The Economics of Andrew Niccol’s In Time

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In Time poster. Copyright of 20th Century Fox

I watched In Time a couple of days ago and while I’ve been a huge fan of all four of Andrew Niccol’s big name movies (In ranking order: Gattaca, S1m0n3, Lord of War, Truman Show), I must admit that In Time let me down quite a bit, but also strangely I loved the rather nicely realized version of an economic model. The movie was fine – Cillian Murphy’s acting was top notch, but the same cannot be said about Justin Timberlake. I loved the premise of the story, I loved the setting of the story, and I am fine with the story being all over the place. They kept hinting at more (I personally was hoping for a Logan’s Run-esque payoff – i.e. something larger than themselves), but there was no satisfying payoff in the end, and I was fine with that. I give In Time a 6.5/10. The following will be an exploration of the economics in In Time. Needless to say, here is a spoiler alert

What really bugged me though, was the mechanics of the currency. The premise of the movie is as such: time is now a currency, and intrinsically linked to their lives, and the lower class of society has to fight for their lives. They live from day to day, working just enough to earn them one more day of living. Another premise is that at least nominal price inflation happens. At the beginning of the movie, we the audience are told, and shown with rather emotional consequences that the prices of things are rising. A third premise that I think is fairly important in considering the economics of In Time is that the currency is spent every living second of a person’s life. Let us not consider to whom first, and assume that the currency evaporates. It is on these premises the plot of the movie was built upon. Essentially what bugged me the most was this: Given the premises of the movie, why was there even inflation to begin with? I try to give reasons in this article.

Ch17. The Essential Properties of Interest and Money

But first a detour to roughly determine the environment that the characters were in. Let me bring you to Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Here is a very terribly abridged TL;DR:

  1. There is a rate of interest in terms of itself for every commodity (yes, this self-referential fuckery haunted me for years in Uni, but really it’s just algebra)
  2. Some assets produce an output, or yield, measured in itself
  3. A yield curve can be built.

This is a place where time is loanable. With interest of course. What then, is the short term interest rate like? Probably high. But think about it – in the movie, inflation of prices is shown and in fact, beaten into the heads of audiences rather bluntly. Assuming they’ve got a Central Bank in the system, which sets and govern interest rates, that would mean longer-term interest rate is probably low (to negative).  And so, to quote cfgt, “they yield curve is very very fucked up”.

So, let’s try jumping into the world. Say you earn 26 hours daily (Let’s use ₮H26 to denote time as a currency as opposed to the passage of time). Now, your minimum consumption is ₮H24, because a day has 24 hours. If you are earning minimum wage, it is quite inevitable then at some point in time (har har, see the pun?), when you need to make a loan. Short term loans would carry a high interest rate, simply because the demand  for currency(time) is not elastic. If you don’t have time, you die.

I tried figuring out why the longer term rates would be low (and by all deductions it HAS to be a low or negative long term rate), and turns out Tyler Cowen had figured it out.  As he said:

Medium-term rates, however, are negative in real terms. Carry around too much time and it will be stolen and you die. The economy has a strongly inverted yield curve and that discourages traditional financial intermediation and investment. Wealth continues to fall, which exacerbates security problems, in turning lowering the negative medium-term real rates even further. A downward spiral ensues.

So we’ve got a rough idea of things. I shall leave the actual macroeconomic modelling to better experts (afterall, I’m only very good at microeconomics, not macro).

Hyperinflation

The thing that bugged me the most about the movie is the depiction of hyperinflation and the horribad implications of it. Generally inflation is linked with how much money is in circulation in the economy at that given periods of time. The idea is, if there are more money circulating in the system (i.e. people are spending them), the higher prices of goods will be. Hyperinflation is depicted in the movie. Comparing Day One and Day Two, hyperinflation as depicted in the movie means that there is more money in circulation in Day Two than in Day One. Think about it. Because I did throughout the movie and I came to a very unsettling conclusion.

