Essay: Time, Money, Love, Life, and Cycles

2020-08-18

This is an exploration of the connection between Life, Time, Love, and Money. Some of my basic assumptions about these topics, especially money, have shifted in the past several years, and I am reexamining these topics for the first time in several decades.

I was brought up with the attitude best summarized by the biblical phrase that “the love of money is the root of all evil”. The pursuit of money was considered greedy and even discussing personal wealth was distasteful. During graduate school, I lived comfortably on a $24,000 annual stipend, and wondered what people who made 5 to 10 times that amount did with all their money. Time, not money, was the main thing preventing me from accomplishing my goals, I claimed. I now earn considerably more now, and I’ve had a few key realizations about money that has challenged my earlier attitudes:

  • The first is along the lines of thought given by Ayn Rand or Paul Graham: that money can be a result of value that one adds to society. It’s not a zero-sum game, where to make money, someone else needs to lose that same amount.
  • The second realization is that the adage that “time is money” can also work the other way around: “money is time”. That is, the normal meaning is that time spent horsing around is time that could be spent making money. But the reverse can also be true, where money can be used to help free up time. For example, one can order groceries to be delivered instead of spending an hour at the grocery store. Assuming the delivery-person also makes a dozen other deliveries in your area, this is perhaps 3 hours of his or her time, but saving 12 hours of people’s time altogether (in addition the gas needed for 11 trips to the market). Not only can one save time by paying other people to (more efficiently) do tasks, but one can save time by buying tools. A riding lawnmower being a simple example.
  • Finally, I remember feeling sorry for CEOs or other high-income earners, each spending his or her precious one-and-only life in the pursuit of money. “Who wants to look back on their life as an old man and remember only hours of grind? All for a fortune you can’t take with you?” I asked. The key realization that dispelled this attitude was that work itself can be rewarding. I have hours playing the video game Civilization II, managing the growth of my virtual empire, attending to each of my digital cities, and optimizing. I’ve since learned that one’s work can be even more rewarding: One’s work can easily have deeper complexity than a video game, you are often working in the camaraderie of a team who also care deeply about the project (as opposed to the isolation in which I often played Civilization), and the “empire” you build actually helps people, thereby making the world a better place. And it is because of this point that you get paid.

Life is Cycles, Cycles can Affect Our Environment, Cycles are Limited, Love grounds out in Cycles

A person born today in America has a life expectancy of 78.9 years, or roughly 700,000 hours. A person’s life is what happens during those 700,000 hours. But not all those hours are equal. In terms of capabilities, an hour when you’re sick or underslept isn’t the same as an hour when you’re well and refreshed. So it might be more accurate to say that one’s life is a sum of their cycles. This is a term borrowed from Computer Science. Originally, this meant CPU clock cycles, and was the basic unit of computation. An instruction might take so many cycles. In hacker jargon, this became a metaphor for a person’s thinking and, more generally, to one’s productive time. For example, a teammate of mine might say “I can’t commit to that project yet because I won’t have the cycles for it until the summer.” Of the 700,000 hours, somewhere between a quarter and a third will be spent sleeping, so, in very round numbers, an average American’s life consists of 500,000 productive hours. If a person dies at a young age, they have no more productive cycles. The person –the process that is the person– stops. That person will never write another email, listen to another symphony, or pay another phone bill. The same is true for a person who is in a car accident and is in a coma on life support for 30 years before the plug is pulled. Death means the end of cycles. Whatever the number is, the supply of cycles a person has is limited.

Now, what do we do with our cycles? A person can use their cycles to affect their world. He or she can take actions to cause a house to be built. A person can also spend cycles to cause internal changes, such as by reading, thinking, or meditating. In any case, being is doing. At any moment you’re alive and awake, you’re causing change either internally or externally. Even if you’re watching mindless TV, you’re making changes. Unless you’re an amnesiac, a day after you’ve watched a show, you can tell me what the show was about, which is something you couldn’t have done before watching the show. Some people (myself included) enjoy sitting on the beach watching waves. I don’t know what internal changes this makes, but presumably it’s doing something, because eventually I’ll have my fill of wave watching, and I’ll want to do something else. If there were no internal changes, then I’d never become “full”.

