Punctuality and economic growth


So, I spend 95 percent of my life in Turkey (I’ve measured this carefully) rending my garments because no one is ever on time for anything. The word “deadline” has no meaning whatsoever. “I’ll see you at noon” is a description of a day, or perhaps a week, not a time. Yesterday I nearly dropped sideways with shock because a repairman told me he would be here within 90 minutes and was, indeed, here within 90 minutes. The event was so rare that at first I was suspicious. Was he a spy? A burglar? When I concluded the man had really come to fix something–and when he in fact fixed it, promptly and competently–I had to fight back moist tears of gratitude and wonderment.

I did a search on Google Scholar. I had expected to see a correlation, but was amazed to see how strong it was. The list of the world’s most punctual countries correlates almost perfectly with the list of the world’s wealthiest countries, and the list of the world’s least punctual correlates almost perfectly to the list of the world’s worst economic basket cases.

I’m not sure what to make of this. It goes against common sense to imagine that punctuality could be a significantly more important determinant of economic development than, say, form of government, natural resources, war, levels of corruption, contract law, etc. But this level of correlation is pretty rare in the social sciences, and you can’t easily dismiss it as largely coincidence.

Is this something we’re overlooking in our economic thinking? Should the IMF and the World Bank be urging countries to implement punctuality campaigns as a condition of development assistance? If not, why not? Am I missing something here?

I haven’t spent a lot of time in the US lately. Have standards of punctuality declined?

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive

    Thanks for this fascinating post, Claire. Your point reminds me of the broken window crime fighting theory.

    It also reminds me of something Mark Steyn said in a “Conversations with History” interview. He thought that a key reason even mediocre columnists who don’t have anything very new or interesting to say remain employed for decades is because they are reliable. When they say they’ll have their copy in by 5, it’s in by 5.

    I resolve to improve my terrible habits.

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    Punctuality does not stand alone as a singular virtue. It’s part of a much more complex social tapestry that includes personal discipline, voluntary compliance to the law, and trust. There is enough here already to launch a treatise of many thousand words, but I’ll try to be succinct by way of example.

    When I’m having trouble settling a rowdy classroom, I pose a question to the class: “Why do we stop at traffic signals?” The first impulse of my kids is to say, “so we don’t get a ticket.” I tell them no, that’s incorrect. I go on to explain that in places like Egypt and Mexico traffic laws are routinely ignored, and I describe the resulting chaos.

    We stop at traffic signals in America because each and every driver recognizes that voluntary compliance to the law means everyone gets through the intersection faster and safer. It’s a characteristic of a cooperative society. The contrast between life in America versus life in Mexico offers a dramatic illustration of the results. America is orderly, materially abundant, and free.

    more . . .

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    But life in Mexico is chaotic, poor and unfree. If a people can only be managed by coercion vis-a-vis voluntary compliance you quickly lose your rights. Down comes the heavy boot of authority. The results can be painful.

    I use this lesson plan in my classroom to achieve voluntary compliance to the classroom rules. It works every time because no one wants to face Mr. Paules the tyrant. The deeper question is why some societies are cooperative and others not? That answer would require a highly complex analysis based on culture, more than anything a comment thread can handle.

    I’ve been to Turkey and recognize it as a moderately orderly society, low on trust, and lacking in personal discipline, but there are much worse places in the world. There are better places, too. Denmark rates as very orderly, highly trusting, and sufficiently disciplined to guarantee all the benefits we associate with modernity.

    I could go on, but not today.

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    Kennedy Smith: these drivers of productivity may lead to the destruction of humanity in the cell phone, as keenly noticed by Stephen King. The assumption that everyone is available at any moment may boost productivity, but cannot in any way be said to advance civilization.

    This is a great conversation. I can’t help but chime in when Stephen King pops up. Punctuality means that there is one opportunity to be on time — and that, indeed, one has an obligation to avail oneself of that opportunity. It’s an entirely different vision of informal duty that expresses an entirely different conception of time than the one which drives much of life today. Still, it’s not entirely right to say that punctuality is aristocratic and what we have now quintessentially democratic; punctuality also means that everyone has to do it by the clock. And of course it’s one thing to be punctual about the town hall meeting, and another to be punctual about punching in and out at the factory. The key question may be: to whom is the obligation of punctuality owed? The flipside of the lazy state is the all-too-punctual administrative monster state.

