Gongol.com Archives: March 2024

Brian Gongol

March 3, 2024

News You can't buy time

Long before Thorsten Veblen deposited the idea of "conspicuous consumption" into circulation, Benjamin Franklin had already identified the merit in keeping his head down: "In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman, I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary. I drest plainly; I was seen at no places of idle diversion. I never went out a fishing or shooting", he wrote in his autobiography. ■ By any reasonable standard, the basic material standard of living for any middle-class American today would run laps around the standard of living in Franklin's day. Running water, household electricity, fluoridated toothpaste, frozen foods, and flu shots couldn't be purchased at any price in his time. But the value of time hasn't changed one bit. ■ What's strange, though, is how much time and energy are spent on talking about ways to pass time. Aspiring "influencers" covet the profits of the "attention economy" while streaming services try to perfect the science of getting viewers to spend incrementally more minutes with their screens. ■ With our fantastically improved standards of living, one might expect the value of time -- to be "seen at no places of idle diversion" -- to have permeated our culture far more than in the 1700s. And yet it seems time itself is rarely valued. Only the occasional word of advice from someone who's vastly richer than everyone else even breaks through, as when Warren Buffett advised, "I can buy anything I want, basically -- but I can't buy time." ■ Lots of what makes our lives materially better is manifested in time savings, of course (there are countless ways to prepare high-quality family dinners in 30 minutes or less), so perhaps we're also so much "time-wealthier" than our predecessors that there's a temptation to value each minute less than they did. But we should beware the temptation to trivialize time until there is too little of it left.

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