Ideally, we would use our cycles to mold our world in a direction that suits us. If I’m hungry, I can use cycles to eat. I can also use cycles to feed my kids. The question of which direction to mold the world is non-trivial. I might have contradictory goals, such as wanting to eat a pint of ice-cream and also wanting to lose weight. What direction we actually want to push the world aren’t necessarily conscious goals, any more than a rabbit consciously understands why he mounts other rabbits. What these goals are is outside the scope of this essay, but I suspect they ultimately ground out in “Do things that will pass on genes that are like yours.”.

Cycles are the things that make up life, they’re finite, and we can use them to cause changes in the world, to mold the world to our liking. A person’s life is the sum of their actions, where I’m defining “action” broadly enough that things like thinking and watching TV are also “actions”. These actions cause changes in their world, and, ideally, would change the world in some way that’s desirable for them.

So what is life, and how can we make the most of our life? Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) might say that life is time. He wrote “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.”. That is, a human lifetime is made of the moments that comprise it. But I’m coming to the conclusion that life, however much time we have, isn’t about time exactly, but action. By this, I mean how we can causally affect the world (or ourselves). In this sense, in addition to physical actions like harvesting wheat, building a table, or digging a ditch, action also includes seemingly sedentary activities like reading, thinking, writing, and talking. The effect of some actions is greater than others. For example, playing video games probably doesn’t cause as big a ripple as publishing a paper.

A person’s life is the sum of their actions. During life, we have a finite amount of actions we can take. Death is an end of our actions. If someone is killed or dies early, it means that they can no longer affect the world through their actions. All of these effects are behind them, and there will never be any more.

Life is our ability to causally affect things in this world. After we die, we are no longer able to directly affect things. The amount of action we have is finite. We can apply actions to our own goals or for the goals of others. We can increase our actions by finding and using force multipliers. This includes both getting other people to help us with their actions (and sometimes the goals are aligned), but it also includes using machines as a lever.

This is one way to think about money. For a long time, I thought of money as a certificate for goods. I give you a dollar and you give me a doughnut (or whatever). I later watched a documentary called The Crash Course, which amended this view to be that money is “a contract on human labor”. For example, you’re not really paying for the doughnut, you’re paying for all the labor that went into harvesting the wheat, cutting the sugarcane, baking the doughnut, delivery, etc. that caused the doughnut to come into existence (and in my hand). This also makes more sense when you consider paying someone to change the oil in your car or review a legal contract.

But the idea of life as a finite set of actions modifies this slightly to money being a contract on action. And not necessarily human actions, if someone figures out a way to automate actions, then money can pay for those actions (though presumably at a much cheaper rate abiding by laws of supply and demand). If money is a contract on action, and action is the stuff that life is made of, does more money mean more life? Can money be thought of as a force-multiplier? Maybe.. One issue is that, if we assume that someone’s incentive to do what we ask is getting paid, then we need to be careful about what criteria we use to evaluate whether they’ve done their job. As a trivial example, suppose we ask someone to make paperclips for us. If we pay them solely by the number of paperclips they produce, and their only motivation is getting paid, they’re eventually going to figure out that the same amount of their action can produce more low-quality paperclips than high quality ones. So, you need to frame the incentive to take quality into account, but any system you come up with will probably have some way to game it, unless you’re careful. It’s a little like the story of The Monkey’s Paw, where a magical monkey paw grants wishes, but abiding by the literal meaning of what you ask it. You might ask the paw for a million dollars, but it might grant it by causing a loved one to die so you can cash out on the insurance policy.

This is where “love” comes in. I think love is an overloaded term with nearly disjoint meanings. The Greeks discussed this over 2,000 years ago, so I won’t delve too deeply there, but the kind of love I mean here might be called “agape” or the kind of love a father has for his children. I view this kind of love as grounding out –that is, its actual manifestation in the physical world– in the dedication of action, but different from money because you don’t have to worry about incentives. That is, a father will do what he thinks is in his kids best interest (which might not always agree with what his children believe is in their best interest, and people might not always agree with themselves what is in their best interest, as I discussed in “The Marshmallow Test and Three Versions of You”). If we view things this way, then loving someone is literally giving part of your life to them.

Mozart is quoted as saying that love is that heart of genius. I’m paraphrasing, and who knows if he actually said this, but the point is that love, as in “dedication of action”, is what makes great works. If you spend time in the shower thinking about your project, chances are it’ll be better than one you aren’t as passionate about.

