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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Organizing is not reading, and the value of time...

Today, I have a few meetings, so I probably won't be able to make as much progress as yesterday in entering my book collection into my database. I may have to satisfy myself with a few dozen if possible.

But entering all the books into the database is only the first step though. Once that is done, I have to find the time to actually read the books. I am not a fast reader (it takes me about 40 seconds to a minute to read one page in a large-print hardcover physical book). Many of the books in my collection are reference books that I don't have to read cover to cover. I just need to become familiar enough with their contents that I will know which book to consult when I get stuck with a particular type of problem. But many others are actual narrative books (both fiction and nonfiction) that I intend to read fully. I guess I need another aggressive goal after I finish cataloging my collection.

Gas prices have been going up for the past month now. Today, I had to fill up the gas tank on my van and for the first time in several months, I spent over $50 at the pump on a single fill-up. It is not all bad news though. It makes taking the bus look like a semi-intelligent move. I bought a couple of monthly bus passes last year during the high point of gas prices and used one of them. I saved very little money though because I still had to drive to and from the nearest bus stop (close to 40% of my original commute). And it was not very convenient because the timings were rigid and inflexible. But I stuck with it for a month and used up one of the passes.

Now, I have another pass and I need to either use it or it goes waste in about 3 months time. I always seems to buy things in quantities more than one for some reason. Some deep-rooted urge in me compels me to buy stuff in higher quantities than I need even though I have no idea exactly how useful the stuff is and whether I will end up using it. The result is not just extra bus passes like I am sitting on right now, but also tons of deodarant, soap, toothpaste, etc. etc. Luckily most of them don't go bad, but I have thrown out frozen dinners, potatoes that were virtually sprouting an entire garden in my pantry, etc.

Riding the bus was an interesting experience even though it did not make too much economic sense. In the mornings, the bus was quite uncrowded and I could sit in peace. In the evenings, it was always crowded and I had to spend some time without a seat on a couple of occasions. And there were some regulars who were always on the same trip as me. The surprising thing was that some of these regulars paid with cash for every trip even though it makes sense to get a bus pass if you need to take the bus on a regular basis. It makes me wonder what kind of thinking goes on with these people. Maybe they were people who were regular for a couple of months because of the high gas prices and went back to driving after that period. Perhaps that is why they never went to the trouble of getting a bus pass.

But some of these regulars did not know about the existence of bus passes either (I worked with one of them who did not have a car, so he took the bus with me, but always paid with cash). And he sometimes did not have enough change, so he would feed in $2.00 instead of $1.75 in change and get a transfer coupon as change that was completely worthless to him. Maybe the time spent in research just was not worth it to some people like him.

Interesting concept, monetary value of time. Economists always assume that time has some monetary value for everyone. I guess, to some people, it does because they are paid by what they accomplish. If they get done with one job sooner and get started on a new one, their pay reflects that. Such people can put an actual monetary value on their time. Most salaried folks, though, it is not necessarily applicable. I can use monetary value of time as an excuse to avoid doing unpleasant things (like standing in line for an hour at the DMV instead of mailing in a renewal and paying a $1 "convenience" fee). But apart from that, there really is no extra financial incentive for me to avoid doing something time-consuming. I get paid a fixed salary every month, and I have no way of converting any free time I have into additional income. As such, as long as I have enough time to finish up what I really need to do, any additional time does not have any monetary value for me at all. It may have other value (educational value, entertainment value, etc.), but really no direct monetary value. So, when an economist friend of mine (with whom I stay in email touch) marvels at how little people value their time in the context of lining up at Southwest airlines gates an hour before departure to get good seats, I think he is missing the point entirely. Except to a small subset of people, time really does not have much value to most people and most economic monetary value of time models need to be rethought from scratch.

I still remember the oft-cited semi-humorous blurb about how it is not worth it for Bill Gates to bend down and pick up a $100 bill that he accidentally drops because based on his pay, 5 seconds of his time is worth a lot more than $100. But by spending 5 seconds to pick up that $100, Bill Gates is not sacrificing a single penny of his pay, so the whole example is patently meaningless. But I am sure it is still making the rounds of the internet and amazing someone new even today!

The problem, of course, is that without a monetary value, it becomes impossible to compare disparate things. Everything has to be reduced to money for them to be comparable to each other so that "rational" decision-making can be modeled and explained. Given that these conversions to monetary value are so "irrational" in themselves and the fact that even if everything came down to a comparison of monetary values, humans still make irrational choices, is it any wonder that economics is the dismal science? "Predictably Irrational" is a wonderful book that questions the basic underpinnings of economics, the perfect markets and a host of other things. Makes you think about what else economists are saying that are based on all kinds of wrong assumptions and what the consequences will be.

It is the end of another work day, and it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. The meetings went by quickly and I had time to work on my database after all. So, I am up to 1450 now. And I have a busy evening to look forward to as I get ready for my weekly 2-hour karate class.

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