How do you increase the supply of money in the system? You can “create” them out of nowhere like modern day money[1]. But this idea is shot down immediately by the premise: When everyone is born, they have 1 year ‘s worth of currency (time), which will only be activated when they hit 25.  To create more money, it means: a) more sex and procreation; b) more deaths after spending. The minimum daily consumption of 24 hours is evaporated from the system – it leaves the system never to be found again. Assuming everyone needs to eat, and the average daily consumption is ₮H30 (₮H24 +  ₮H6), that means the ₮H8760[2] everyone has when they hit 25 years of age will only last them 292 days. If they do not work, and die after 292 days, that means they would have contributed  ₮H2190 to the system each within their short lifetimes.

And now for some simple algebra fun [3]. If you want to, you can skip the math.

Okay, so maybe I exaggerated. It’s not 30% of the population dying. 30% of M1 being inflated into the system, depending on situation could mean either a very rich person spent 30% of the world’s supply of money every day, or many many people die to provide a 30% daily inflation rate. We know from the movie that the rich, while they spend money, save more money than spend it. This section will be redone. I spent way too many hours on the LaTeX plugin, but the gist is this: hyperinflation means people died to inflate the system.

Implications

Hyperinflation then means this: everyday, more and more people are dying left and right. Every death contributes to the hyperinflation. Given the hyperinflation, it also must imply that the death rate is higher than the birth rate, implying a negative growth rate of humans. I had figured out something like that shortly after Will Salas bought coffee. My instincts were later validated by Henry Hamilton’s phrase “for the few to be immortal, many must die”, although I would be quite confused over the statement the more I thought about the economy as time went on. I later surmised that the rich also have to had saved a lot more when the system began.

Part of my confusion was that a negative growth rate was not a bad thing. It’s simply the market correcting itself over a longer period of time. In fact that was what I thought when Will’s mum tried to board the bus. I had thought to myself: “aha, 2 hours walk costs equals ₮H2 worth of bus ride, equal opportunity cost. The market is catching up to this information”. Of course then she died a few seconds short of having a proportion of a century’s worth of time.

Another part that caused me confusion in thoughts is that Will Salas got a pay cut because he didn’t fulfill the increased quota.  It was implied in the movie that the quota kept increasing, and wages kept dropping. For a moment I kept wondering how the hyperinflation could happen given the average wages kept going down. You see, an increase in average wages will also inflate a system, while a decrease in average wages will generally stagnate a system. After a bit of discussion with cfgt, I’ve come to the conclusion that the scene was not representative of average wages, merely a depiction of events in a hyperinflated world.

Considering hyperinflation, what do our protagonists do? In a very misguided attempt to  redistribute wealth, our protagonists very cleverly robbed time banks to give the money away, which in all probability (and even being depicted) will be instantly spent instead of saved – meaning more money in the system, meaning more inflation of prices. During the scene where Will and Sylvia were hiding in a roof looking at prices of bread go up to 4 Months, while complaining that what they’re doing isn’t helping much, I nearly shouted “YOU DICKS! YOU JUST INFLATED A VERY VOLATILE SYSTEM!!!!!! DIIIICKS!” at the screen.

The movie went downhill for me from that scene on. I was hoping they would have learnt their lesson in basic Macroeconomics 101, but what do they do? Redistribute 1 Million Years to the general populace. I put on my WTF face and continued.

They…

Another thing that bugged me was the constant use of “they”. The use of “they” is in the context of “they keep raising the prices”, implying an authority that controls the prices. Assuming that the story is set in a capitalistic world (and indeed it would be easy to observe evidence that point that way), there should be no “they”. “They” would simply be the invisible hand of the market. In short, our protagonists were railing against an invisible enemy, a plural phantom made up of the sum of activities of everyone.

That to me is plainly futile activity.  I understand that the point of the movie is to rail on Corporate Greed, but it had so far failed to show evidence of said Corporate Greed. It doesn’t even show a regressive wealth distribution system in which the rich take from the poor. Instead, it felt like a rant about how bad it is to be poor, and it’s the ethical thing to do to blame Corporate Greed. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t even have a bed to sleep on lest you think I am the 1% – but ranting against the rich because they are rich is just plain stupid and unproductive, and that exactly was how the movie felt like.