Money is Cycles too

Money is a contract on (others’) cycles. Ideally, a trade of cycles would be “fair”. This is a basic principle of economics, that I can exchange some of my cycles for some of your cycles. If I’m more effective than you at making arrows, and you’re better than me at hunting game, I can trade some of my cycles making arrows for some of your cycles hunting game. In practice, I give you the product of my arrow-making cycles (the arrows themselves), and you give me the product of your hunting cycles (the meat).

In practice, income inequality still doesn’t make complete sense to me. In a free market, of course, we’ll expect significant inequalities in wealth distribution. On the other hand, I’ve worked both as a laborer making minimum wage and as a researcher at a top tech company making “doctor money”. Money aside, the tech job is much, much easier. The labor jobs was humping lumber for carpenters to frame a house. A typical day was where I’d wake up at 6:30, drive 45 minutes to be at the construction site by 7:30, spend 10 hours there (which included two 15 minute breaks and a half-hour lunch), then drive home, eat, sleep for 9 or 10 hours (I was pretty exhausted), then wake up and do it again, five days a week. If you’re keeping track, I got home around 18:30 and went to bed around 21:00, leaving about 2 and a half hours to eat dinner, shower, and do other things. The work was in the hot sun, and included me carrying planks, boards, and other heavy objects to two carpenters who nailed them in. I never actually hammered anything in, which would have been a little more interesting. I just carried wood. In contrast the tech job involved me doing interesting work in an air-conditioned office, in a comfortable chair, with unlimited drinks, coffee, and snacks.

The Economic difference is that any able-bodied person can hump lumber, while there’s a limited supply of people who know how to do my tech job. But is it? Anyone with the right mindset and a high-school diploma could learn to do my job in 6 years. Give them a full ride to Stanford with plenty of guidance, and they’ll be at least as able as me. (Though that would take years, and my skills are in demand now.)

The inequality becomes even more extreme. For example, when they were destroyed, the World Trade towers in Manhattan were largely owned by one person, Larry Silverstein. These buildings were over 1,000 feet tall, and measured 150 by 150 feet, for a total combined volume of over 5 million cubic yards. If a single person were to construct and finish a building at the absurdly fast rate of a 50 cubic yard room every week (including plumbing, drywall, electrical, etc.), this would take 7 million days or 112 million hours, or over 200 lifetimes worth of cycles,

Again, it makes sense economically, but it’s still hard to reconcile the reality that one person can effectively leverage the cycles of over 200 other people.

And what is life like for the construction workers building the towers, and risking their lives –not Larry Silverstein’s– at high altitude. I assume that many of them enjoyed their work and may have gone to work on freezing windy days even if they were financially independent. But I suspect a larger number merely “put in the hours” and watched the clock, waiting for their shift to be over, so they could go home and do use their cycles more directly on what they wanted to do.

Cycles Well Spent

In his essay on the Shortness of Life, Seneca (c. 4 BC – 65 AD) wrote “Life is not short, but we make it so… The amount of time we really live is small. The rest of our days is spent just existing.”. From this, I ask myself “What is time spent living vs. time spent existing?” or more pointedly, “What is time well spent?”

That is the question: What is time well-spent? What is living vs. merely existing? I haven’t yet come up with a satisfactory answer. Though I have lots of examples of time that’s not well spent (for me, at least): spending hours online (YouTube in particular), too many video games, being stuck in traffic. I think running my workshop was time well spent. Well spent time also tends to be things outside my comfort zone too. I don’t have a general answer though. I’d guess that, if money weren’t involved, spending time in drudgery falls in this category. It’s just cycles of your life that you’re giving up.

For what it’s worth, Seneca gives an answer for what is time well spent. In short, cycles should be spent understanding life and the world:

“Of all people, they alone who give their time to philosophy are at leisure, they alone really live. For it’s not just their own lifetime that they watch over carefully, but they annex every age to their own. All the years that have gone before are added to their own. Unless we prove most ungrateful, those most distinguished founders of hallowed thoughts came into being for us, and for us they prepared a way of living. We are led by the work of others into the presence of the most beautiful treasures, which have been pulled from darkness and brought to light. From no age are we debarred, we have access to all, and if we want to transcend the narrow limitations of human weakness by our expansiveness of mind, there is a great span of time for us to range over. We can debate with Socrates, entertain doubt with Carneades, be at peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, and go beyond it with the Cynics. Since nature allows us shared possession of any age, why not turn from this short and fleeting passage of time and give ourselves over completely to the past, which is measureless and eternal and shared with our betters?”

