Income inequality and the inequality of patience

In earlier posts, I wondered about what makes income inequality so controversial.  Assuming that income is really the issue, I wondered whether the public debate is really a proxy argument that attempts (via an association fallacy) to convince the middle class that they share the rich people’s objections to the very rich in terms of competing for rare luxuries.  Personally, I am more inclined to recognize inequality in wealth than income, but debt can transform income into wealth in a way that I described the underlying complaint as inequality in consumption.  In another post, I described the problem as really a complaint of a disparity of attention: less rich pay more attention to the more rich than the other way around.

Today’s thoughts may be an extension of that latter point by thinking about the inequality of patience.

When I had my job across town, I would commute to arrive at the office by the earliest start time for their flexible work schedule.  I would then be able to leave at the earliest time in order to have my best chance at avoiding the main rush of traffic.   During the morning commute, I would frequently find someone tailing very close behind my car with an apparent attempt to get me to go faster.   But when I arrived at the office, I would later hear of people lazily chatting about their morning commuting experience where the topic usually was about about how slow the other drivers are.   They could have come in earlier if it weren’t for those driving too slow.

In my commute, I was on time and thus in no private need for rushing to work any faster than I was going.  The one behind me was clearly more impatient.   However, once I was in the office, I was the one impatient.  I had a lot of work I wanted to accomplish and I was annoyed by the worker who felt he had so much spare time to chat at length about a topic that was probably repeated every day.   Both examples are an inequality in patience.

Inequality in patience is something everyone probably experiences.  Some people will be trying to accomplish more at a faster rate than others.   This can be frustrating.  In my example, I had plenty of time for the commute so I had no personal need to speed up, but at work I had my plate full so I had no patience for even over-hearing idle chatting not related to the job.

I recall another example of using public transportation where someone was walking down the aisle with an outstretched hand begging for some money.  I joined the majority on the bus in ignoring this request but I paid attention to the beggar’s progress when he arrived at a gentleman who engaged in conversation both before and after handing some money.   That gentleman was in the exact situation as myself: we were both idling waiting for the transit to reach our stops with nothing else to do.   Also, my impression was that this gentleman had less means for charity than I had even at the moment.   Assuming that he was poorer than myself, he nonetheless had more patience to give to others than I did.

I have noticed multiple times when it appeared that people with less means, who are lower in the economic scale, often offered more patience than people who were wealthier.   This observation suggests that the wealthier we become the less we can afford to be patient.   It seems to me that the opposite should be true.   The ones who have the least should need to be more cautious about avoiding distractions from opportunities to make money and about avoiding entanglements (engaging in discussions) that can require them to offer monetary assistance.   Instead, I see the least fortunate to be more generous with both their time and fortune.

This does not make sense in the context of wealth.   I would expect the benefit of wealth to be an abundance of time to give to others.  Wealth should provide an abundance of patience, but in practice wealth robs a person of patience.

The decline in patience makes more sense when associated with income.   Income is a time-derivative of wealth.   The old saying is that time is money.   As incomes get higher, there is more money associated with each unit of time.

Often we express income as an hourly rate that may be computed by the annual compensation divided by the number of hours devoted to a job.  For many of the higher paid jobs, salaries are set on an annual basis but there is still an expected number of hours to devote to the job.   For these annual salaries, we can also compute an hourly rate based on the total hours in the year because the salary is assured for the year.   This makes every moment of the day valuable.

I feel a sense that we do think this way for the higher-paid annual salary.   A person commuting to work is (perhaps subconsciously) imagining how much his commute is costing him based on some hourly rate computation.    Even if he computes this hourly rate fairly by dividing total salary by all hours in the year, the time in commute does translate to money.   He would rather be spending his money at the intended destination to than on the road getting there.   The slower driver in front is costing him money by making the commute longer.

Conversely, when he is at the office, his work product is more valuable if it takes more time to produce it.   There is an incentive to drag out a task to earn the praise such as “this task took our best minds this many long hours to prepare”.   No one asks whether they maybe could have done it in less time or fit in other tasks while waiting for something to happen.

