Time Preference and Culture

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recent article on Time
Preference in Iraqi Culture
has drawn many comments. I respond
below in eclectic categories.


training and profession, I am a chemical engineer. What audacity
I have to make pronouncements regarding culture, sociology, development
economics, and political economy! Logic provides us a simple solution,
though. Attack the arguments and the facts, not the man.

those who care to know, I have read a few books on these matters,
and my job has required me to travel to foreign countries and stay
for short visits (1–6 months), which has given me a bit of
practical education. I have always had an interest in languages
and cultures, and speak and read a little Japanese, Spanish, French,
and Arabic, and I'm fluent in Esperanto.
This latter fact may disarm those critics who might think of me
as "ethnocentric." On the contrary, I'm a cosmopolitan,
readily accepting the good in other cultures.


lunchtime in Melbourne on the day the original article appeared,
my mailbox was bulging with exhortations on the virtues of Test
. Some noted that the performance of Test Cricket is
demonstrative of low time-preference activity. Since it is a leisure
activity, I cannot agree. Nonetheless, it is a sport that neither
Americans, nor, as I found out, Iraqis, have much use for. Bully
for many of those in the former
British Empire
— it's just not my cup of tea.


mentioned in my piece that I am culturally Southern,
and that those with whom I shared and compared my experiences in
Iraq were also Southern. Some have read into this disclosure an
agenda of sorts. This is not the case. I merely recorded it so that
readers would have a clearer understanding of my experience and
any "cultural filters" attendant to my account.

was told by some emailers that high time-preference behavior can
be found in the South. This is certainly the case. Indeed, some
of the highest time-preference behavior in the US can be found among
the lowest stratum of West Virginian society. (Some may insist that
West Virginia be counted on the Union side, but this is a cultural
matter, not a political one.) However, the time preferences of Southerners
at large is not appreciably different from Northerners. And, no,
just because you speak faster does not mean you're smarter. Shallow
waters and all that.

Preferences in the United Arab Emirates

correspondents wrote to confirm my observations of Arab culture
and the Third World, generally. One writer provided quite a bit
of detail on the UAE. He wishes to remain anonymous, but has allowed
me to quote him. His unedited words:

our PC world you have shown a good deal of courage going public
with this stuff. I am an Australian working in the ME, and have
taught in the area for some years. The high time-preference thing
is manifested in my experience here in the following ways:

    • The
      moronic and homicidal driving, which amazes and angers me
      still after several years of enduring it.
    • The
      appalling littering, which occurs openly and without shame.
    • Slaughtering
      animals at home and throwing the carcasses in the street bin,
      with the obvious health and odour problems.
    • The
      students (aged roughly 18–23) not showing up at pre-arranged
      times, including times of their choosing.
    • Rude,
      unruly behaviour in class (not by everyone, of course) which
      often takes the form of over-talking the teacher.
    • The
      difficulty of getting students to complete individual assignments
      and homework that do not count for grades.
    • The
      walking speed of the students around the campus (a snail would
      show more vigour)
    • Shocking
      levels of obesity, and these are young adults.
    • Young
      children running amok in public (in shopping centres, etc.)
      in the presence of their parents who condone and ignore it.
    • The
      awful neglect of feral animals, including some dogs, but mainly
      diseased and starving cats which are everywhere in the city
      that I live in. My wife and I find this most distressing,
      and unforgivable in a country that is far from poor.
    • The
      general impression of irrationality that pervades every aspect
      of life from shopping, to paying bills, to registering your
      car, to getting repairs done. Try directing a deliveryman
      in a city where the concept of an address has not taken off,
      and there are no street directories. What do you do? You talk
      him in on a mobile phone of course, or you go with him in
      the truck.

impression is (I can’t prove it) that high time-preference in
general is most prevalent among peoples that have not created
a high-level of civilization. It is partly cultural but mainly
a function of intelligence (peoples that have not created a high-level
of culture on their own tend not to be very intelligent). This
is supported by the fact that the brighter members of any population
show less of it, and the unintelligent show more of it, including
in Western countries. The highest time-preference people are stone-age
people, like the Australian aborigines, to whom no group on earth
can hold a candle when it comes to high time-preference behaviour.