Anyway, tell me what you think? I guess the next movie for me would be Margin Call.
Side note: I’ll redo the LaTeX and math part. I had wanted to write a fair bit more but I ended up wasting 3 hours fiddling with MathJax and it keeps telling me that it won’t parse.

  1. [1] beware: this is actually VERY VERY VERY SIMPLIFIED macroeconomics. Creating money is a valid thing to do in my opinion
  2. [2] 1 year of 365 days has 8760 hours
  3. [3] just because I have a nice LaTeX plugin for WordPress and it would seem a shame not to use it – though this final LaTeX rendering was not due to the plugin.

11 Comments The Economics of Andrew Niccol’s In Time

  1. Ken

    I enjoyed your analysis and was surprised to not see any comments on it. I just rented the movie and watched it hoping for interesting economics but the movie was pretty silly on that part.
    Having just watched Hunger Games I started thinking that the rich and in control people had a different system and were powerful enough to create time like the Fed does for money. In that way the inflation makes sense and the ability to pay a month for a room for a night works. If it was as stated in the movie, no new time is created, then hyperdeflation should be the result. Time would be in short supply so it would be dear.

    Reply
  2. Gabriel Alonso

    One thing no one seems to take under consideration is that, unlike money, time is also spent every second without being traded for a commodity (unless you take life as a commodity, but I don’t think that would be measurable on the market). Also, all the time a person has (be it 10 minutes or 1000 years) will be wasted on nothing when/if a person gets killed. So I guess that would somehow have a negative impact on inflation.

    Reply
    1. admin

      Actually Gabriel, if you look at the math above, I believe that I did take into autonomous consumption into account. The problem is time is a fungible good, currency isn’t. The mechanics behind it makes no sense.

      Reply
  3. Dave

    I appreciate your post. I too was interested in the workings of the economy of the movie. From what I gathered from the scenes in the Timekeepers stations the total amount of time is tracked at all time and is seemingly constant (not evaporating with every second) except for births and probably deaths hence the main Timekeeper character’s frequent use of phrases like “We follow the time.”, “There is time missing.”. “That time must have left the Zone.”.

    If this is indeed the case then I believe the system is more complicated but indeed robust and each second that ticks off of someone’s clock doesn’t just evaporate but is returned to a central bank which can presumably make loans. The corruption in the system could be that these loans only go to the very large corporations that we see doing quite well for themselves in the nicer Time Zones and exploiting the poor in the other zones, while the poor are highly liquidity constrained and therefore form a desperate and therefore cheap workforce.

    In this context I am not sure that the increase of prices is true inflation but rather price fixing by corporations exploiting a populace with inelastic demands and access to credit at only punitively high rates of interest. So when the prices went up after Time was redistributed to the poor this may have actually been an attempt to absorb or extract the extra time rather than demand push inflation per se.

    Thoughts? And, does this solve any of the problems you identified with the economics of the movie? Thanks.

    Reply
    1. admin

      Indeed, and with that thought the movie is far more sinister than originally thought of. In fact it may even be Andrew Niccol’s original vision of said darkness.

      Reply
  4. Ryan

    In the movie, a person’s clock is static up to their 25th birthday, at which point the clock starts running and they have 1 year of time to spend. Did the movie ever explain how those under 25 could make any purchases?

    Reply
    1. Dave

      Parents had to pay for them and they could use the little time extractor nodes like that child is seen using when Timberlake’s character gives her sometime in the first scene on the street.

      Reply
  5. Tom

    I’m a computer science guy, so the algebra is not lost on me. I am naive when it comes to the subtleties of economics — so please forgive me if this is included somewhere above.

    I don’t see how a system like this could have gotten started and sustained itself for any length of time. According to your calculations above, assuming the person spends what is referred to as the bare minimum, they will die after 292 days. So if everyone turns 25 on the same day, and their clock starts, if no exchanges are made between people, they die at the end of a 365 days (ignoring starvation). If they pay to eat, then 292 days. So, before the next generation of 24 year olds turn 25 and their clocks come on, the time-based economy already has near-zero time left in it. Or a significant percentage of the population dies (which I think is shown to be true in the movie).

