive that got me the PhD is also the drive that leads me to quit research (at least unless something radical changes) and perhaps even the academic/policy debates. Change is good for everyone, and travel helps you appreciate outside options.

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