all their faults the students (and people) I deal with can be
quite likeable. They appear to have a genuine regard for Westerners,
which regrettably is being squandered by the hideous catastrophe
in Iraq.

a closing to observations in the non-war-torn Middle East, I offer
another anecdote. This one I had while driving in downtown Kuwait
City. A mother allowed her child to be without car seat or seatbelt
in the front seat as they cruised at 50 km/h. The child decided
to stand, and then the mother opened the sunroof to allow her child
to enjoy the wind in his hair. I snapped a picture mostly for the
comedic value — the car was a Volvo.

High Time Preferences in the UAE?

the high time-preference behaviors in Kuwait and the UAE may also
have culturally exogenous roots. In Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE,
massive welfare states for nationals are funded from a portion of
the proceeds of the state-owned petroleum companies.

Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE, the nationals get free healthcare for
life, free education all the way through the university level, an
outright grant to male nationals upon first marriage to another
national, a land grant for a house, and either a generous interest-free
loan with which to build the house, or another outright grant.

nationals of these countries that do find work almost always find
it in a government institution like the military, the police, or
a civil government outfit. They like government service because
it pays well, they are not required to do much actual work, and
there is no competition either with their labor or its products.
Private enterprise employs very few of them (why would it when the
private sector can get an Indian who will work twice as hard for
a third of the cost?).

hardly ever see a national doing physical work, except maybe the
odd aging farmer who has not known anything else. The younger generation
is disgustingly spoiled. One cringes at the thought of them inheriting
their country.

anonymous emailer adds:

have yet to meet [an Emirati] student who does not have a maid
from the subcontinent or Indonesia or the Philippines. Very
often the family has an assortment of maids, cooks, drivers,
or gardeners all working 6 and 7 days a week, 12 hours a day,
for the princely sum of US$150 a month plus board, and a paid
trip home every 2 years.

paints a picture in contrast to Iraq. In Iraq, there was not and
is not such an all-embracing welfare state as found in Kuwait, Qatar,
or the UAE, it being intermediate between the welfare-statism of
Europe and the US. Therefore, the attendant infantilization of Iraq's
culture is much less pronounced. So, the conclusion that Iraqi time
preferences will fall with increases in security, trade, and friendship
is stronger.

Preferences in Trinidad, Fiji

time-preference behaviors of a lesser magnitude are seen in Trinidad,
which I have observed and mentioned in the first
. Mr. Vince Daliessio shares his corroborating view:

worked on the Amoco LNG project in Trinidad in 1998 (my company
dredged the shore approach of the pipeline to Guayaguayare,
and laid the pull cable to the McDermott laybarge), and found
that indeed there is often a high relative time preference among
the Trinis. However, this varies considerably. East Indian Trinis
are long reputed to be much more low time preference than Afro
Trinis. But there is considerable variation within the two groups,
and for every Lennox Prasad there is another East Indian whose
time preferences are indistinguishable from his Afro co-workers.
This means, it seems to me, that the differences are mostly
cultural, and therefore are amenable to change. This is not
to say that any individual needs to change, nor to take anything
away from any individual in that society. Indeed, most of the
Afro Trinis I worked with were highly motivated and very literate,
many of them extremely hard workers and great good company aboard

other major relevant observation I made about time preference
in Trinidad is that there are relatively few consequences for
high time preference in a tropical country like Trinidad compared
with say the northeastern US.  In the former, no matter
how little you save to provide for yourself, you are never really
in danger of starving or freezing. There is government-provided
clean water in all inhabited areas, and there is abundant food
such as fish, wildfowl, and edible plants such that even abject
poverty is no obstacle to living fairly well. Conversely, if
you do not make some attempt at economic planning in, say, New
York City, you will find yourself sleeping on a steam grate
(if you are lucky) and eating out of dumpsters.

