What Can Justin Timberlake Teach Us about Economics?

I just saw the movie “In Time,” which stars Justin Timberlake. The movie came out in 2011 and if you are interested in learning some economics this is a movie to watch!

Before you start watching I want to warn you the movie did not get great reviews when it came out.  The rating website Rotten Tomatoes only gave it 36% out of 100, which is better than movies like “Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunter” (15%) and “Haunted House 2” (9%), but that is not saying much.  Nevertheless, it is still worth spending two hours seeing the film.

Without giving too much away, the movie’s setup is pretty simple.  Justin Timberlake is a poor guy trying to do the right thing.  Justin goes into a cheap bar in a bad part of town and notices a rich man who is about to be set upon by gangsters.  Justin rescues the rich man, who repays the kindness by giving Justin a very precious gift before the rich man commits suicide.  The authorities think Timberlake murdered the rich man and the chase is on for the rest of the movie.

What did the rich man give Justin?  He gave him time.  In the movie no one uses cash anymore.  Instead people have an embedded digital clock on their arm that counts down every second.  When the clock reaches zero a person dies.  Workers are paid in time.  Each day of work adds time to your arm clock.  Purchasing items subtracts time from your arm clock.  Gifts are made by giving or receiving time from friends and relatives.

The movie is a fun way to understand a key economic lesson; time is a scarce and valuable commodity that actually has a price.  While introductory economics courses often give lip service to the idea that time is dear, this movie hammers home the point.

Everything Timberlake wants to buy costs him time.  Some of it, like renting a convertible, costs him years of his life!  In our current society, where we don’t have clocks on our arms we forget that almost everything we want to buy costs us both money and time.  Without the clocks most people don’t focus on time’s cost and simply think about the money cost.  However, after seeing this movie you will think twice about driving an extra half-hour to save a few dollars and will stop thinking that watching another bad television show is a costless experience.

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