“In Time” Economics; A Few Thoughts

Last night I saw the movie “In Time”, which had the working titles “Now” (worse title) and “I’m.mortal” (simultaneously MUCH worse and MUCH better title, paradoxically).

Justin Time? PUN!

The movie postulates a world where aging and physical illness have been genetically engineered away; in order to keep the world’s population below the carrying capacity of the planet, the population is born with countdown timers that read 1 year.  On their 25th birthday, aging stops and the timers start- people have 1 year of time before they are killed.

Of course, that’s not all.  If that were all, In Time would simply be an updated Logan’s Run.  No, in the world of In Time, time is also a currency, and can be traded between people.  Thus follow many puns along the nature of “Hey, can you spare a minute?”

The whole system is set up so that the population remains stable.  As one character puts it (paraphrasing here) “So that some may be immortal, many must die.”

I am going to assume that the end goal of the system is a stable population number – not growing or falling too much, but stable at a size that can be accommodated by the world’s production capacity (chiefly food and shelter and other necessities).

To ensure that the total population remains stable, while faced with people who will never age or sicken, you have to balance deaths with births.  And the main way that people die, in the world of In Time, is by having their countdown timers reach zero.

The current rate of birth, in the United States (a nice stand-in for a “typical” industrialized country, but not necessarily where In Time takes place) is 14 live births per 1000 people.  To balance this, obviously you need 14 deaths per 1000 people.

The movie, of course, doesn’t concentrate on the economics, but instead on frivolous things like gun fights, sexy people in expensive clothes and car chases.  I’m sure I was the only person watching the film who said “Enough with the skinny-dipping scene!  Go back to explaining how supply and demand works in this world!”

This concentration on unimportant things like “the story” and “the characters” leads to economic absurdities in the movie.  For a day’s work, the main character is paid 28 hours.  Fair enough, except, of course, by the time he would get paid again, only 4 hours would remain.

4 hours for a day’s worth of work means, of course, 1 day of rest a week – but only if you’re not spending any money/time.  And the things people spend time on, in the movie, have their prices seriously messed up.

A cup of coffee goes from 3 minutes to 4 minutes, and there are “99 second” stores.  This seems to imply that a minute is worth about a dollar.  But later in the movie, a bus ride for a distance that would take two hours to walk (about 8 miles, at a good clip), costs two hours.  That’s $120.  To go 8 miles.  O…kay.  Or, it costs half a day’s take-home pay to go 8 miles.  And the main character’s mom has only an hour and a half left on her timer.  How dramatically convenient, but economically implausible!

Later, a room in a luxury hotel is 2 months of time ($86,400) and a high performance sports car is 59 years ($31 million).  These prices are ridiculous – the most expensive car available today is “only” $2 million, and the most expensive hotel room is only $65,000 a night, and it is the entire penthouse suite.

But the prices, as ridiculously plot-convenient and made up as they may be, are not the problem with In Time’s economy.

The problem is that money/time is being destroyed, at the rate of 24 hours per day, per person.  Obviously, money/time must be created (at a rate that allows 14 deaths per thousand people per year), and injected into the system.  But who can create money/time?  The government.  How can they inject it into the system?  By buying products and employing people.

So the government, for every 1000 people, per year, must create and spend 986 years worth of money/time.  In dollars, at our previously agreed upon exchange rate, that is $518,000 worth of time spent, per citizen, per year.  Or, if the population is roughly equal to today’s population, $155 trillion dollars.  For comparison, 2011’s budget was $3.4 trillion dollars.  2011’s GDP of the United States was $15 trillion.  The entire world’s was $60 trillion.  Even if my valuation of the minute equaling one dollar was off by a factor of ten, these numbers don’t make sense.  The entire economy of the country can’t be bought by the government – why would the government need all those Cheetos and tax preparation services, for example?

So, basically what I’m saying is that the economics of a parable about wealth and wage-slavery don’t work out exactly, surprisingly enough.

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