Cody and Zoey love sleeping on our bed. However, we don't always love them sleeping on the bed, because Cody kicks, and Zoey insists on sleeping between me and Jeremy, making it impossible for us to cuddle. Luckily, as much as they would rather be on the bed with us, the dogs are usually willing to give up their spot on the bed and retire to their kennels in exchange for a small treat. In fact, they are more than willing. Zoey will race to a kennel at the site of a treat, sometimes a kennel Cody is already in. Rather than risk losing out on a treat, she will dive in with him, unperturbed, while Cody looks at me in panic, imagining a night crammed in his kennel with his younger, more energetic counterpart. After Zoey is hauled out and sent to her own kennel, and the dogs scarf down the chicken, cassava chip, or bit of peanut butter cookie I've scrounged from the kitchen, I wonder if my dogs are employing hyperbolic discounting when they trade their spot on the bed for a bit of food.
Most people would rather have a reward now than the same reward later; we place higher value on getting the same reward sooner. This is called discounting, and it is perfectly rational. The higher the premium we place on getting things sooner, the higher our "discount rate". Economists often assume that people's discount rates are the same for waits that occur tomorrow, and waits that occur in the more distant future. For example, if I would prefer to have $100 today than $110 tomorrow, I should also prefer to have $100 in a year than $110 in a year and a day. But in real life, it often doesn't work that way. Many people would prefer to have $100 today, but they are willing to wait a day for $110 if that wait will happen a year from now. This inconsistency in the discount rate, depending on how far in the future the wait will be, is often described using a model called hyperbolic discounting.
Normally, we don't think hyperbolic discounting is a great thing. It can lead to saving too little, and makes people vulnerable to scams like predatory lending. However, it is a very natural thing. It's typical among people, and has been observed in other primates, rats and pigs. (Weirdly, guppies engage in spacial discounting, choosing small food rewards over larger food rewards if the small food reward are closer, but they seem to have a linear discount function, suggesting they care more about the difference in distance when the reward is far away.)
I couldn't find any papers on hyperbolic discounting in dogs. At first, I thought maybe this was because dogs just always eat their $100 treat right away, and studying a discount rate that is always infinity is utterly uninteresting. However, I was wrong: I did find a study showing that dogs will choose a smaller treat when they know they will be rewarded for it, indicating they do have some sense of delayed gratification.
So when I offer Cody and Zoey a treat if they get off the bed and go to their kennels, am I the equivalent of a payday lender offering a loan for a flashy new TV at exorbitant interest rates? Do Cody and Zoey sit in their kennels, thinking that that tidbit of cheese totally wasn't worth giving up the chance to curl up by my head and fart on my face all night? It's possible they do, but I snuggle up next to Jeremy in my relatively hair-free bed, and then assuage my conscience by telling myself I will take them for a walk tomorrow.
This week I went to Region 1, which is in northern Guyana, on the border with Venezuela, for a work trip. I was traveling with staff from the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs to learn more about government projects in Amerindian communities, and the barriers the communities face to development.
Getting there involved a lot of traveling in little boats, like the one on the far left in the picture above. During the trip, I wanted to show the Guyanese staff that I was a seasoned traveler, who could roll with the challenges of getting around some of the least accessible regions of the country. In general, I thought I was very calm, organized, and professional. There was one moment, however, when it all came apart.
We were sitting in a boat waiting to cross the Essequibo. The boat leaves when it is full, and we were still short a couple passengers. As we were waiting, another boat arrived at the little dock. The passengers unloaded, some with dainty purses, and some with heaps of baggage. One man came with a dozen stack-able trays of baby chicks. The chicks waited in their high-rise crates on the dock while other passengers unloaded and their chaperone settled his bill. As our boat rocked gently next to the dock, one of the chicks made a dash for it, jumping out of the top of the crate and landing unceremoniously on the rickety dock.
That was the moment I lost my shit.
"OH NO! ONE GOT AWAY! DON'T LET IT ESCAPE! IT WILL FALL IN! IT WILL FALL IN!!"
It only took a second for the chick's chaperone to swoop in and scoop up the errant bit of fluff, and deposit it back with its siblings, but it was too late for me. My outburst provided quite the spectacle for my boat-mates, who all had a good good laugh. And after that I was forced to admit that my hopes of cultivating an image as a blase world traveler were truly dashed.
