Time keeps on slipping into the future

Time is a fascinating variable. It’s personal use is often regarded as highly valuable by its ‘owner’, yet strangely regarded as unimportant by many others. Jamaicans, for example, see few problems in being late or not making appointments, which is both disrespectful and costly. They are often shocked when people arrange things and stick to the stated times. Nothing funnier than meeting people on your way out of somewhere, as they traipse in 15, 30, 60 minutes late, and you are headed to your next appointment 🙂

Time is a continuum that is often fraught with conflict over its use. Its use comes at a price, often implicit (when it’s lost the costs often become explicit), sometime explicit (lawyers and consultants have billable hours).

People hold contradictory views about time, simultaneously: ‘I love to just sit and do nothing’ can be uttered by the same person who says ‘How can you spend 3 hours playing golf?’screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-7-07-00-am

Economists have a lot of fun with time: it’s often a key variable in understanding many phenomena because they really only make sense when seen over an historical period, either looking backwards or trying to look forward. Economists don’t often put too much store in things that are evident now, or at a single point in time.

In economics, time preference (or time discounting) is the relative valuation placed on a good or service at an earlier date compared with its valuation at a later date. Someone with a high time preference is focused substantially on his well-being in the present and the immediate future relative to the average person, while someone with low time preference places more emphasis than average on their well-being in the further future.

Time preferences are captured mathematically in the discount function. The higher the time preference, the higher the discount placed on returns receivable or costs payable in the future.

People often confuse themselves about time, which is a construct in the way we measure it, but is an absolute (assuming we cannot do inter-temporal travel). The same amount of time is always available, but what matters is how people decide to prioritize actions in blocks of time. Having more time for x, usually means less time for y: even with so-called multi-tasking, one is giving less time to something than could be the case if it were being done alone.

It’s time already?

Jamaica has not been built around the notion of orderliness: it does not resemble paragons in that league, such as Germany or Switzerland. It is not so different in that regard from many developing countries. Roaming around other Caribbean countries, Jamaica seems not that different. It has many characteristics that I’ve seen in west Africa. Whether our cultural background from Africa has determined that I will not venture into now. Improved education and wealth have brought changes, as the country has tried to introduce ‘good’ things that could be seen abroad, and were available through imports. However, Jamaica and many developing countries cannot buy themselves into a developed country because they lacks the finance to import the trappings and output needed to bridge that gap? Many developing countries understand that while imported goods may give a better look to life, ideas and practices need to change to move from being under developed and poor. But, bringing in ideas and processes is much harder than just paying for goods from abroad.

In the areas of process and ideas, Jamaica has a lot to do to make significant progress. One necessary change is that Jamaica has to grapple with its love of disorder. When I read that Finance Minister Phillips wants to improve the business climate, I ponder what that really means for many budding entrepreneurs and customers in Jamaica. I also think about what it means in terms of ‘brand Jamaica’ as an economic agent.

In the business world, ‘time is money’ should have real meaning. So, how can a nation notorious for being liberal in its interpretation of timeliness hope to succeed if it takes that attitude to the world? If ‘Jamaica time’ is always behind everyone else’s time, we will always be missing the boat.

Take also our attitude of ‘Soon come’ (also known as ‘never reach’). If we can’t be relied upon to do something and do it promptly, why would we think we have a fighting chance in a world where some are striving to do jobs ‘ahead of time’?

I laughed last week when I read stories of high school students in Kingston being locked out of school for being late. I wondered where they had had timeliness reinforced in their lives.

My wife told me about some meetings she was due to attend, and people preparing to leave their offices to travel to the venue elsewhere in Kingston well after the meeting was due to have begun. Or persons arriving late and being surprised to see people leaving when they arrived, asking if the meeting had really finished.

20130923-080236.jpgWe are notorious for arriving on time for dinners or parties, and still can’t get used to people being shocked and unprepared when we show up, as scheduled. I always think about what one does when hoping to get a train or plane. Go on, be late! Again, that is as much a Caribbean trait, as it is evident in Jamaica, and we’ve also seen plenty of it in tropical countries.

The island image of everything being cool and easy with no need to hurry is perfect as a selling
point for holiday getaways, but it’s dangerous for business. Jamaica is not alone in this, by the way. I’ve had my unfair share of people in the USA not showing up for scheduled appointments. If I have the option to choose someone else, I will take it and the business can go hang. But, we are often captive when it comes to public utility companies or specialists serving us.

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I always laugh when I travel past the little settlement in Clarendon named ‘Wait a bit’. I wonder if it should be the centre of our attentions and be marked as the new capital.

So, go ahead and make it easier for businesses to operate, but make sure that we don’t get more of the same old attitude to how things will operate.