Not long ago my wife and I had dinner at a restaurant that served small portions on large plates, a dead giveaway that the meal would lighten our wallets, if nothing else. The food was delicious, I’ll grant you. But I elected to forego dessert, having looked at the prices on the menu. It’s not that I can’t afford to splurge; it’s just I tend to start calculating the cost per bite beyond a certain price level, which my wife finds exceedingly annoying. She complains that she can’t enjoy the meal if I am putting a price tag on everything. She has a point, but I can’t help myself. My parents grew up during the Depression, and they were always drumming into my head the value of a hard-earned dollar. I can just picture my dear departed dad, the wheels turning in his head as he stares down at three golf-ball-sized scoops of sorbet in a cavernous bowl. How much per bite? Better to skip dessert in the interest of domestic harmony.
If calculating the cost per bite is enough to spoil a good meal, what happens when we monetize time? Much the same thing, as it turns out. Two researchers at the University of Toronto recently ran a series of experiments to demonstrate that “placing a price on time impairs individuals’ ability to derive happiness from pleasurable experiences.” The experiments found that hourly wage earners were more likely to regard time spent away from economic activity as time wasted, even if they were doing something enjoyable. An earlier study found that contractors who billed by the hour tended to use an economic metric as the sole measure of time and “often discounted the worth of other activities whose economic value was difficult to calculate.”
Benjamin Franklin is generally credited with first harnessing time to money in a passage from Poor Richard’s Almanack that addressed the opportunity cost of non-remunerative activity:
Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, rather thrown away, five shillings, besides.
For the sociologist Max Weber, Franklin’s maxim was the apotheosis of capitalism. Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905): “…the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life…is thought of so purely as an end in itself.” Judging by Franklin’s embrace of his life as an aging roué in Paris, he did not always practice what he preached; nonetheless, he established a policy that others have pursued with great alacrity.
Franklin’s formulation was made possible only because time and money had both developed into abstract entities that could be expressed in precise increments. Medieval monks had invented mechanical clocks so they were able to get up in the night to pray. Instead of a shadow moving on a sundial, time could easily be divided into minutes and then seconds, llterally operating around the clock. Similarly, money had emerged as a fungible repository of value that could be precisely calibrated. Many academics believe money evolved as a medium of exchange from ancient barter systems, while others think it grew out of so-called “gift economies” in which gift-giving among tribal peoples created reciprocal obligations, from which more formal credit systems emerged. Both time and money now function as bits of information that are transmitted electronically at the speed of light. Sophisticated computer algorithms exploit temporary price discrepancies among various types of financial instruments in milliseconds, reaping millions.
Equating time with money has unquestionably produced significant economic benefits for those living in modern industrial societies. But I can’t help thinking that something essential has also been lost. We have lost time, although not in the time-is-money sense of time wasted. For everyone now living on this planet, time is given to us as a gift. And yet most of us are condemned to think of it forever as an expenditure.
Sanford E. DeVoe and Julian House, “Time, Money, and Happiness: How Does Putting a Price on Time Affect our Ability to Smell the Roses?” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48 (2012).