Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Time and Class

Social class is a tricky concept to get a handle on. For one thing, class definitions vary quite a bit around the world. The "middle class" starts at a higher level of income and education in Britain and Australia, where most people define themselves as working class, than it does in the United States, where the majority identify as middle class. It's clearly not just a question of income or net worth, or education, though all those are correlated with it. Maybe it is a question of time. Once I read that the working class is mainly concerned with the present (making ends meet and enjoying the moment), the middle class with the future (studying, saving, getting ahead), and the upper class with the past (ancestry etc.). That's certainly true to some degree. Today I read about Edward Banfield who put it in terms of "time preference" a standard economic concept. Basically, someone with a high time preference discounts the future at a steep rate. It makes sense that working class discount rates would be much higher than middle class ones. Not only is this seen in the behavior mentioned above but in the interest rates available - e.g. comparing payday loans with mortgage rates. Someone born in a working class background who develops a low discount rate will be more prepared to save time and money towards getting educated and moving to the middle class. Of course a lot of people will try and fail for whatever reason, so I'm not saying people are poor because their discount rate is too high. But comparing samples of "working class" and "class people" the average would differ in this way. Some people remain poor because they haven't learned to lower their discount rate and others because circumstances have gotten in the way of using this positive character trait.

An interesting hypothesis then is: "Is the discount rate of the upper class, even lower than that of the middle class?". This paper hypothesizes that the aristocracy and peasant class in early industrial Britain both had high discount rates while the emerging middle class did not. And that this lead to the decline of the traditional aristocracy. Of course, the paper is pure theory (speculation) with no data to back the idea. Maybe instead someone who can preserve inherited wealth and cares about dynastic succession, might have an even lower discount rate than the middle class saver and learner?


Anonymous said...

pure theory (speculation)...?

A theory is the result of successful testing of a hypothesis, not speculation.

But then economics doesn't use the scientific method, just historicism. Which is why it doesn't work.

mOOm said...

Your comment that economics doesn't use the scientific method is a way too blanket statement. There is still too much deduction of hypotheses based on basic economic reasoning and a lot of math that isn't then tested against real world data. But in the last several decades, economics papers do involve empirical testing. In addition, "laboratory" experimentation for which a recent Nobel Prize was awarded has taken off significantly in micro-economics. I don't know what you mean by economics using "just historicism".

Anyway, the paper in question is just speculation that deduces some hypotheses from basic principles. And so is my blog post.