The point I am making is that patience is related to income.   As I mentioned in other posts, it is hard for me to perceive differences in income.   To recognize inequality, I need to see something substantial that affects my life.  I can observe inequality in consumption.   I can also observe inequality in patience.   It seems people with higher incomes have less patience for others (even for their peers).   The income infects their concept of time and higher incomes inflate the importance of being aware of time.

A person who has more patience may resent being denied a reciprocal grant of patience.   This is like what I mentioned in my post about inequality in attention but here all that is asked for is to be allowed to take more time for situations where time does not need to be rushed.

The weakness of this argument for equating inequalities of income and impatience is that impatience does not gradually scale up.  Either we are impatient or we are patient.   I have a hard time visualizing a scale of patience that can have a variety of intermediate meanings.   The best I can come up with is the number of occasions where there is a choice of patience or impatience.  Higher income people may express impatiences at times when lower compensated people may more readily expect patience.

An example of optional patience occurs in restaurants.   People going to a restaurant are not there merely to put food in their stomachs (a snack bar or snack machine can do just as well).   They are there in part for the entertainment offered in the form of good food offered in the restaurant plus the benefits provided by the environment and crowd sharing the same space.   Eating out offers at least the opportunity to enjoy the experience of eating out.   Yet, some people are very impatient in this setting, demanding fast service and a fast check.   Their rushing through the experience is contrary to the goals of others.

Take for example business lunch breaks.   Here there is a reason to be intolerant of long waits because there is a time when people are expected back at the office.   A frequent experience is some meeting that takes a break with a firm time to resume the meeting.   People go out together to get to a restaurant and sit together.   They may all be participants in the same meeting and thus have the exact same time pressures.   Yet the meal has a tension of different senses of impatiences.   Some are willing to stay until to the latest possible moment while others are anxious to end early to fit in some time for some phone calls are email checking.   The potential for an enjoyable lunch is degraded by the implicit disagreement of how long it should take.

As I write this, I realize it is more of a personal complaint rather than anything relevant to broader sociological issues.   I honestly do not understand why anyone should be concerned about income inequality.   I find it easier to recognize income inequality as an issue among the rich and the very rich competing over luxuries, but I don’t see why I need to concern myself with that conflict.   Also, I never see income, but instead I see consumption.  I can see consumption inequality as something that can be annoying but not enough to demand some kind of legislative solution.   I find various things annoying and many of these can be described as somehow grounded in income inequality.   The topic of this post, inequality of patience, is one of those annoyances.

It would be more useful to address these annoyances by name instead of hiding behind abstraction of income inequality.   This would at least address the problem that some people do things that annoy other people.   We can talk about this, but annoyances do not require some type of legislative solution.

Collecting all of these annoyances as expressions of income inequality gives the impression that we have an opportunity to regulate the problem.  We can tax incomes,  We can demand minimum incomes.   Income is something that we can regulate.  However these actions may not make a difference if the real problem is that some people do things that annoy other people.  People will continue to annoy other people.

Returning to the subject of inequality of patience, I recognize this is more of a personal complaint.   My mind and experience operate at a slower rate than others.   I don’t think I can change myself, but I do recognize that I have more patience than what is good for me.   I do not participate in life with the same speed as most other people and their speed seems excessively rushed to me.   I am slower.   I observe the world but when it comes to observing my fellow beings, I feel like I’m living backwards because everything passes me up.

There is a complaint that modern life is rushed and operating at a higher speed because there is more that people want to get done in a given time and within their life as a whole.   I am not so sure that I would find it must easier in a slower pace of centuries ago.  I am naturally slow in how I experience the world.

This blog is an example of this.  I have a twitter account that I use to announce new blog posts.   I joke that my tweets are up to 40,000 characters instead instead 140.   The long posts qualify as the abbreviation tl;dr (too long; don’t read) but these are my tweets.  The posts may cover a lot of thoughts but I think within the post is a single thought, something like a tweet but an idea that needs to be explored and probed instead of condensed.

