time money

Time is Money (Or is it?)

I found myself on the highway today, weaving dangerously, once again, because I was attempting to eat a sandwich as I went. I started thinking about the old saw, “Time is money”. What do you suppose it costs society for people like me to not have time for lunch, eat messy sandwiches on the road and get into accidents? Quite a lot, I’ll bet.

But, thank goodness, I didn’t get into an accident today, and neither do most people who eat fast-food as they drive too fast because their days are too short to fit in all the work they have to do… Undeniably, however, I did increase my risk of getting into an accident. Not to mention decreasing my enjoyment of overhectic workaday life. It was a really nice day out, too. I drove past cows. They had plenty of time to eat their lunch. Moo.

Does this sound like an economics lesson yet? It should. My drippy, dangerous drive today is a microcosm of making a living in today’s “global economy” — in which we must all constantly work harder, faster and smarter. We are outgunned by rich, politically-connected mega-competitors. We may take home the same amount of money as before — perhaps even a tad more — but the quality of what we can buy with it goes inexorably down. We have to spend more time rushing to get less time enjoying things that cost more and don’t work as well. Not only that: we have probably bought those things with borrowed money, or borrowed time, or both.

But time isn’t actually money, is it? Although we sometimes try to forget it, one cannot really borrow time. The expression “living on borrowed time” means that one’s very life is in peril — the opposite of any kind of sustainability. (Our CO2-surfeited world may indeed be living on borrowed time; we may have to borrow some money in order to reverse the trend — so, you see…) No, time isn’t money at all. Money is simply a means to an end; there is nothing enjoyable about money; it is only there in order to be got rid of. Not so with time! Time is what we seek. Time can indeed be enjoyed. We can have a good time, if we have the time — as in James Taylor’s beautiful sentence, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time…”

But wait a moment. Where did we get the expression, “Time is money”, anyway? My mental picture of it is a scene in some old movie in which an eager, entry-level bumpkin might approach his boss, the Industrialist, with some Idea he’s come up with to Increase Productivity. But the Boss is quite busy. He strides momentously from occasion to occasion. “Out with it, Bumpkin, don’t stammer,” he thunders, “Time is money!”

Well, now. The Boss was not instructing the Bumpkin on how to live, but, rather more specifically on how to work . In that sense, time may indeed be money. We don’t work because we enjoy it, after all — we work in order to get the things we need and want. We compete effectively by treating time as if it is money: spending only as much as we must in order to get things done. So, time is money when we are working, but not when we are enjoying our leisure time? Hmmm… I think that is getting closer to the truth.

We are often so hard-pressed to make a living that we lose sight of the crucial distinction between economic life and the rest of life — which is, after all, what the work is for! “I have a life, you know!” grumbles the harried employee. This works itself out in interesting ways. Let’s go back to my messy sandwich for a moment. Why did I buy the sandwich? Because I didn’t have time to cook my own meal. And why didn’t I have time? Because my wages had gone down — or they will, anyway, if I fail to work harder, smarter and faster. But, the making and selling of that sandwich is economic activity, part of GDP. So does that mean that when people like me don’t have time to cook their own meals, wash their own clothes, take care of their own children, etc. (when these activities become commodified, in other words), the economy grows? That would seem true.

Yes, but: chances are that I made an extra trip in a gasoline-burning automobile to get that sandwich, which was provided to me in at least three layers of packaging, much of it made of indestructible plastic. Right! And machines had to be cranked up, people had to be hired, tankers had to be sailed, to provide those things. Ka-ching! The business of America is busy-ness!

We may begin to perceive a note of absurdity here (we do, that is, if we haven’t utterly stopped expecting economics to make sense). But whence? Don’t people have jobs providing stuff like fast food, styrofoam packaging and SUV fuel? The more stuff, the more jobs — isn’t it the economy’s job to provide jobs? Aren’t we riding the crest of the longest peacetime economic expansion, blah de blah de blah…? Globalizing, and all that? Well-made, interesting Chinese toys, free with your Happy Meal?

Something is wrong here, something is terribly, terribly wrong, and it must be the WTO; what else could it be, right?

Whoa. Let’s take a breath. We said above, in passing, that the economy’s job was to provide jobs. But that’s not true, is it? Are jobs what people really want? Nope. What does a job give you? Money. Is money what people really want? No again, friends: what people truly want is time — the kind of time that is not money.

It’s not hard to see how such misconceptions persist. When food is short, it seems that the economy is all about providing food. When everybody wants more of all this neato newfangled stuff, people start thinking the economy is about stuff . When many people cannot find employment, we start to think the economy is successful if it provides jobs. But what the economy is truly there for is the satisfaction of human desires. Human desires include, of course, food, industrial gimcrackery and (indirectly) jobs — but they are by no means limited to those things; in fact, human desires are not limited at all.

One desire, for example, that human beings are beginning to feel more strongly all the time is for food and stuff to be provided without destroying our planet in the process

To illustrate this let’s return to my micro-example. Is it really helpful , to the economy of our human community, for me to be so busy competing economically that I cannot cook my own food, and therefore choose to provide jobs for ambulance drivers and styrofoam extruders, adding to GDP? Not at all! If we remember that the economy’s purpose is not to provide jobs or stuff but satisfactions, then we begin to see that my having bought that burger was not only wasteful but actually counter-productive: the net result in the whole economy was less satisfaction than before. (Burp. And it gave me heartburn to boot.)

I think we now have (believe it or not) a logical trail that we can follow out of this paradox. Let’s try: If my wages are higher, I can afford to cook my own lunch. (I’ll also concentrate on my driving and get into fewer accidents.) This will, admittedly, reduce demand for fast-food workers, styrofoam-packaging manufacturers, antacid makers and oil companies. Will that reduce GDP? No! Remember, human desires are unlimited! I will be able to indulge other desires: for organically-produced hamburgers, natural, union-made clothing and developmentally-correct wooden toys for my children.

And I’ll have more time to play with them.

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