I can also list things I did ten years ago that I’m glad I did. Activities like traveling, having new experiences, and connecting with people. Additionally, there’s some work I’m not as glad I did. This includes most busywork. But there’s also work I’m glad I did. Writing, creating things, and developing new algorithms generally fall into the latter category. The general trend is that staying in my comfort zone (watching TV, playing video games) is generally not time well-spent, while branching out of it is. Again, this heuristic tells me what isn’t time well-spent, but isn’t so good for deciding what is time well-spent. Sitting on a hot stove would definitely be outside my comfort zone, but not time well-spent.

Paul Graham gives a heuristic for deciding on what is “small stuff” as “work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary”. This might be too stringent for deciding what is time well-spent. I consider traveling in Asia for several weeks to be time well-spent if one has never done it before, but this trip is unlikely to be engraved on my tombstone.

From her work in end-of-life hospice care, Bronnie Ware lists the top five regrets of the dying as:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so much.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Again, the message I take from these is to avoid being caught in ruts, but that’s also saying what not to do, not what to do. One heuristic I’ve found for what to do is to consider what things of value I did 10 or 20 years ago, then extrapolate to today. If I were forced to describe what to do based on this, I’d say branch out, be creative, learn, go on big new adventures, connect with people, and ultimately create something of value for people.

Another is by looking to examples of other people. Richard Branson’s autobiographies have been inspiring. At least it matches my idea of what makes a full life (and of course, he’s the one telling the story): he has had greater impact on the world through his work, adventure, and also a loving family life. One could do worse.

Cycle Leverage

Whether or not we adopt Seneca’s definition of living, I see a few ways around the problem of spending precious cycles on drudgery when they could be spent on “living”:

  1. One way around the problem of needing to spend cycles on drudgery is to find a way to get paid to do what you would spend your cycles on if money weren’t a concern. I consider myself fortunate that my current job is very close to this. My only issue is that I don’t know how long the job will last. The economy could tank or any number of other factors could cause me to lose my job. I view virtually anyone who has been at Google over 10 years and still working there to be in the category of people who are working because that’s what they love doing. After ten years at Google one generally acquires enough investment savings to retire. Being a CEO can seem like a stressful job, with straining schedules. But I suspect that most Fortune 500 CEOs could easily retire if they wanted and instead continue working for “love of the game”.
  2. Another way is through leveraging other people’s cycles. This is basically what getting rich and living off passive income is doing. The same for running a company with employees. If you acquire $20 million, then you can reasonably expect to withdraw at least $200,000 every year from passive (investment) income for the remainder of your days, even accounting for slow markets, taxes, and inflation. Depending on estate taxes, with prudence this could last through the remainder of your kids’ days too. I’ve seen estimates for the amount needed to achieve “retire and live-off-the-interest” income as low as $650,000, certainly more attainable than $20M.
  3. The last way I see is through automation, leveraging cycles of machines.

I’ll dive more deeply into 2 and 3 in the next two sections.

Drudgery

The idea of living off of capital raises some issues. One is the question of how a person acquires the capital in the first place. How does one acquire $650,000 to $20M? Of course, one can gain this money by gambling or speculating, but the most effective way today seems to be either to start a business or to work in a high salary job (doctor, lawyer, and increasingly tech).

Ideally, if I acquire $10M over a decade working as a lawyer, this means I’ve added over $10M in value to society. In terms of cycles, this means that I’ve accomplished, in net, what would take over $10M worth of other people’s cycles to accomplish, compared to if I had just sat idle during that time.

I still find this hard to grok. Minimum wage in Bangladesh is just under 25 cents per hour. (Before adjusting for purchasing power parity, Bangladeshi minimum wage is just under 10 cents per hour.) Conceptually, this means that my cycles over the 10 years accomplished more than 100 million hours of Bangladeshi laborers. Even if I assume I worked long 80 hour weeks with no vacation, this still means I was able to accomplish more over 10 years than 2,000 Bangladeshi laborers working the same period. In theory, I can see this working through leverage. A much simplified example might be if I were the sole inventor and producer of combine harvesters. (In reality, the invention and manufacture of these machines is an entire industry.) Now, I, as a single person with one combine, can harvest and thresh as much wheat –150 acres– as previously required at least 150 serfs. I can further multiply this effect by building 1,000 combines and employing as many drivers to do the work of 150,000 serfs. In this much simplified scenario, 150,000 times as much wheat had been harvested as it would have been had I not existed. In this last case, is it really true that one person could invent something that 150,000 serfs could not?

