Time-Prices Are Opening Up Pandora’s Box
I hope my readers have patience with my preoccupation with the time-price revolution. Time-price theory is the view that the real value of anything is measured by the time it takes for a worker to earn the money to buy it.
It sounds simple and even obvious. In my theory, it stems from the information theory of money as time. Money must be scarce to mediate tradeoffs and priorities in economics. Time is the economic resource that remains scarce when all else becomes abundant.
Money is the device that enables the scarcity of time to be fungibly translated into transactions and valuations. Everything in economics — indeed nearly all metrics in science — must finally be defined in terms of hours, minutes, and seconds. When governments manipulate money, they are really rebelling against time.
In my view, crucially refined and documented under the tutelage of Gale Pooley and Marian Tupy, the time-price method of gauging value and economic progress is a huge breakthrough. It can transform nearly all economic calculations and assumptions — from the rate of economic growth, to the weight of debt, to the degree of inequality, to the impact of atmospheric CO2, to the level of true interest rates.
But like any new way of viewing reality, time-prices open a Pandora’s box of wealth of questions and problems.
A Lesson to Be Learned: The Key to True Understanding
In science, what is first encountered as an interesting curiosity becomes the key to broad understanding. Signs of magnetism and electricity in amber (electra) come to be recognized as the pervasive condition of all matter and energy. Initial anomalies of shocks and attractions ultimately led James Clerk Maxwell in 1865 to discover and calculate the velocity of light in any medium without conducting experiments.
My daughter, Louisa, wrote a major book on quantum “entanglement,” The Age of Entanglement (Knopf, 2008). The uncanny linkages between photons at huge distances began as an elusive and enigmatic effect. For a long time, it was dismissed as a possibly deceptive figment of the statistics or influence of the measuring gear.
Now, physicists recognize quantum entanglement as a property of all light everywhere. The enabler of quantum computing, it is being tested in China by Pan Jianwei as a method of protecting the integrity of communications. With his teacher, Anton Zeilinger of Austria, Pan in 2017 entangled and disentangled photonic messages over 1200 kilometers between satellites.
For a possible new book, Louisa has been studying the history of superconductivity. Still not understood by physicists any more than entanglement, they discovered this collapse of resistance in certain materials as an exotic feature of matter at extreme temperatures near zero Kelvin.
Currently, superconductivity is being discovered in materials near room temperature. Carver Mead and Tahir-Kheli at Caltech believe it is a possible property of all electrons in atoms, explaining why these negative particles do not plunge into the positively charged nucleus.
When I wrote Knowledge and Power (2013), I stumbled on time-prices in writing a chapter entitled “The Light Dawns.” It told the story of William Nordhaus, the Yale professor who demonstrated that prevailing accounts of economic history underestimate real economic growth by a factor of nearly 100,000.
This is an exponential “oops!” moment, where an existing paradigm resoundingly gives way. As I wrote, economists erred because “they concentrated on money prices rather than real labor costs — how many hours these workers had to labor to buy light.” Nordhaus ended up calculating the number of hours a worker had to toil to buy lighting.
Last year, Nordhaus won the Nobel Prize in economics!
Nordhaus Gets It Wrong
Illustrating Gilder’s Law of Nobel laurels (they go to economists for their very worst ideas), Nordhaus won the prize not for his study of light or for his use of time prices. These innovations amply deserved all the prizes in economics. Instead, he won his Nobel for his proposal of a “carbon tax” on fossil fuels as a remedy for climate change.
Climate change has become an insidious brain blight afflicting much of western physical and social science, stultifying not only the Nobel Prize committee but such publications as The New York Times and the Economist. It even has induced people across the country to cover millions of acres of otherwise useful land with windmill totem poles and druidical sunhenges. It induced Time magazine completely to lose all sense of proportion and name as its “Person of the Year” the crazed Swedish 14-year-old Greta Thunberg.
But I digress. Nordhaus introduced time-prices in conjunction with an elaborate analysis of “service characteristics” of output, in this case lighting a room at night. Because he was intrigued with the impact of the industrial revolution on lighting costs, he examined in scrupulous detail the comparative efficiency of all the different ways people have produced light over the millennia, from cave fires to Babylonian wick lamps to candles to incandescent bulbs to fluorescent lights.
In his 1994 essay for the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Do Real Income and Real Wage Measures Capture Reality? The History of Lighting Suggests Not,” Nordhaus concluded:
“One modern 100-watt incandescent bulb burning for three hours each night would produce 1.5 million lumen hours of light per year. At the beginning of last century  obtaining this amount of light would have required burning 17,000 candles, and the average worker would have had to toil almost 1000 hours to earn the dollars to buy the candles. In the modern era, with a compact fluorescent bulb, the 1.5 million lumen hours would need 22 kilowatt hours, which can be bought for about 10 minutes’ work by the average worker [in 1990].”
Thus, Nordhaus failed to grasp the real breakthrough of time prices. No one can evaluate the “true” effects of all the endless improvements and changes in all the multifarious and interrelated goods and services in an economy.
As Pooley and Tupy saw, time-prices obviate such calculations by combining in one number the two key effects of innovation: the rise in wages and the decline in costs. Prices are subjective. Workers decide what to buy with their hours of toil. Gauging the value is only the number of hours and minutes a typical person is willing to spend to earn the money to buy it.
Forget all the “hedonic” adjustments and estimates of what things are truly worth. All you have to do is divide number of hours of work into gross domestic product, however it is calculated. The result is the time-price of GDP.
If it is a socialist regime, the basket of goods will be heavily determined by some oligarchy. Under capitalism, the oligarchs have to manipulate a political process. Free markets enable the worker to buy what he wants.
As Pooley and Tupy show, globally since 1980, despite all the monetary noise and the cultural “headwinds,” workers have been able to buy 518% more goods and services with their hours and minutes. Despite claims of “extreme weather,” agricultural and marine commodities have become radically cheaper. No need to figure out the physical efficiencies and yields of every item in the basket. Just compute the hours and minutes of work and divide them into any monetary measure of the relevant part of the economy.
That’s a breakthrough, but it’s still only the beginning of wisdom for investors. There is more work to do, more time to spend to generate new light on this crucial subject.
Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy