What is the price of time?

JDN 2457562

If they were asked outright, “What is the price of time?” most people would find that it sounds nonsensical, like I’ve asked you “What is the diameter of calculus?” or “What is the electric charge of justice?” (It’s interesting that we generally try to assign meaning to such nonsensical questions, and they often seem strangely profound when we do; a good deal of what passes for “profound wisdom” is really better explained as this sort of reaction to nonsense. Deepak Chopra, for instance.)

But there is actually a quite sensible economic meaning of this question, and answering it turns out to have many important implications for how we should run our countries and how we should live our lives.

What we are really asking for is temporal discounting; we want to know how much more money today is worth compared to tomorrow, and how much more money tomorrow is worth compared to two days from now.

If you say that they are exactly the same, your discount rate (your “price of time”) is zero; if that is indeed how you feel, may I please borrow your entire net wealth at 0% interest for the next thirty years? If you like we can even inflation-index the interest rate so it always produces a real interest rate of zero, thus protecting you from potential inflation risk.
What? You don’t like my deal? You say you need that money sooner? Then your discount rate is not zero. Similarly, it can’t be negative; if you actually valued money tomorrow more than money today, you’d gladly give me my loan.

Money today is worth more to you than money tomorrow—the only question is how much more.

There’s a very simple theorem which says that as long as your temporal discounting doesn’t change over time, so it is dynamically consistent, it must have a very specific form. I don’t normally use math this advanced in my blog, but this one is so elegant I couldn’t resist. I’ll encase it in blockquotes so you can skim over it if you must.

The value of $1 today relative to… today is of course 1; f(0) = 1.

If you are dynamically consistent, at any time t you should discount tomorrow relative to today the same as you discounted today relative to yesterday, so for all t, f(t+1)/f(t) = f(t)/f(t-1)
Thus, f(t+1)/f(t) is independent of t, and therefore equal to some constant, which we can call r:

f(t+1)/f(t) = r, which implies f(t+1) = r f(t).

Starting at f(0) = 1, we have:

f(0) = 1, f(1) = r, f(2) = r^2

We can prove that this pattern continues to hold by mathematical induction.

Suppose the following is true for some integer k; we already know it works for k = 1:

f(k) = r^k

Let t = k:

f(k+1) = r f(k)


f(k+1) = r^(k+1)

Which by induction proves that for all integers n:

f(n) = r^n

The name of the variable doesn’t matter. Therefore:

f(t) = r^t

Whether you agree with me that this is beautiful, or you have no idea what I just said, the take-away is the same: If your discount rate is consistent over time, it must be exponential. There must be some constant number 0 < r < 1 such that each successive time period is worth r times as much as the previous. (You can also generalize this to the case of continuous time, where instead of r^t you get e^(-r t). This requires even more advanced math, so I’ll spare you.)

Most neoclassical economists would stop right there. But there are two very big problems with this argument:

(1) It doesn’t tell us the value r should actually be, only that it should be a constant.

(2) No actual human being thinks of time this way.

There is still ongoing research as to exactly how real human beings discount time, but one thing is quite clear from the experiments: It certainly isn’t exponential.

From about 2000 to 2010, the consensus among cognitive economists was that humans discount time hyperbolically; that is, our discount function looks like this:

f(t) = 1/(1 + r t)

In the 1990s there were a couple of experiments supporting hyperbolic discounting. There is even some theoretical work trying to show that this is actually optimal, given a certain kind of uncertainty about the future, and the argument for exponential discounting relies upon certainty we don’t actually have. Hyperbolic discounting could also result if we were reasoning as though we are given a simple interest rate, rather than a compound interest rate.

But even that doesn’t really seem like humans think, now does it? It’s already weird enough for someone to say “Should I take out this loan at 5%? Well, my discount rate is 7%, so yes.” But I can at least imagine that happening when people are comparing two different interest rates (“Should I pay down my student loans, or my credit cards?”). But I can’t imagine anyone thinking, “Should I take out this loan at 5% APR which I’d need to repay after 5 years? Well, let’s check my discount function, 1/(1+0.05 (5)) = 0.8, multiplied by 1.05^5 = 1.28, the product of which is 1.02, greater than 1, so no, I shouldn’t.” That isn’t how human brains function.