account from Mr. Randy Palmer on Fijian time preferences reads:

am an American who lived for 3 years in Fiji, islands in the South
Pacific. I am an only parent, male, I am a widower. When I arrived
it was quite a thing to them to see a man caring for 2 small children.

day my 2 children were playing out back with some Fijian children
and my boy, who was 4.5 years at the time, was throwing some rocks
with about 4 other children younger than him present. I rushed
over to him saying, "No, no, no! Don’t throw rocks someone
is going to get hurt." Immediately the Fijian aunt of some
of the other children started telling me. "No here in Fiji
we let the children do what they want, they are so free."
I was distracted and said, "But someone is going to get hurt."
Just then one of the kids started crying and I turned around and
sure enough, my son had hit them with a rock. I started for my
son and the woman started saying, "Its ok, it was an accident,
he didn’t mean to hit him with a rock."

was dumbfounded…It was like there was no connection between
the behavior and the result. I learned then that to many Fijians
"Tomorrow is a long long way aways…" I learned to
live with it and now we have been living in Mexico, for 8 years.
They are much less like the Fijians but still less than like my
culture, the US, in this respect.

Fijian once told me that "Europeans (white people), are too
concerned about the future and Fijians not enough."

quote these at length to underscore the fact that time preferences
are indeed higher in other locales, and this is not always due to
"external" factors such as war and want.

on Oral Hygiene

way of explanation of Arab dental hygiene, George (last name withheld)

you know, in Moslem countries males and females do not kiss
in public, and most of the times neither in private. Females
are only sexual objects for guy to get their way with them,
without thinking of pleasing them. In other words, in our culture,
guys are being RATED by their female lovers on their hygiene.
In their culture, women cannot talk back to guys. Actually,
if you look back at our culture only about 30 years ago, you
will remember that smoking was not a bad thing then, and lots
of people reeked of smoke, and their mouth stunk to high heaven.
It is only now that smokers are very mindful of chewing gum
to cover up their stink.

do not completely agree with George's assessment of the Arab attitude
toward women, but it is indeed worthwhile to note that with the
progress of wealth in the US, dental hygiene has improved. Not only
was this a comedic point in the recent movie Austin
, but there has been an explosion of oral hygienic
goods, from gum to mints to strips to whitening agents to brush-ups.

we can see in even a small area the operation of the process
of civilization
which Hoppe elucidated.

We All Just Get Along?

criticism often draws charges of racism, ethnocentrism, and even
materialism. On the charges of racism and ethnocentrism, one cannot
do better than to quote from the Preface to Thomas Sowell's Migrations
and Cultures

can be cruel to theories, as it has been cruel to peoples. Examples
of both should be apparent in the chapters that follow. But
history is what happened, not what we wish had happened, or
what a theory says should have happened. History cannot be prettified
in the interests of promoting "acceptance" or "mutual
respect" among peoples and cultures. There is much in the
history of every people that does not deserve respect. Whether
with individuals or with groups, respect is something earned,
not a door prize handed out to all. It cannot be prescribed
by third parties, for what is to be respected depends on each
individual's own values or the social values accepted by that
individual — and "equal respect" is an internally
contradictory evasion. If everything is to be respected equally,
then the term respect has lost its meaning.

Sowell writes, though, seems too generous. There are some values
(such as material economic progress) which are universally recognized
as good. If there are cultural values, such as high time preference,
that prevent or retard the realization of that good, then such a
value is rightly to be condemned, universally.

one correspondent recommended that I read The
Silent Language
by Edward T. Hall. While I have not
read any of Hall's books, one thesis that I glean from reviews of
his books on Amazon.com, interviews with Hall, and other commentary
on the Internet can be summed up thusly: Time (and space) is perceived
differently in different cultures. A reviewer notes that Hall documents
in his books that Latin Americans and Arabs don't have cultural
strictures against showing up late for meetings. My concern is confirmed
by another reviewer on Amazon.com:

tries to keep value judgments out of his comparisons, but fails
at the task. Over and again he slips and lets us see his disregard
for American culture. Americans are too conscious of time compared
to more laid-back cultures. Americans are too strict in their
concept of personal space. And so on. Whenever he slips and
lets his opinions show, he invariably finds American culture
lacking, no matter what it is being compared to.

