Peter Dorman calls attention to a NYT Upshot column by Neil Irwin about the cost of climate change. For Irwin, the question can be framed as a matter of discounting, “A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow and a lot more than a dollar in 100 years. But what discount rate you set determines how much more.”
As Irwin admits, the discount rate is a “business concept.” His conclusion, then, follows exclusively from a business concept of “how, as a society, we count the value of time.” Why are we compelled, as a society, to count the value of time in accordance with the business concept of discounting? Because there is no other concept of time? No, there are other concepts of time. More specifically, there is a concept of time directly opposed to and critical of the business concept of time. Labor time.
What discounting is to the business concept of time, alienation is to the labor concept of time. Alienation refers not to “feelings” of alienation but to the sale of one’s own time — and consequently autonomy — to another.
For every human being — as for the wage worker — there are 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week, 8760 or 8784 hours in a year. These are fixed amounts. You can’t put it in a bank and get it back in 20 years with interest. You can’t take it with you and you can’t convey it to your heirs in a will. Today is here today and gone tomorrow.
The discount rate concept has nothing to do with the qualitative experience of time by humans and everything to do with the quantitative accumulation of money by property owners. Framing the cost of climate change as a contest between different discount rates is totalitarian. We live in a totalitarian society in which the non-business concept of time is invisible. Neil Irwin sounds like a thoughtful person. It simply didn’t occur to him that there was any other relevant concept of time than the business concept.
That is why the climate is changing. And that is why not enough will be done about it. Because it all depends on how capital values time.