An intriguing theme keeps popping up in finance discussions: the relationship between time and money. The best-known line of thinking is the one that Ben Franklin popularized, that time is money. This is the Protestant ethic in three words. Then there is the transactional view that says that time can be traded for money. Let’s call it the Catholic ethic. There is a third view, which I’ll call the Zen ethic. The first two lead to misery. The third, I speculate, does not.
The first two views differ in how they treat leisure. Ben Franklin was an opportunity-cost focused buzz-kill. Ben’s ghost seems to admonish you: yes, you are having fun, but remember, you COULD be earning $10 an hour cranking widgets. So you’d better be improving your mental health enough that your earnings increase by at least $10 in the future. Adding modern math does not change things much. The cost-of-leisure equation just acquires the trappings of net-present-value analysis. You want to sleep eight hours today? Make sure the marginal discounted future cash flow due to increased productivity is greater than $64.
The Catholic ethic (or what William Whyte called “social ethic”) naturally leads to viewing leisure as time-profit rather than money-cost. No-strings-attached discretionary time. You trade as little of your time as you can to meet your basic needs, and the rest is surplus. If you want more stuff to enhance your leisure, a pool toy for your swimming say, you have to trade more time. This has the effect of creating a firewall between two preference economies. On the supply side, you prefer the work that offers the biggest cash returns per minute. On the demand side, you end up deciding whether, for instance, an hour splashing in the pool without a pool toy is better than a half-hour in the pool with one, and whether either is better than an hour watching TV. You could be running at a loss. If your job requires more caloric output than you are able to replace with food you can afford with your earnings, you will slowly starve to death. Many of the world’s poorest people are forced into this loss-making economic equation. And of course, to finish up the logic, you can buy your time leisure with money debt. That of course, is the moral of the ant and grasshopper fable: spend leisure you haven’t earned, and fake remorse and hope the ants bail you out.The analogy to priestly absolution for sins at confession is nearly exact. Of course, there is the gray area of cash-profitable “my work is my hobby” time which you can double-book in both ledgers, but that does not conceptually add anything to the philosophy. If you have a lot of that going on, good for you.
The Catholic ethic does not oppressively mess with your experience of leisure the way the Protestant ethic does. The agenda in Protestant-ethic time management is to maximize lifetime wealth accumulation (few modern Protestant-ethic-ers actually get or operate by the underlying theology of predestination). The agenda in the Catholic-ethic money management is to maximize immediate time profit. Capitalists operate by the former and end up time-poor/cash-rich. Worker bees operate by the latter and end up cash-poor/time-rich. Both get into debt: capitalists for leverage, worker-bees to front-load leisure in youth. Both ultimately lead to misery.
Here is the third angle that I think is interesting, and has the potential to combine the wealth-creating tendencies of the Protestant ethic and the hedonistic pleasures of the Catholic ethic, without leading to misery. The third view says that time and money are near-perfect Yin-Yang opposites. Hence the name ‘Zen ethic.’ The underlying thing is not either/or/neither/both. It is one of those paradox thingies. Some evidence:
Money is the most liquid thing imaginable, more liquid than water even. Time is the most illiquid thing imaginable.You cannot save it, move it, transfer it or trade it for anything else (you can sell the output of your time, not your experience of it). About the only thing you can do is modify your psychological experience of it: drugs and adrenaline can make time pass more slowly, age and long memories can make it pass faster. In certain cultures, you can sort of pool it and experience it in a collective way, but still, it is illiquid. No matter how fast, slow or collective you make the experience, you still cannot experience one time instead of another or something other than time in place of time. Yet, somehow, time can dance with money.
Time is the most deeply foundational thing imaginable. Even if you are blind and deaf, and suspended in a sensory-deprivation chamber so your sense of space and proprioception is messed up, you will still experience time. I think. Money, by contrast, is the most completely artificial thing ever invented. It is arbitrariness manifest, and it will become instantly meaningless if you are put on a desert island. Yet, somehow, time can dance with money.
I have no idea what to do with these thoughts. I didn’t say I had answers, just an interesting third angle. Maybe a theory of work can be built on top of it.