Saving and spending time

My first read of the New Year has been an eccentric book, Jam Tomorrow: Why Time Really Matters in Economics by Charles Crowson. I bought it because of a very positive although short FT review that called it: “an important exposition of why economists ought to think deeper about how we value time — past, present and future.” I’m about four fifths of the way through writing my next book, which is all about my research on economic measurement over the past decade or so. (BTW I need ideas for a title – current working title is ‘The Measure of Progress’.)

Most of this is concerned with measuring the digital economy (we don’t). But one of my preoccupations is a paper I wrote with my friend Leonard Nakamura about whether time use would be a useful accounting framework. Productivity is about saving time. On the consumption side, what wellbeing (or utility) we get from how we spend time is surely what matters to people. The paper is open access.

Anyway, there are relatively few books on this subject so I thought Jam Tomorrow might be interesting. It is quite interesting but not what I thought. It’s about money, assets and interest rates – the price of time. The central point is that ‘we’ in general (in the high income west) have been too short-termist and borrowed to consume, at great environmental cost, and also leading to a malfunctioning housing market in the UK, where housing is seen mainly as an asset. I don’t disagree at all. But reading the book was a bit like sitting at dinner next to someone with lots of strong opinions who is speaking a slightly different language (and there’s an obligatory but irritating chapter about why all economics is rubbish … sigh). There are long chunks of text I either found obvious or alternatively hard to understand – and not a few cliches – but with some really thought-provoking formulations popping up.

For example: “If the price of bread or milk rose sharply in a given week we would instinctively cal it inflation. Yet of the Dow Jones stock index were to rise by 2% on a given day, we don’t say, ‘The Dow inflated by 2% today.” One could rationalise the difference but the point about language is really interesting (and there’s a whole chapter about language and analytic philosophy).

So it’s a sort of mixed review from me; interesting but could have done with quite a hands-on edit. The core argument is summed up nicely: “The central idea in this book is that economic decisions are fundamentally decisions about time, reflecting a basic choice between consumption in the present or delaying that consumption by saving for the future.” Yes indeed. But economists have in fact thought quite deeply about this choice. I’m thinking of a different time margin, how we use – ‘spend’ – our time in the present, the 24 hours a day we cannot save to carry over for tomorrow.

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Spending our time, the ultimate scarce resource

On the face of it, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning by Justin Smith and Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman are pretty different. The former a philosophical disquisition on the parallels (and differences) between historical communication networks and today’s internet of disinformation. The latter a self-help guide to being less busy and happier.

What they have in common is identifying digital platforms as the cuplrit gobbling up our time and attention through addictive design – that familiar ‘swipe down to refresh’ for a dopamine hit – and a business model that requires human fodder. One travels by way of classical Indian philosophers and the Enlightenment, the other via useful advice from popular psychology. Both have at their heart a concern with the manipulation of how we spend our time. I read them one after the other and enjoyed both – and both with more useful insight than the much-hyped Surveillance Capital doorstop.

Have I stopped scrolling so much? Not yet. I will be trying to take some of Burkeman’s advice in the hope of stopping feeling constant pressure to empty that inbox, tick off the whole to do list. As we’re stuck with the internet, it makes sense to resist the way it manages us humans. I don’t think Smith would reckon much for my chances. Wish me luck.

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Fast or slow, rich or poor?

As part of my thinking about a book I’m currently working on, I started to re-read a book by Jonathan Gershuny, [amazon_link id=”019926189X” target=”_blank” ]Changing Times: Work and Leisure in Post-Industrial Society[/amazon_link] (2000). He has led the way in work on time-use studies, as well as some key longitudinal data sets. It’s the first time I’ve read this book since it was published, and I’d forgotten how interesting it is. As he points out, “Change in time use patterns is not a mere indicator of social change; it is itself part of the essence of socio-economic development. A ‘poor’ society is one which must devote the bulk of its time to low value-added activities which go to satisfy basic wants or needs.” Low value added activities are those where the ratio of paid work per minute of consumption time is low – many hours are needed to deliver the consumption experience.

[amazon_image id=”019926189X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Changing Times: Work and Leisure in Postindustrial Society[/amazon_image]

All eras of technological progress have brought complaints about things speeding up and being short of time. I was reflecting on how the recent ‘[amazon_link id=”0847829456″ target=”_blank” ]slow food[/amazon_link]’ movement fits into Gershuny’s framework. It seems to be a regression in economic development yet its advocates see ‘slow’ as the most sustainable future for the economy. They are also quite likely to be high- rather than low-income members of the community (as are the buyers of organic foods). Maybe these slow fooders are sufficiently affluent that their time spent providing for the basic need of eating is effectively leisure rather than work, a hobby not a necessity. Anyway, I shall carry on reading and see if I’m further enlightened on this question.

[amazon_image id=”0847829456″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, and Fair[/amazon_image]