Bryan Caplan  

In Time

PRINT
Tom Sargent on How the Vietnam... Henderson's Iron Law of Govern...
[Warning: spoilers]

Sci-fi thriller In Time has a simple premise: In the future, people become immortal as long as they don't run out of the crucial tradable commodity: time.  Everyone is born with 26 years of life; to live longer, they have to earn - or steal - time from other people.  Robin Hanson hates the movie for its "shrill class hatred" and the inconsistency between the story and the message:
[T]his society's main problem is being over-taxed, via a severely regressive tax system, with poor law enforcement aside from very well enforced and extreme penalties for failure to pay taxes. How can the outcome of such a terrible tax system be a critique of wealth inequality in our society, where the rich work hard, taxes are progressive, the poor pay few taxes, and penalties for non-payment of taxes are mild?
All true, but In Time is still more than worth the price of admission.  It's a fine mix of so-bad-it's-good and just-plain-good. 

So-bad-it's-good:

1. People with under a day to live still spend precious minutes on wine, coffee, and other luxuries.

2. People hold such low time balances that a surprise increase in cab fare is literally lethal.  (Note: In the real world, the poorest residents of the Third World don't cut things this close).

3. Even though time storage devices exist and mugging is rampant, most people carry their whole lifetime on their persons.  Picture a world where everyone walks around with every penny of their net worth in their wallets!

4. The glowing green time clocks don't include any "low balance warning."

5. You don't need a password to get someone's time - including their last minute of life!  It's easier for muggers in the movie to "clean a person's clock" than it is for us to check our cell phone messages.

Just-plain-good:

1. The movie is derivative, but it derives its inspiration from great sources. The plot is heavily inspired by Les Miserables, Bonnie and Clyde, and the Patty Hearst affair, all skillfully woven together.

2. In Time is a stark exercise in Victorian ethnography.  The poor claim that the rich are "stealing" from them.  But that's mere speculation on the characters' part.  What the movie actually shows us is that the poor are extremely impulsive and irresponsible - and blame everyone but themselves for their plight.

a. Case in point: When the lead character suddenly inherits a century of life under suspicious (though innocent) circumstances, he almost immediately moves to the richest neighborhood, checks into the nicest hotel, eats at the best restaurant, and lavishly tips.  Then he goes to a casino and bets everything he has!  He never even considers the sensible strategy of waiting for the heat to die down or spending his new-found wealth gradually to avoid suspicion.

b. Another example of Victorian ethnography: When the hero gives his closest friend ten years of life, the friend ignores his struggling wife and child and goes drinking.  He consumes a year's worth of liquor and dies of alcohol poisoning.  The inheritance laws are a little vague, but his family probably doesn't inherit his remaining nine years.

3. The characters make some bizarrely stupid choices, but so what?  Drama is about character motivation and conflict, not optimization. 


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (8 to date)
Dain writes:

I was interested at first, but in England I was exposed to so many bus ads depicting the film as some kind of Justin Timberlake romance flick it totally turned me off. Er, ironically.

That's too bad. Plus Rotten Tomatoes gave it a stinker meta rating.

J Storrs Hall writes:

Looks like a classic case of a zero-sum society.

Joseph K writes:

Robin Hanson is right that to try to make this a movie about class inequality (in a world where an authoritarian state literally murders its own people en masse, deliberately exacerbates the class divide and suppresses class mobility ruthlessly) is misguided. I don't see why the great mass of people wouldn't be working hard to circumvent the internal bomb that enforces their life span. It's seem like it would be a much more interesting movie if it had been premised on an underground movement trying to liberate itself from their government imposed death-sentence by removing (at great personal risk, no doubt) their internal bombs and trying to escape, just as it had been with the similarly-premised Logan's Run.

Lord writes:

Robin's excuse is to blame government but give no thought whom government would represent under such circumstances, creating an abstraction to take the blame for the real culprits. It is the libertarian mythology that individuals are good until placed in government when they suddenly become bad rather than government as merely another instrumentality of individuals.

Matt writes:
2. In Time is a stark exercise in Victorian ethnography. The poor claim that the rich are "stealing" from them. But that's mere speculation on the characters' part. What the movie actually shows us is that the poor are extremely impulsive and irresponsible - and blame everyone but themselves for their plight.

I'm glad somebody else noticed this. I couldn't tell if it was carelessness or cleverness.

John David Galt writes:

Enough of the difference in life expectancy between rich and poor Americans is explained by things money can buy (not limited to medical care) that this movie isn't far off the truth in some ways. (A fact that will NOT be cured by any form of socialized medicine -- like wealth in the USSR, government control will simply substitute a class of "haves" determined by political power for "haves" determined by merit. And thereby reduce productivity drastically.)

David Friedman's "The Machinery of Freedom" also addresses the question of why some people do trade part of their life expectancy for things we think shouldn't matter, whether it's the pleasure of driving fast, smoking, or overeating, or just a large number of small everyday risks.

And of course it made me think of Harlan Ellison's "Repent, Harlequin! said the Ticktockman."

James writes:

"It is the libertarian mythology that individuals are good until placed in government when they suddenly become bad rather than government as merely another instrumentality of individuals."

Robin doesn't believe this. Neither did Rothbard, Friedman, Nozick or Rand. Is your false characterization of libertarianism accidental or deliberate?

Andy writes:

"Enough of the difference in life expectancy between rich and poor Americans is explained by things money can buy (not limited to medical care) that this movie isn't far off the truth in some ways."

Isn't most of the difference accounted for by smoking rates?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top