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    I’m thinking now of the infamous defense of Mussolini, Hitler, et al. “They made the trains run on time.”

    Plainly punctuality can go together with tyranny. It can become of tool of manipulation (unlike the qualities of, say, justice and compassion.) On the other hand, it really does seem to represent a quality the efficaciousness in a society. A society without punctuality is a society with frustrated, jaded citizens. Citizens who feel like victims of overlords rather than self-standing, responsible citizens.

    Punctuality seems to me a classic example of what philosophers call “a mixed perfection”, viz., a perfection bound up with the human condition, like resourcefulness and cleverness, as opposed to absolute perfections like beauty, mercy, and goodness.

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    The IBM Rule of Expatriate Living in the Middle East:

    • Insha’allah: God willing
    • Bookra: Tomorrow
    • Mumkin: Maybe
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  7. Profile Photo Member

    I may argue in the alternative that economic growth drives punctuality. It seems to me the value of punctuality as a social virtue grows as the ability to use time for economic gain grows. Time is money and the more my lack of punctuality damages my clients, the greater their inclination to replace me.

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    Hmm, do people in Turkey form orderly lines of their own volition? That, along with punctuality, has been a key dividing line between the Anglosphere and barbarism (except for the day after Thanksgiving at Walmart, where punctuality holds illimitable dominion over line-forming).

    To Pat’s point, however, these drivers of productivity may lead to the destruction of humanity in the cell phone, as keenly noticed by Stephen King. The assumption that everyone is available at any moment may boost productivity, but cannot in any way be said to advance civilization. I blame the Scandis.

    One hears of strict laws against garment-rending over there; tread carefully!

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    I do believe there exists a significant correlation as punctuality is required for efficiency. people in Chile for example, are probably the most punctual in Latin America and are also the most economically vibrant, Canada/USA vs Mexico, Japan vs Indonesia etc.

    Istanbul & Turkey have come a long way however. I lived there in 1972, when there was no functioning phone system, a bottle of scotch would cost $50 on the black market and yeshilkoy airport was both the principal airport and like the black hole of Calcutta. Nothing like the Istanbul of today.

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    I think it certainly does. What punctuality provides, as Steve says, is efficiency. However, it’s a particular kind of efficiency: predictability. I remember being in Russia not long after the Soviet Union collapsed, and the mere concept of appointment was only abstractly understood. You’d make an appointment with Minister or Underminister I.I. Ivanov, or whoever, and then, a couple hours before the appointment, you’d call his office to find out if he was actually there or if he’d decamped for his dacha or what have you. Just as a stable tax code gives you predictability in your costs, a stable timetable during the day lets everyone allot and coordinate his time. Like thrift or social trust, it’s one of those low-level cultural factors that we don’t think about but which have serious consequences in aggregate. [cont.]

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    I suspect it came out of the northern European mercantile communities and has spread, haltingly, around the world. Even within the U.S., significant variations exist, and they tend to also correlate with economic success. Southerners, e.g., used to be famously tardy when the south still had an aristocratic, feudal (economically stagnant)ethos. Like the Russian ministers, making someone wait is an assertion of your superior status. Similarly, Even American communities which have only been imperfectly integrated into the bourgeois cultural-economic norms show a correlation: “Indian Time” and “C.P.T.” (ask a black friend, if you haven’t heard it) are famous jokes among their respective communities, and probably stem from the relative recency of both groups’—or rather, parts of both groups’—full participation in an bourgeois economic system (rather than the sloth or indolence of racist caricature).

    But you’re right, “Turkish Time” is a real phenomenon—although among the really top achievers I know, it’s markedly less present.

    Also, Harlech, classic joke. In Egypt, it’s “Egypt is run by IBM: Inshallah, Bukra, Ma‘alish,” which means “God willing, tomorrow, no problem,” i.e., phrases to put people off, or simply circumlocutions for “no” (which is often considered blunt and rude).

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