relativism is bad enough, but a prejudice in favor of high time
preferences is appalling.

on to the charge of materialism. One correspondent wrote:

Fisher from Sydney, Australia ‘ere! …I lived in Mexico for a
year, on a Rotary Youth Exchange scholarship, in 1979. Yes,
they are more laid back than “us” uptight, anglo workaholics
howsomever their lifestyle includes a deeper and more spiritual
side than our materialism will ever appreciate. They live, we
work. Making Iraqis into capitalist drones smacks of a blinding
cultural arrogance.

reply that it is not I that demands material prosperity for
Iraqis. It is they who clamor to have all of the comforts
so common in the West. But, further, as
Rothbard explained
, and as codified in Maslow's
Hierarchy of Needs
, the law of marginal utility informs us that
greater material wealth allows people to have greater amounts of
leisure to devote to spiritual and other "non-materialist"
concerns. And so, he who favors greater spiritual devotion should
support greater material abundance.

is true that greater abundance does not necessarily lead to people
consuming greater amounts of leisure. However, greater abundance
is what makes it possible, and the history of the 20th
century shows that most people do indeed opt for more leisure. Whether
they spend it on worthy endeavors is another matter.

It Isn't So!

Holcombe speaks with the voice of many, when he admits a common
assumption in personal email correspondence:

economics, we like to assume that underneath, everybody is the
same, and their different behaviors are a result of different
constraints they face. This may or may not be true. But as an
economist, my inclination is to look at the constraints Iraqis
face that are different from those faced by people in developed

of the culture in which I was raised, and struggled to reject, was
this assumption of sameness. If the entire legacy of Thomas Sowell's
scholarship on culture
could be summed up in a few words, they might be: Culture matters
with regard to material progress, and it is far more persistent
through time and space than we are accustomed to thinking.

own quest to improve my life has been to learn from foreign cultures
what I can. Some elements of virtually every culture are worthy
of praise and emulation, while other elements are worthy of disdain.

Are Some Countries Poor?

was the recipient of many suggestions regarding the reasons for
poverty in the Third World. One reader recommended the book I.Q.
and the Wealth of Nations by Lynn and Vanhanen. Another suggests
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
by sociologist
Max Weber. Yet another merely stated: "The third world is poor
because the population is underpaid."

cannot proceed without swatting down the fallacy in that last comment.
If the economy were free, then workers would tend to get their "discounted
marginal value product" — get paid what they’re worth, given
the supply for their type of labor and the supply and demand for
what their labor produces. If a third world worker is not paid what
he is worth, then the culprit is taxes, trade restrictions, or other

field of development economics is large, and I cannot here do justice
to the many contributors, both good and bad, so I will not try.
Instead, I will redirect attention to the main thrust of the original
article: time preference.

Can Be Done?

time preference is both a prerequisite to and an outcome of economic

correspondent wondered whether Iraq can be transformed into a democracy.
I don't think democracy is necessarily related to economic development.
Further, I think most Iraqis are willing to forgo some degree of
economic progress and security for freedom from what they perceive
to be hegemonic control of their country — in this way, democracy
as the US government envisions or attempts to sculpt in Iraq is
actually a drag on economic progress.

remain committed to the solutions I advanced in my original article
on this topic. To help Iraqis achieve economic progress, security,
and liberty, we should:

  • Trade
    with Iraqis
  • Befriend

yet powerful. And again, due to the lack of an all-embracing welfare
state in Iraq, the prospects for economic development there are
better than those of its neighbors, such as Kuwait.

24, 2004

Guillory [send him mail]
is a chemical engineer in Houston.

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