I don’t know how often the ideal case pans out. That is, one could arguably find instances where a person legally earned a large sum of money without a proportionally net positive effect on society. For example, some lawyers and Wall Street investors are sometimes targeted as examples. However, I’ll assume the market has some degree of efficiency, so with broad strokes, a person’s earnings are proportional to their net contributions.

Another issue with living off of capital is that someone else still has to do the drudgery. Drudgery can range from being unpleasant, such as hard labor, to boring, such as factory work, to dangerous, such as a worker on an oil rig in Siberia or a front-line trench soldier in the First World War. (My grandfather, Michael Samuel Pickett, was shot twice in this last unenviable position. He survived with a metal plate in his head. We still have his helmet with the bullet hole in it.)

This might be what Karl Marx was getting at by questioning why the owners of machines (capital) should reap the benefits, when it’s the workers who are spending their cycles to produce goods. Of course, we now know many of the problems that Marxism produces, including that Marxism removes much of the incentive for people to create the machines in the first place.

An extreme version of leveraging others’ cycles is serfdom or slavery. Of course, slavery has been outlawed in all recognized countries (though there remain an estimated 40 million people who are effectively slaves through human trafficking). Even if we focus on legally leveraging others’ cycles, there still exists common situations, “wage slavery”, where one is coerced to spend their cycles for someone else, often at high exchange rates (as in one cycle for one person might be exchanged for ten cycles of another person). For example, a head-of-household earning minimum wage in Maryland, $10 per hour, would have to work 100 hours to pay for a modest monthly rent of $1000. For 40 hour work-weeks, this would leave less than 80 work hours per month for other necessities, such as child care. Chances are, the person would need to supplement their income by working more hours (also at low-skilled jobs). If they’re raising a family, this would leave little extra time for their own education to move to higher-skilled jobs. It’s not impossible to break out of this cycle, but it’s not easy either. As it is, the person has little choice about how they might spend their cycles, and their situation is nearly tantamount to slavery or serfdom.

This is at one level in the United States, but it can be more extreme elsewhere in the world. For example, Bangladeshis in Saudi Arabia are often paid pennies for an hour of menial labor.

As I see it, the worst part of drudgery isn’t that it can be boring, unpleasant, or dangerous, but that drudgery has an opportunity cost for the one doing it. Cycles that we spend in drudgery are cycles that we aren’t spending in other activities. These are cycles we’re not spending with our loved ones or directly forging the world in the direction of our liking. This wouldn’t matter as much if our cycles were unbounded, but we only have so many cycles in life, it seems counter to one’s interest to spend them advancing someone else’s agenda.

Leveraging Cycles through Automation

It has long been a dream to automate away tedious labor, and especially in Computer Science related fields such as Artificial Intelligence. There’s a saying in Computer Science that goes “Never work yourself if you can get a computer to do the work for you.”. It’s not a coincidence that the term “Robotics” stems from the Czech word “robota” meaning drudgery. The term originated from a story about the technological creation of artificial workers.

Automation is a force multiplier. It can multiply the effects of a person’s cycles manyfold. In the US in the early 1800s it took 56 person-hours to grow and harvest one acre of wheat. By the 1950s, that number had dropped to 4.6 hours, and by the 1960s, it was down to 2.9 hours, and by the 1990s had decreased to 1.6 for large-scale operation. Of course, this trend has been due to advances in tractors and other automation. In addition, advancements in fertilizer and weed and pest control have nearly tripled the yield per acre between 1950 and 2011. I can only assume corresponding advancements in factory automation has drastically decreased the number of (person) cycles needed to manufacture any given product.

Today, many jobs can be done with only a laptop and an internet connection. Only around 13% of jobs in America require “heavy” physical labor, and this percentage has decreased over time. In information technology, automation is improving at an exponential rate. This means the possibility to leverage one’s cycles is increasing at an exponential rate. I view automation as the ultimate solution to cycle leverage. Not only is it less ethically questionable than exploiting other people’s cycles, it’s ultimately more scalable, following the Law of Accelerating Returns.

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