Our family recently wrapped-up that American summertime ritual of the week-long gathering at a coastal sandbar by the ocean. For my clan, the location of choice for some time has been Hilton Head Island, specifically on the southern end in the Sea Pines community.
In the interests of fair disclosure: I am not a golfer, I spend my days in places like these trying to avoid direct sun, and I will tire of a pool or beach within half an hour. So, in many respects, the week of summer seaside fun is not the place for me. But if the kids are happy, everyone is together, and the food is good, I am all in.
Plus, as a bonus, a week at Hilton Head offers enjoyable and entertaining pursuits for me; they are just unconventional to most beach vacationers. I enjoy observing, contemplating what I see, and then expressing my thoughts through writing. The summer of 2021 and Hilton Head combined to offer up a bevy of observations.
Observation #1: Humans Taming Nature Brings Good Tidings
The first thing that always strikes me about the island is how unforgiving and unusable the place would be without human ingenuity unleashing technology to tame the environment. The place in its natural state is a humid, hot, swampy, stormy, insect-infested ecosystem that makes quick work of the weak, structures, and order. But you walk Hilton Head’s streets and ride its trails, and all you see is beauty: in the manicured lawns, impressive homes, sculpted trees, and carefully designed water features.
The irony that strikes the observer is that those who are drawn to Hilton Head Island view the natural beauty of the place as the primary attraction. Yet a simple and superficial examination betrays a carefully created and cultivated environment that retained the best that nature had to offer (local horticulture), removed the problematic aspects of nature (standing, putrid water), and insulated from the uncontrollable aspects (weather).
Looking around the island, you see the human condition rising above what nature dealt and creating something superior. That makes people happy, and me smile.
Observation #2: Without Carbon, No One Would Be Here
Hilton Head Island’s existence, and that of all tropical locales, depends on carbon. It’s a simple truth: no carbon, no Hilton Head Island.
Why? Well, first off, one could not travel from whatever northern or midwestern city serves as home. And consider the fact that just about everything consumed on the island must be grown, processed, and manufactured somewhere else. All of that requires carbon-based energy, including what it takes to transport the goods to the island.
The electricity that powers the air conditioners 24 hours a day in the summer is largely carbon-based and natural gas-fired. You would not want a wind- or solar-based power grid running climate control in the Carolina Low Country. It would mean stifling indoor temperatures, to the point where you’d be better off staying home up north.
If there is a zero-carbon world awaiting us, the last place you’d want to own real estate or spend a summer week is at a place like Hilton Head. I suspect many northeasterners who vacation down south are oblivious to such realities. Let’s hope they don’t awaken to the reality the hard way, via nonsensical policies.
Observation #3: How to Differentiate Between the 10%, the 1%, and the 0.1%
A place like Sea Pines on Hilton Head provides a quick and easy way to instantly differentiate between the 10% well to do, the 1% rich, and 0.1% ultra-wealthy. Just look at the real estate and who is there. Here is a quick breakdown:
- If someone is renting a house in Sea Pines during peak summer season, chances are they are doing well and fall within the upper 10% of the economic crust. Weekly rates on the southern end of the island can run as high as $14,000 per week, depending on the size of the home and its proximity to the ocean. Demand is high; if you want to secure your house for your week, you better commit early (in many instances you need to commit the prior year).
- Now, if someone owns the home in Sea Pines and rents it out during peak season, you are likely dealing with someone in the upper 1% of the wealth spectrum. Basically, the top 1% is the landlord for the top 10% weekly tenants in places like Hilton Head. Surprisingly, many homeowners in this group don’t seem to care much about the physical condition of the home; for some the home is nothing more than a revenue generator that can be enjoyed for free in offseason.
- Then there is the 0.1% at the tippy-top of the money ladder who own the impressive estate down that is unoccupied most of summer. These are the super wealthy that don’t rent their residences out because, well, they don’t need to. Undoubtedly, the estate here is one of a number they own. So instead of heading down here in summer when its peak season, hot, and busy, they come down in the offseason to escape New York, Boston, or some other large northern city winter.
Observation #4: The Weekly Collision of Doers and Slackers
Hilton Head is typical of many seaside resort communities by offering a stark contrast when it comes to the those on the island any weekday in the summer. There are two distinct groups: those who are on vacation and do nothing but engage in various forms of relaxation and those who are intensely working to maintain, serve, or build the economic ecosystem that is the resort.