    Assume a system, with Inputs and Outputs.

    As far as I can see, the only input (new time coming into the system), is 25 year olds when their clocks start.
    The outputs are unnatural deaths and autonomous consumption.

    It seems like the system as a whole would constantly be losing time and eventually run out simply because of the autonomous consumption?

    A population of 1 million people, each year, would consume 1 million years simply by existing. So just for these people to exist, they would have to have 1 million new people turn 25 just to replenish what had been lost, and now you have 2 million people with half a year.

    Again, I’m naive when it comes to economics, so I’m asking to see where I’m missing the math.

    Reply
    1. Dave

      I think the key to this system is that the year of time each person starts with isn’t the only input of time in the system, the time-keepers seems to be running a system like a central bank that can create time but do so in such a way as to control the poor population and form a desperate and therefore cheap workforce.

      A theory of mine that I explained in a comment above is that the time that ticks off of people’s lives seems to be somehow returned to this central bank. In the film you can see on the walls in the station that the time-keepers are based in they appear to be tracking total time and that amount isn’t going down by 1 second x total population, every second.

      If this is all true, your algebra is fine but the starting point is different than you assumed: there seems to be a large base of time (perhaps auctioned off when this system was being set up) that is controlled by a central bank-like entity. The amount of time seems to be being managed specificaly to form a desperate and cheap workforce, after all there are a few times where characters say “There is no need for anyone to die.” or “We could all live forever with this much time.”.

      Reply
      1. Tom

        You make an excellent point, which having just watched the movie again last night, I can garner a little more understanding. So, you’re looking at a system which has inputs, and assuming premature death is reclaimed as well (but I’m not sure this is true), then the system really only has inputs, and no outputs.

        As I think about it more and more, the oppressive nature of the society depicted in the film comes more into focus when certain assumptions are made, like for example that time is not lost, but instead returns to the hands of the wealthy.

        If this is the case, then essentially, the wealthy in this film are charging people to live every second. It would be like a bank taking a penny out of my account every second until I ran out, just for having the account in the first place.

        Yes, the film is a political statement on … well, something … though I won’t speculate on what. I try to avoid that stuff. What intrigued me was the math involved.

        One thing I wanted to point out, from one of the posts above:

        I had thought to myself: “aha, 2 hours walk costs equals ₮H2 worth of bus ride, equal opportunity cost. The market is catching up to this information”.

        I claim this to be almost true. See the opportunity cost of the bus is higher than that of walking two hours. Because you pay the two hours PLUS the time spent on the bus. To walk two hours only consumes two hours. So, in essence Will’s mother would have died on the bus instead of running to him and dying in his arms.

        This brings an interesting perspective on the bus:
        Assumptions:
        * A spherical cow of unit radius and mass
        * The bus has a fixed cost of TH2 (2 hours)
        * The bus travels 4x faster than I can walk.
        I would assert:
        * If you need to travel 0 to X minutes walking distance, it is better to walk.
        * If you need to travel X+ minutes walking distance, it is better to take the bus.

        Again, I’d have to do the math, but the back-of-the-envelope:
        * Need to walk 15 minutes?
        ** Bus, costs 2 hours, plus 15 / 4 minutes (3m15s) sitting on the bus.
        * Need to walk 2 hours?
        ** Bus, costs 2 hours, plus 30 / 4 minutes (6m30s) sitting on the bus.
        * Need to walk 3 hours?
        ** Bus, costs 2 hours, plus 180 / 4 minutes ( 45m ) sitting on the bus.
        * Need to walk 6 hours?
        ** Bus, costs 2 hours, plus 360 / 4 minutes ( 90m ) sitting on the bus.

        I mean obviously this is simple algebra, math, and economics (fixed costs vs variable costs, etc). But still, an interesting cost that I think most people didn’t think about.

        Reply
  6. Tom Hendrick

    In the interest of “unplug this and see what happens”, I put forth a question for the floor:

    What if the consequence of running out of time wasn’t death, but incarceration or arrest? Basically you couldn’t buy anything, and you accumulate debt until you go to somewhere and pay off the debt with some sort of community service?

    Reply

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