Punctuality Today v. GDP per Capita Tomorrow; A Look at a Few Countries

Authored by Mike Kimel

In this post, I want to demonstrate the importance of a specific cultural trait, namely punctuality, on the economy.  The difficulty, of course, is coming up with a good measure of punctuality, and in particular, one that isn’t regularly gamed.

Digging around, I found a paper entitled The Pace of Life in 31 Countries by Robert V Levine and Ara Norenzayan in the Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology in 1999.  For the purposes of this post, the most interesting thing about this paper was this measurement:

As a sample of concern with clock time, the accuracy of 15 clocks, in randomly selected downtown banks, were checked in each country. The criterion for the correct time was that reported by the telephone company.

The 31 countries span the globe, and seem to encompass every inhabited continent, though it should be said, the list is Europe-heavy; unless I miscounted, 14 of the 31 countries are in Europe.  The clock accuracy results for the countries, as well as several other measures of less relevance to this post, are returned in a table in the paper.  I then compared those results (compiled in or before 1999, I remind the reader) with the real GDP per capita in US dollars for those same countries in 2015.  That data was pulled from World Bank tables.  The World Bank data excluded two of the countries in the Levine & Norenzayan paper, Taiwan and Syria.

Here’s what the data looks like, graphed:

clock inaccuracy 1999 v gdp per capita 2015

I took the liberty of highlighting and labeling the three points at either end of the curve.

The figure shows that the correlation between the natural log of clock inaccuracy, as measured in average seconds of clock error in or before 1999 and real GDP per capita in 2015 is -0.56.  That is, countries with more accurate clocks in or before 1999 tend to be wealthier in 2015.  Note also that the correlation is a bit lower (-0.50) when data from the year 2000 is used.  This suggests that if there is a causation, it isn’t running from wealth to clock accuracy.

Frankly,  there are a few anomalies with the graph, and they tend to be where my intuition doesn’t match the accuracy ranking provided by Levine and Norenzayan.  Having stated that, I should note that my intuition is informed primarily from having lived abroad for about a decade and a half, and from having a fair number of interactions (professional and personal).  For example, Italy ranks second in clock accuracy, but my experience is that there are a fair number of Italians who tend to be relatively tardy to meetings, etc., relative to people from a number of other European countries.  My admittedly snide hypothesis is that the Italian post office’s clock is simply just as late as the clocks in private Italian banks.  Not surprisingly (to me, anyway), Italian GDP per capita is 9th among European countries included by Levine and Norenzayan, not 2nd.  

Nevertheless, despite the anomalies, at a high level, this data seems right to me, and it provides a bit of confirmation to the idea that punctuality is tied to positive economic outcomes.  

The backstory, for those interested:

A few weeks ago, I had a post showing that at the national level, over the past few decades, there is a negative correlation between immigration and subsequent job creation.  In a more recent post, I looked at state level data to determine whether states with a greater percentage of immigrants created more or fewer jobs for the native born population. The results showed that outside the old Confederacy, the more immigrants as a share of the population, the less jobs were created for the native born population.  In between the two posts, I tried to provide a few explanations for why the observed relationship exists.

In the “explanations” post, I mentioned cultural traits as issues that make a difference in whether immigrants contribute positively or negatively.  In the comments to the post, I mentioned timeliness (i.e., punctuality) as one such trait.  That statement met with resistance from other commenters.  It was even suggested that such a view might be racist.  This post is intended to support my comment.