Moreover, recent experiments have shown that people often don’t seem to behave according to what hyperbolic discounting would predict.

Therefore I am very much in the other camp of cognitive economists, who say that we don’t have a well-defined discount function. It’s not exponential, it’s not hyperbolic, it’s not “quasi-hyperbolic” (yes that is a thing); we just don’t have one. We reason about time by simple heuristics. You can’t make a coherent function out of it because human beings… don’t always reason coherently.

Some economists seem to have an incredible amount of trouble accepting that; here we have one from the University of Chicago arguing that hyperbolic discounting can’t possibly exist, because then people could be Dutch-booked out of all their money; but this amounts to saying that human behavior cannot ever be irrational, lest all our money magically disappear. Yes, we know hyperbolic discounting (and heuristics) allow for Dutch-booking; that’s why they’re irrational. If you really want to know the formal assumption this paper makes that is wrong, it assumes that we have complete markets—and yes, complete markets essentially force you to be perfectly rational or die, because the slightest inconsistency in your reasoning results in someone convincing you to bet all your money on a sure loss. Why was it that we wanted complete markets, again? (Oh, yes, the fanciful Arrow-Debreu model, the magical fairy land where everyone is perfectly rational and all markets are complete and we all have perfect information and the same amount of wealth and skills and the same preferences, where everything automatically achieves a perfect equilibrium.)

There was a very good experiment on this, showing that rather than discount hyperbolically, behavior is better explained by a heuristic that people judge which of two options is better by a weighted sum of the absolute distance in time plus the relative distance in time. Now that sounds like something human beings might actually do. “$100 today or $110 tomorrow? That’s only 1 day away, but it’s also twice as long. I’m not waiting.” “$100 next year, or $110 in a year and a day? It’s only 1 day apart, and it’s only slightly longer, so I’ll wait.”

That might not actually be the precise heuristic we use, but it at least seems like one that people could use.

John Duffy, whom I hope to work with at UCI starting this fall, has been working on another experiment to test a different heuristic, based on the work of Daniel Kahneman, saying essentially that we have a fast, impulsive, System 1 reasoning layer and a slow, deliberative, System 2 reasoning layer; the result is that our judgments combine both “hand to mouth” where our System 1 essentially tries to get everything immediately and spend whatever we can get our hands on, and a more rational assessment by System 2 that might actually resemble an exponential discount rate. In the 5-minute judgment, System 1’s voice is overwhelming; but if we’re already planning a year out, System 1 doesn’t even care anymore and System 2 can take over. This model also has the nice feature of explaining why people with better self-control seem to behave more like they use exponential discounting,[PDF link] and why people do on occasion reason more or less exponentially, while I have literally never heard anyone try to reason hyperbolically, only economic theorists trying to use hyperbolic models to explain behavior.

Another theory is that discounting is “subadditive”, that is, if you break up a long time interval into many short intervals, people will discount it more, because it feels longer that way. Imagine a century. Now imagine a year, another year, another year, all the way up to 100 years. Now imagine a day, another day, another day, all the way up to 365 days for the first year, and then 365 days for the second year, and that on and on up to 100 years. It feels longer, doesn’t it? It is of course exactly the same. This can account for some weird anomalies in choice behavior, but I’m not convinced it’s as good as the two-system model.

Another theory is that we simply have a “present bias”, which we treat as a sort of fixed cost that we incur regardless of what the payments are. I like this because it is so supremely simple, but there’s something very fishy about it, because in this experiment it was just fixed at $4, and that can’t be right. It must be fixed at some proportion of the rewards, or something like that; or else we would always exhibit near-perfect exponential discounting for large amounts of money, which is more expensive to test (quite directly), but still seems rather unlikely.

Why is this important? This post is getting long, so I’ll save it for future posts, but in short, the ways that we value future costs and benefits, both as we actually do, and as we ought to, have far-reaching implications for everything from inflation to saving to environmental sustainability.


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