It’s always been weird for me when vacationing at these types of locales. Families on bikes, eating out, laying on the beach, and sleeping late. Versus dedicated workers building houses, maintaining lawns, running restaurants, and working 50+ hours per week. One group riding bikes and driving SUVs. The other driving pickups and vans. Both groups going about their day as if the other group is invisible.
I like the vibe of economic activity; doers showing up every day and getting it done. Earning income, providing for their families, and building a life. The local economy in the Low Country is the free market working to create value across the economic spectrum. The free exchanging of value between those who desire leisure and those who provide it. At least for the week, until the vacationers return to their jobs; creating, enabling, and serving to create value.
Observation #5: How the Drive Down and Back Covers the Spectrum of Government
The drive from Pennsylvania to South Carolina offers the opportunity to see how different states approach the role of government and the taxpayer. Toll roads serve as a great illustration.
In Pennsylvania, once a toll road is created, it lives on in eternity. And the cost of the toll continues to go up. It doesn’t matter if the initial justification was to pay for a discrete infrastructure project and now the project is paid off. It doesn’t matter if the tolls are egregious. It doesn’t matter if the road is poorly maintained. The tolls in Pennsylvania live on year after year, dollar after dollar, and mile after mile.
This is not cheap. A round trip on the Pennsylvania Turnpike between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg (spanning about 2/3 of the state’s length) will run you just under $100. Drivers were hit with yet another rate increase in 2021. And the PA Turnpike had the dubious distinction of being rated the most expensive toll road in the world. One may wonder where all that toll money ends up.
The bureaucrat’s justification for the driver extortion is to fund statewide road maintenance, yet the Keystone State’s road system remains in overall poor condition year after year. Instead, the answer, of course, is to primarily feed the bureaucracy of government and its affiliates like the public unions. In Pennsylvania, government only grows, which means tolls only rise while the condition of the roads degrade. And the number of roads that will require toll payment within the Keystone State is increasing.
North Carolina’s abuse of taxpayers and drivers is not as bad as Pennsylvania, but it is getting there. The major highways into and out of Charlotte are now split between toll express lanes and normal lanes. That means traffic congestion is self-inflicted by government on those drivers not willing to be extorted; the toll lanes are wide open and the normal lanes are clogged in traffic jams most hours of the day. Government creates the congestion to grow its revenue base, drivers pay the price directly (through the toll or longer commute times) and the economy pays the price indirectly through lost productivity.
South Carolina is a different story. The Palmetto State has a law that states once a toll road pays off its project financing, the toll booths must come down and the road becomes free and open access. That’s exactly what happened recently on Hilton Head with the Cross Island Parkway: once its final bond payment was paid, access became free and the toll booths will come down.
The drive to and from this year’s vacation illustrates the difference between government serving the people and the people serving government. The former makes you feel relevant while the latter makes you feel used.
Observation #6: Doesn’t Look Like Climate Change is a Top Concern
Up and down the island, you see a building boom. The few remaining vacant lots being staked out for massive, new homes. Older homes are being bought, torn down, and replaced with new houses having three times as much square footage as the predecessors. The closer to the water, the better.
Island real estate values seem to go only in one direction: up. The Fed’s free money policy inflates and pumps real estate values to bubble levels. Buy it, build it, remodel it, rent it, flip it. Repeat over and over (at least until the music stops).
The building boom and dizzying real estate property price increases tell you that no one believes the island is about to be submerged under rising ocean levels. Yes, hurricanes will inevitably hit the island periodically. But building codes and a few rational design features on the homes will make them quite resilient to withstand all but the most severe of storms.
The community of Hilton Head, along with so many other coastal destinations, figured out that increasing atmospheric CO2 levels made its tourism economy possible. Whatever challenges climate may serve up should be manageable over time. Permanent evacuation of the island and resettling to higher ground is not going to be necessary anytime soon. Perhaps the UN’s IPCC bureaucrats should take note.
Human ingenuity, technological innovation, and the free market economy make places like Hilton Head Island possible. These wonderous drivers make the useless and inhospitable valuable and inviting. The more we do to protect these quality of life catalysts, the better chance our kids and grandchildren will enjoy their fruits for decades to come.