Marking time

Two decades ago, when I had a business of my own, I realized that my 13 employees had no idea of time. Although I had taught them to arrive punctually at work, none of them gave time an economic value since its only manifestation was the intensity of the sun, scorching at noon and benign towards the end of an 8- hour work day. As it turned out, I was just as ignorant about the value of time as they were. When I asked a friend to review my price points, she scolded me for not giving value to the hours I spent on R & D and insisted that I pay myself a salary which should be a component of the total production cost.

Invisible as it is, this man-made element called time can either make or break corporations, big or small; it can tamper with the GDP and GNP and derail the national economy. I have never read economics, so I remain intrigued that time, which you cannot even touch nor smell, can have tremendous economic value. Gallingly, time can also be politicized and weaponized for it determines salary rates, living wages, profit margins, even the infrastructure master plan of a country.

Finally, I came across an elucidating treatise on time, by Dean Euston Quah of the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore where he is economics professor of the Albert Winsemius Chair. Dean Quah is also the president of the Economics Society of Singapore. This article which appeared in the “ Straits Times” instantiated my instinctive notions about the importance of time. He said the owner or employer and the worker view the value of time differently. To the employer, labor is only one of the components of the total cost, so it is not wise to incur additional costs by having more workers, specially if the market value they bring into the business is less than the cost of wages. The value added to the product by the last worker has to be higher than his wages. However, when time is lumped into an 8-hour day or a 40-hour week it is difficult to compute how much an hour of time is worth.

As for the worker, Dean Quah wrote that the former takes into account the value of his non-working time which is spent at home and at leisure. Should the worker put his free time into the market, the remuneration must be worth it for him because it reduces the time he spends with family and for leisure. Quah observed that when wages fall, or when work in the office is unpleasant, the worker’s non-working time shows a corresponding increase. I would have wanted to ask Dean Quah if he was speaking in general or about conditions peculiar to Singapore.

Not only can time be valued and measured, it can also be exchanged for a price, according to the professor of the Albert Winsemius Chair. In the Philippines, we have been doing that for ages, haven’t we? What would career parents, career women especially, have done without a retinue of house maids, yayas, gardeners, cooks, drivers and lavanderas? They are, in effect, borrowing the time of their household staff in exchange for salaries, board and lodging, so they can climb up the corporate ladder or enjoy a glittering social life.

Needless to say, the Covid-19 pandemic has all but shattered our notion of time and its ineluctable value. We in the Philippines have been “under house arrest” for 7 months now. The intensity of the government-enforced quarantine has varied from general to extended, to modified, yet despite all the precautions and health protocols, the Philippines is still number one in Asia’s Covid list ( but about 18 levels below the USA!) Our national economy which used to be on auto-pilot for many decades has been mercilessly derailed. How do we begin to compute our losses?

In his excellent article, Dean Quah said that we must factor in the element of time when we analyze the trade-off between saving jobs or saving lives. Time has value in its use, so we have to give it due regard when studying the effect of the Covid 19 pandemic on productivity, savings, GDP, tourism, schools, classes and a myriad of social activities; intangibles like mental stress and dysfunctional families should definitely be included. We have to take into account the cost of medicines, hospitalization, healthcare, medical treatments, R & D (research and development). Eusten Quah’s final exhortation—valueing time is crucial!

I was happy to note that the illustration accompanying the article was made by a Filipino, Mr. Dengcoy Miel , a protégé of the late Nonoy Marcelo, a political cartoonist par excellence who had a deep understanding of the Philippine socio-political and cultural landscape. His most famous strip was about a restless young man called “Tisoy” and his gangmates. When Tonypet Araneta and I got married in 1965, Nonoy added two characters called Gemmo and Pompypet, which I thought was hilarious, but upset my mother to no end. Thank you, Atty. Daniel Hofilena, for going out of your way to scan and send me Dean Quah’s enlightening article; I know how busy you are with your webinars on law and economics.

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