I do find frustration in life that I can characterize as an inequality.   Specifically it is this concept of an inequality of patience.

Often I excuse myself from a conversation when I realize I have exhausted my time.   I get the message that even if I am interesting, my audience has other commitments to meet.

Perhaps I have been in situations when I had to cut a conversation short because I had other appointments, but I can’t think of many cases.  They are rare in part because I avoid commitments.   I leave my day free to seize the opportunity to explore a thought for as long as it takes to get to a point where I learn what we are talking about.

Some of my favorite recollections occurred in conversations during my young adulthood where a post dinner conversation would terminate in exhaustion at around 4 am, after nearly 8 hours of talking.   These were opportunities of equal patience.  The only commitment that interfered with the conversation was the shared feeling of natural exhaustion.

Later, during work, I would take advantage of opportunities to discuss an important relevant topic as long as possible to get as close to possible to some kind of resolution.   During this conversations, I would acutely aware that I had other tasks I had to finish that day.   I knew I would get them done after the conversation was over.   This is patience that involves a sacrifice.   I ended spending longer hours in the office so I had both my 8 hour day plus how many hours were consumed in productive impromptu conversation.

In the first example, I sacrificed my following day by sleeping through the morning.  In the second example, I spend much more than 8 hours in the office and because I get paid on salary instead of hourly I effectively diluted my hourly rate by putting in the extra hours.   In my mind, I didn’t see it that way.  The conversation was an opportunity that suspended work that would resume after the conversation was complete.   Although the conversation was relevant to the job it was not the task for the day.   I valued the conversation because it often led to a discovery of some sort of deeper understanding about a topic, or even a discovery of a better way to approach future tasks.   I treasure such discoveries.

The inequality comes from the fact that no one else shares that perspective.  We can have conversations in scheduled meetings but meetings occurred in rooms reserved for just one hour and we’d be forced out by the next group.  Alternatively, someone may start a conversation that they need to end because of their scheduled appointment.   Frequently the conversation was late in the day so that the interruption was to start the commute home (catch a car-pool or bus).

The car pool interruption is not an example of income disparity.   It is an obvious part of the business day to end promptly at a designated time.   I relate it to income by dividing the money I earn that day by the number of hours I will spend at the office.   By being more flexible to accommodate impromptu conversation I end up giving myself a cut in hourly compensation rate at least for that day.   That is a stretch but one that identifies something to be annoyed about.  I don’t find income something is observable for comparison.   I do observe patience in others even though their impatience has perfectly legitimate explanations.

In modern life all of human experience is on the clock.  After we leave work, there are times for dinners, times for shows, specific times to catch commutes, etc.  We keep schedules so we know how each hour will be spent for entire days several weeks in advance.   The hour comes up, we attend that function, and then we depart for the next function.   Each hour must come to an end, and thus each function must come to an end at the end of its assigned hour.

There is no room for an open-ended conversation that ends when the idea is worked through to our satisfaction.  The conversation must end when its assigned time has expired.  That can result in frustration.  That can be annoying.

I think back to my earlier example of commuting to work with traffic behind me attempting to push my speed higher than I intended or need for my own schedule.   My patience is holding back someone with less patience.  For that situation, that person’s time is worth more than my time even though he is probably not being paid for that commute.

Income does not have to involve money.  Income is the first time-derivative of wealth.   When someone’s time is worth more, he needs to commute faster to minimize loss.   When I do not need to commute as fast, my time must be worth less.

In fact, I prefer to avoid the rush so I must value my time as less valuable in general.   We can not avoid this conflict.  We are both frustrated.  In the commuting scenario I may claim the other is reckless and aggressive, while he may claim I am a moving hazard impeding the flow of traffic.   In more general terms there is an inequality in patience.  In even more general terms, this inequality is of income.

The idea of tackling income inequality is an attempt to avoid this conflict by having people have more equal incomes.


One thought on “Income inequality and the inequality of patience

  1. Pingback: Income and wealth inequality are different: income is contingent on conformity | kenneumeister

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