Book Review: O Brother by John Niven
A Tale of Two Time Preferences
Would you prefer £100 today or £110 tomorrow? £1,000 today or £100,000 in a decade? Your answers to these questions reveal what economists call your time preference. A person with a high time preference wants everything now, whereas someone with a low time preference will defer gratification for the larger prize.
John Niven’s new memoir O Brother is the tale of two time preferences. It tells the story of brothers: one studious, the other profligate. The elder brother, Niven, becomes a successful author, while the younger, Gary, ends his life at 42 after a lifetime of short-sighted decisions.
As with all Niven’s best books1, there is a heroic willingness to face the awful reality. He is like a surgeon, slicing open the past in an attempt to scrape away the cancer of unresolved memories. Only when he lays it all out on paper does it start to make sense.
Niven describes the memoir as being like a forced confession. The good cop tells him he did the best he could, the bad cop beats the truth out of him. Yet O Brother is often more like a courtroom drama, with Niven as prosecution and defence, offering the evidence to the jury. The central question is: why did Gary end up as he did? Was it innate, or influenced by the company he kept? Could he have turned out differently?
In the book, Niven tries to empathise with his brother, no matter how annoying he could be in life with his lying, stealing, and threatening of violence. He makes the case that Gary's years as a drug-dealing ned were due to a combination of three things: attention-seeking, being told as a child he was a "bad wee stick", and an unresolved relationship with his father. But it occurs to me that Gary's behaviour stems from his time preference. As Niven writes:
Where a bad report card will send me into a fug of guilt and self-recrimination, Gary doesn’t really care. Gary is ‘gallus’. (Scots colloquial: bold, cheeky or flashy.)
Gary is a product of a society that encourages instant gratification, where only those who are inoculated to high time preference can flourish.
Music is one form of inoculation.2 Niven’s path out of Irvine was punk and the music press, both of which gave a vision of a world beyond bleak housing estates. Gary, being a couple of years younger, missed out on punk and listened to hedonistic acts like Duran Duran.
The arrival of rave culture in the late eighties intensified this hedonism. The philosophy of the times, Niven writes, was "whatever you do just make sure whatever you’re doing makes you happy". What made Gary happy was the thrill of taking ecstasy and dealing drugs. He was earning enough money to dress smartly and get high with his pals. What was the point of going to university?
One benefit of reading and writing is that it solidifies your inner awareness. This habit makes it less likely that you’ll "let go" or “lose yourself” because your interior monologue is always up there dictating notes.
While drugs encourage living for today and not worrying about tomorrow's hangover, they also act as social glue. When Niven is an A&R man in the nineties, snorting cocaine in the toilets with Joe Strummer, the immediate pleasure of the drugs is secondary to the dream of getting rich off Strummer's new solo career. Niven can handle it. And, when he starts to get burnt out, he is self-aware enough to withdraw to his mother-in-law's house to write a novel. This is classic low time preference behaviour. Many are not so fortunate.
We are surrounded by extreme instant gratification: video games that bombard the senses, social media metrics that stroke the ego, and opioids that lull your anxieties. I have managed to wean myself off video games and don't take drugs, but can easily lose hours to Twitter. ADHD diagnoses have been rising, but it often feels like the entire online world is designed to sap our attention. The comments, the follows and the likes keep coming. It is a loop you can never close.
Notably, religion plays no role in the memoir. The afterlife was the perhaps greatest inducement to low time preference behaviour ever invented. It urged human beings to defer almost all pleasure for the eternal bliss of heaven. By the time we reach Irvine in the late sixties, there is nothing left of religion but football-based sectarianism.
As science has eroded faith in God, we've sought redemption on earth, whether through art or debauchery. Could Gary have been saved if he had turned to religious communities like Alcoholics Anonymous? Certainly, religious people might have the patience to endure his mood swings.
Gary ends up living in a bleak estate, suffering from cluster headaches and depression. The bills pile up. As Niven writes "some people are incapable of running a life [...] the daily treadmill of gas and electricity and water and council tax and life insurance..." The trial of having to top up his pay-as-you-go electricity meter ("a horror-tax on the poor") is too much. One time Gary idly throws an empty can of coke out of Niven's car window. For Gary, this is somebody else's problem. But Niven insists:
‘Keep it until we get to the airport and then put it in a rubbish bin like a normal person. What’s wrong with you?'
But there is no future for Gary. He has no ability to plan or follow through.
O Brother is breathtaking in the sense that it hits you like a punch to the guts. As I finished the book with tears in my eyes, I reflected on my own short-termism. The pull of social media, the hours spent checking and clicking — what am I looking for? What can I do that doesn't feel like I'm squandering my time? While O Brother doesn't answer all these questions, it does show the heavy price of a high time preference.
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I’d recommend Kill Your Friends and No Good Deed to new readers.