Thursday, December 12, 2013

Time as Anchor

The realty of our measured time use matters immensely, both in both monetary and symbolic terms. Yet this measure of economic participation has not only been taken for granted, it has been abused time and again, by those who know it matters but can gain by keeping that information to themselves. Unfortunately it is not easy to observe the abuse, in that it generally happens in subtle contexts that play out spatially and over the course of time. Sometimes the full effect of abuse goes unchecked over multi-generational periods and contributes to business cycles in the process.

Once human skill develops and diversifies to a certain point, nominal targeting (aggregate spending) has the capacity to use time as a monetary anchor for economic stability. Why, then, are central banks reluctant to use NGDPLT as the primary monetary rule? Many who have gained power, have done so by abusing the anchor of time measure, whether by needless product limitations in the marketplace or by allowing finance to run amok with excessive take from the marketplace.

However the public needs to know what is actually at stake, for the very act of maintaining monetary confusion is still a powerful money generator for those who know how to play the confusion game. Arguments over financial regulation and government intervention only take attention away from what is actually needed: production reform and nominal targets for aggregate spending levels.

And to that end, governments and finance remain willing to obscure where the most important measure of economic activity exists. Perhaps this willing obfuscation wouldn't be so bad, if people could reasonably live with a limited rich class and no real participation from the rest. But our present environments and responsibilities were never laid out for those kinds of living options. Think of countless articles as to the costs of raising a child, for instance.

That doesn't mean some of us couldn't innovate into transformed living environments, at a fraction of today's costs. But so far that hasn't happened, and our monetary obligations to society are growing faster than income potential for the current infrastructure. Just one reason this is so important, is the fact that too few are really taking declining workforce participation seriously. To be sure, it's easy to rationalize that workforce participation was "artificially high" for decades thus a gradual return to something more "normal". But our present environment isn't ready for such a decline, normal or not. The fact that family formation is not really accessible to lower incomes tells us that. If we don't plan for better alternatives, technology is likely to be substituted on terms that are only accessible to some. Meanwhile in other areas without the same capital wealth, one can only guess what the price of one's room and board may actually consist of.

One reason for a possible bad outcome such as this: the world no longer has the same options for lifestyle choice that existed early in the 20th century. Before workforce participation ever became so high, people who could still opt out and live as one of my great uncles did, coasting through retirement and shooting squirrels out of the garden, fruit and nut trees so as to make squirrel dumplings. Some neighborhoods draw the line at shooting squirrels now, even if the pesky critters do throw half ripe fruit down to the ground.

But the more important point is that a lot of people aren't prepared to return to that subsistence still evident 50 years ago. For the most part, technology transformed land use options, and that in turn made our time use the ticket for economic access. The fixed scarcity of skills time use - not the fixed scarcity of land, - was supposed to be the primary wealth driver of the 21st century.

In subsistence circumstance, anyone gets that our time is important for survival. That does not necessarily mean we have to work nonstop, if basic needs are already being met in our environments and we utilize simple options. What it does mean is that participants have to take into account the maintenance needs of anything they create, use and rely upon, on a regular basis: let alone the time and resources that one's environment actually entails. I had to learn this lesson the hard way, by "saving money" on an older home which needed much more attention than I could give it with my limited finances and home repair skills.

Even people with more resources than I had, make the mistake of building homes requiring more hands on ability than they are able to provide when they get older. It is a travesty that people have not been able to innovate so that their environments don't have to be burdensome, difficult and even dangerous as they get older. It's great that we communicate better than ever before in the digital world. People complain regularly that the school environment hasn't changed in the last 100 years. But our surroundings also haven't changed one iota, in terms of making our lives easier or freeing up our time for other desirable activities.

Without the ability to use the fixed scarcity of our time as an anchor, we have no way to place relative scarcities into understandable and workable contexts. And because we do not understand the importance of time as a symbolic and monetary anchor, we have little means to free our time for anything but basic needs. To be sure there are individuals who manage to, but given the limitations of product definition they are in the minority.

Like the fixed scarcity of private property, our time use is a fixed scarcity in the midst of many confusing random scarcities. Just as property rights made today's marketplace possible, the right to competitive knowledge use in lateral time would make a free market in knowledge use possible as well. Consider what was written of David Hume, in Wikipedia:
In contrast to Locke, Hume believes that private property isn't a natural right. Hume argues it is justified because resources are limited. Private property would be unjustified...if all goods were unlimited and available freely. 

When nations were in the midst of creating wealth and abundance, some individuals were able to declare to declare their time use as much more valuable than others, with the government's backing. Government acquiesced (thereby limiting time value for everyone else exponentially) in the belief that random scarcities could readily make up the difference for the fixed scarcity of time use. For a time, of course, they did. But now, those exponential differences mean the basic need of healthcare is only available to a portion of any population, regardless of money hoarding, compounding interest or any other numerous compensating factors.

The idea of secular stagnation really comes down to an inability to separate the idea of time use as fixed, from random scarcities in any meaningful context. It is when we look at the world from the window of time use, that the ability for other resources to contribute to our lives comes into sharp focus. This is also the window where we see what is possible to produce, so as to provide further choice for what is ultimately consumed. With time use as monetary anchor, we are better able to recognize what is actually scarce or plentiful in our own lives, and the degree to which that relies on income. That in turn leaves us free to determine the kinds of technology that works best for us.

With time as anchor, it becomes easier to consider innovation along income continuums that nations and corporations may not take into account. For example, innovation now is thought of as something not necessarily good by today's youth, in that they aren't convinced it would be used for actual utility. Somehow, a robot personal servant doesn't have the same marginal benefit, for instance, of a robot capable of cleaning chimneys or woodstove pipes on steep and frozen roofs, when people are no longer healthy enough to maintain balance in a biting wind.

Again this goes back to innovation through income spectrums and points along the Maslow pyramid. If we allow innovation in both basic and non essential areas, that immediately puts time back in our lives for the non essentials we crave. That also sidesteps the current problem of lower income "making do" with plentiful non essentials while not having basic essentials designed for their actual circumstance. This is a problem which leads to both social isolation, and the inability to be responsible for both cultural and familial expectations.

For all their seeming importance, government fiscal activities and for profit financial activities are just as random as many resource allocations that both capitalize on in the good times. Neither governments or finance should maximize our time use as bait for their personal rewards, because we still need our time use to get us through the rough patches. In other words, we are the ones who are expected to stay steady, whether the governments and the financial realm chooses to or not. If we are to fulfill our obligations, those in power might do us the favor of not taking away the fixed scarcity of time at our disposal.

While it is understandable that governments and finance wish to deem themselves primary, they do not have an ongoing and constant capacity by which to do so. Thus, they do us a disservice by pretending they are more capable than we, for they are more dependent on our economic participation than they care to admit. Growth for the long run means economic access by as many as possible, through as many means as possible. Otherwise no nation can remain strong.

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