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Charles Crowson: ‘Valuing time and spending it well is really important’


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TIME is money”, but what does the expression really mean, especially to British Asians?

This is the question finance guru Charles Crowson is eminently qualified to answer.

Speaking to Eastern Eye, the author of Jam Tomorrow? Why Time Really Matters In Economics recalled the Indian boys who had studied with him at St Paul’s, one of the top public schools in the country.

And he also remembered the work ethic of the Ugandan Asian family who spent long hours and experienced many hardships running a shop in Islington in north London, close to where his parents lived for some 20 years.

After St Paul’s, Crowson read history at Trinity College, Cambridge, went into finance and ended up working for a hedge fund before an unexpected crisis made him think deeply about “time and economics”.

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He says the two are “inextricably linked”.

He remembers the mistake he made which he shouldn’t have. “I ended up buying a weekend cottage in Norfolk on the east coast in July 2007, using one of the very last Northern Rock mortgages. And literally two or three weeks after I bought it, Northern Rock itself went bust. I didn’t have any income against it.”

INSET 1 Charles Crowson author of Jam Tomorrow
Charles Crowson

Crowson, now in his 40s, was also paying a mortgage on a flat in London. “I suddenly found myself not only with a large case of negative equity, but was being absolutely stung by having to pay a mortgage rate of six-seven per cent (on the cottage).

“If you want to start thinking about the political or economic world, you sometimes need an experience to shock you into starting to look at things in a new way.

“What I found so embarrassing in retrospect was that at the time, I was working at a hedge fund as a financial professional. I really should have seen all this stuff coming. The ideas put forward in the book pretty much had their genesis in the financial crisis which began in 2007.”

Crowson spent the Covid lockdowns writing the book at his flat in Little Venice in Maida Vale, London. He is now wondering whether he should leave finance and become a full-time writer.

“If you look at the bibliography, it’s not just a standard selection of articles from the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal or references to economic textbooks. I have drawn quite a lot of inspiration from different areas, some of it in psychology, some of it in philosophy, and some history as well.”

He said: “The central message of the book is that there are plenty of very conventional ways of looking at economics. It tends to be one of those disciplines where people get pigeonholed, either through their job, or how they were educated into thinking. It’s a bit like a religion. You tend to believe in Keynesian economics, or classical economics or something like that. But because I’m not an academic economist and because most of my experience of economics comes from the market side of things, I’ve taken quite a different view of how the markets and the economy actually function.

“The central argument in the book is that when we make economic decisions, it’s usually a choice between consuming something in the present or delaying that consumption to the future by saving. But what that really means is we’re talking about a decision about time. A lot of economists have talked about incentives, whether you spend or save – those are the basic choices in economics.”

He pointed out: “You can’t really get time back.”

Crowson’s book features an hourglass on its cover, possibly to indicate time is running out. He said: “Valuing time and spending it well is really one of the most important things (in our working lives), if not the most important one. And money itself is just a proxy to time.”

Earning too high a salary can become counterproductive, surveys had shown. “Once people start getting into the area of having six-figure salaries, they find the amount of effort and work that they have to put in to maintain that position in their company or keep it running means the actual material benefits people gain from hard work and particularly very long hours, and their overall sense of happiness and well-being, tends to flatline.”

Governments in the US, the UK and the west generally were engaging in “short-termism” to an extraordinary degree, said Crowson.

“It is a political phenomenon trying to win votes by giving handouts, rather than investing in long-term projects. In financial markets there is an obsession with the share price of listed companies.

“You tend to see a huge degree of short-termism among consumers in general, particularly when you look at how people are willing to run up bills on their credit cards in order that they can have a slightly better Christmas, or they can afford a summer holiday or an extra holiday. It’s quite hedonistic, in a way.

“I think a lot of the trends in recent years in western culture have been short term.

“Often, it’s the case that private or family-run businesses outperform (others) because they are not obsessed by the need to look at share price performance as you would if you were the hired-in CEO of a listed company.

“Family-run companies are going to be multi-generational, with well-educated family members talking about the company strategically, rather than tactically, of long-term investments.”

The latter usually referred to British Asian companies.

Education, too, was an investment in the future, said Crowson, who remembered his Indian fellow pupils at St Paul’s in London: “It was quite noticeable to me that a lot of my fellow pupils in the Indian community were particularly interested in the sciences and maths, with a view to going into the professions, such as medicine, finance or law or their family businesses. The white Caucasian kids were a lot more interested in the arts side of things, like history and English.”

And Crowson talked of the Uganda Asian family from his childhood days and what time meant to them: “I grew up in Islington (north London). My parents moved there in the early 1980s. We were in a sort of fairly residential area, and apart from a couple of pubs, the only real shop around was a supermarket run by two Ugandan Indians who had been kicked out by Idi Amin. And, obviously, because we lived around the corner, we got to know them very well.”

Their time was invested in securing the best possible education for their children, he said.

“They were in the shops all hours, including on Sundays. They had three children – two boys and a girl. Although the economic and cultural dislocation the family had suffered in the early 1970s was extreme, they had found themselves a commercial niche. All of their children went to university in the 1980s.

“I remember my mother chatting to the lady in the shop. They were very keen on having one child as a lawyer, one as a doctor, and one as an accountant. Because they have an extraordinary work ethic, the children were catapulted within a generation into white-collar careers, on a par with people who have been born in this country.

“It’s often the case that when you have nuclear or extended families, kinship is the thing which make the hard work worth it. Those values are displayed most strongly in Asian communities.”

Jam Tomorrow? Why Time Really Matters In Economics by Charles Crowson, published by Whitefox Publishing; £16.99.



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