I have an interest in governance and corruption, so I have to admit, I was a little bit excited when Jeremy told me he had to go to court for a traffic infraction.
By developing country standards, the police in Guyana aren't particularly corrupt, and from what I have heard, there has been a recent crack down on officers accepting bribes. However, any place where the official process for resolving minor traffic infractions is particularly burdensome, bribes have a way of becoming the standard process for resolving a traffic stop. Or, perhaps, in places where corruption is allowed to persist, officials have an incentive to make official processes especially burdensome. In any case, Guyana, like most developing countries, does not have the infrastructure in place to issue a ticket, let you pay it online, and follow up if you fail to pay. Resolving a traffic stop legally involves the moderately onerous process of reporting to the police station to pay a ticket, whose amount is determined transparently (in the case of speeding) or non transparently (in the case of pretty much anything else.) So bribes happen. Apparently the code phrase here is "let me buy you lunch."
Jeremy's particular offense was crossing a double yellow line. This might seem like a no-brainer, but consider that often the lines in the middle of the road do not exist at all, and it is easy to get in the habit of paying attention to whether it is safe to pass, not whether the lines indicate it is legal. People also die regularly passing in blatantly unsafe conditions. I wasn't there, but Jeremy claims that he passed a very slow vehicle on a straight and clear section of road, not noticing the double lines.
(A funny aside about double yellow lines-- recently the yellow center lines have been repainted on a number of roads around the periphery of Georgetown. In many cases, work crews have been sent to re-paint in black between the lines, because the first application of yellow paint was not straight or was placed such that the old yellow lines showed up in between the new ones. Infrastructure development at its best.)
Anyway, Jeremy was pulled over for crossing double yellow lines while passing. Jeremy was not given the option of reporting to the local police station to pay a ticket. Instead, he was told to report to court the next week at 9:00 am and wait for his hearing. The officers couldn't say how much he might be fined. This all seemed a little suspicious, especially since it happened a couple days after Christmas (see "Everyone Gets Their Christmas Bonus Somehow").
Jeremy dutifully showed up at court the next week promptly at 9:00 am, as is his fashion. I regrettably could not come watch him, due to work. Jeremy's court appearance turned out to be decidedly undramatic. He sat for two hours waiting for his name to be called. It never was. Since most of the sessions were closed, he couldn't even sit in the court room to listen to other cases. After the morning session came to an end, he was told his name was no where on the docket, and he could go home.
We came to the conclusion that the police officer who stopped Jeremy had never submitted the paperwork for his infraction. Maybe he never intended to. Maybe he told Jeremy to report to court, rather than allowing him to pay his ticket, in order to scare him into a bribe.
Corruption is sometimes theorized to be a way around burdensome official processes. Jeremy's trip to court shows that even when the outcomes are relatively harmless, it can be a colossal waste of time that damages the reputation of a countries' institutions.
In Guyana, salaried employees traditionally receive a 13th month bonus-- the equivalent of one month's salary, paid as a bonus at the end of the calendar year.
This bonus, combined with the rush to buy gifts and traditional holiday foods, creates a surge in demand which I'm told pushes prices in the market up in the days before Christmas. Eggs in particular have a reputation for becoming outlandishly expensive.
I decided to see if the anecdotes shared by my colleagues were reflected in price data. They weren't. There is no seasonal uptick in Guyana's consumer price index in December. (There is some macro evidence of the bonuses: currency in circulation spikes in January.)
Assuming my colleagues' stories of spiking market prices are correct, why is there no increase in the CPI in December? I can think of several reasons.
I didn't tell him that I'd paid all my taxis extra that day, even the ones who'd asked the regular price, even though there didn't seem to be a shortage of taxis. Maybe for a short time during the holidays, the market just doesn't clear. Or maybe we pay a little extra, and we buy a little extra holiday cheer.
I have worked in economic policy and research in Washington, D.C. and Ghana. My husband and I recently moved to Guyana, where I am working for the Ministry of Finance. I like riding motorcycle, outdoor sports, foreign currencies, capybaras, and having opinions.