If “time is money”, why would time seem far more precious than money, if it replaced existing money as a universal currency?

Is it because, in fact, “time is more than money”?

If so, should we consider adding “time income” to current employment compensation packages, to our total personal income calculations (and expectations), and, God forbid, to taxable income?

These are questions I was left with after watching a 2011 Hollywood sci-fi thriller.

A Brilliant Dystopian Premise

Not a moviegoer, I haphazardly view films online, after some necessary sifting. But within the first few minutes of belatedly viewing In Time (with Justin Timberlake) on Netflix a few nights ago, I recognized its brilliant dystopian premise, profound implications and blueprint for the transformation of the measure and meaning of wealth, work, life and death (despite the trashing and thrashing critics otherwise gave the film).

It’s futuristic premise is simple to formulate, yet surreally imaginative: No one physically ages after age 25; however, a clock countdown starts on that birthday, ticking away whatever seconds, hours, months and, if one is “wealthy”, decades or centuries one has accumulated as income or other wealth in a cashless society—or more accurately a society in which time has replaced money as the only accepted currency.

Run out of time on your 25th or thereafter—you instantly die on the spot. Earn, trade, inherit, beg for or steal it, and you can top off your account balance, visible on your forearm as an embedded LED display (which, as “conspicuous non-consumption”, i.e., a publicly visible savings account, predictably invites robbery or worse, through forearm-to-forearm forced transfers).

Become time-rich—become virtually immortal (if you can forever dodge the likes of falling rocks, lethal viruses and time-muggers ready to clean your clock and zero you out).

A cup of coffee costs 4 minutes; a stay at a 5-star—two months; a short bus ride—2 hours (which suggests travel and its associated infrastructure become very pricey in the future).

But apart from the upfront, front-row messages and images of this time-chase-driven movie, there was something else—some very subtle shift in perception and measures of what counts and how we count it, as we scramble after it through work or ways more desperate than a job.

Through a single brilliantly exploited ambiguity, “In Time” changes everything.

The Ambiguity of “Time is Money”

What ambiguity?—the ambiguity of the cliché “time is money”.

“Time is money” does, of course, have at least three key meanings: The familiar first is “time costs money”; the second, “money costs time”. The third—and the premise of “In Time”—is “time replaces money”. (A possible fourth, “money replaces time”, could be the premise of a truly bizarre sequel, given that all interpretations of “time is money” posit the equivalence of time and money, e.g., “What time is it? Answer: $5.)

In Time”-Triggered Insights and Their Applications

Chief among the subtler insights viewing “In Time” triggered for me are that

  • time is worth more than money, because it has intrinsic as well as exchange value, making it more precious than its money counterpart. Time, but not money, passes the intrinsic value test, which identifies intrinsic value with uses apart from utilization as a medium of exchange, e.g., gold, which has intrinsic value as plating, dental fillings, etc. vs. paper money (the latter having virtually no intrinsic value).

We will always value time for its intrinsic, life-sustaining, life-defining value, even if it never becomes a medium of exchange. That cannot be said of paper currency or bank account smudges.

Hence, it may be argued that 21st-century employment compensation packages that either “save” or “add” time by slowing down aging, e.g., by reducing the amount of immune system stressing, joint-damaging, sleep-depriving or otherwise dangerous work, will offer a very attractive “time income” on top of a money income.

Life extension perks, such as organic cafeteria food, nutritional supplement subsidies, provision of smoke-free environments, public transportation allowances (which reduce the probability of prematurely dying in a vehicular accident) and the like represent time income worth more than its weight in money.

  • time has built-in increasing scarcity value, because even if it is exchanged for nothing, unlike money, the amount each of us has automatically diminishes (like the money in a Cyprus bank account these days), whether it is “invested” or spent or not.

Each individual’s time account is like a cosmic trust fund with a perpetually decreasing balance (unless we find ourselves in an “In Time” scenario, where we can top off our time balances with fresh injections of time).

In practical business terms, this increasing scarcity value of time means that any life extension add-ons to an employment contract will probably increase in attractiveness in direct correlation with the age of the employee (unless age-dependent health problems and other quality-of-life challenges that can diminish gusto for life have already kicked in).

That’s because as anything valued diminishes in total amount, additional units of it will have increasing, rather than decreasing, “marginal utility” (the value of the “next-extra” unit).

  • when value is measured in units of time, the cost of everything can or will increase, because of the opportunity costs associated with giving up (traded or stolen) time’s intrinsic value, compounding its normal exchange-value opportunity costs. This means that all “spending” decisions become more momentous, more acutely experienced and more costly.

In “In Time”, inflation is deliberately engineered as a technique of population control, to ensure that not too many (poor) people live forever. So, without warning, time prices jump (costing the life of at least one character in the film who can’t afford the new bus fare to get to a time recharge rendezvous).

But, even now, in the present, if we switch from money-denominated to time-denominated calculations, everything is at risk of immediately becoming more expensive, making the decision to buy or not potentially more costly, with higher-stakes.

This is because every unit of time exchanged for anything else, will, unlike a conventional money exchange, mean sacrificing, in addition to the alternative goods and services that could have been purchased with that time, the intrinsic value of that time as a life-defining and life-preserving resource—a value that must be reckoned as an additional potential opportunity cost.

If you don’t get this point, compare paying for something with gold (as an analogue of time, in virtue of having intrinsic value), instead of paying with our printing-press or digital fiat money, backed by nothing.

When you pay for something with gold, it can be argued that unless the dollar pricing of that gold by the other party takes into account the intrinsic value of gold apart from any exchange, e.g., as a dental filling or a wedding band, exchanging that gold for something else means incurring two kinds of opportunity costs.

These are the best-deal alternate goods and services that could have been purchased by exchange or the sacrificed best use to which the gold could have been put directly, e.g., a dental filling for your throbbing molar or a wedding band for the love of your life (which, in some sense, may be priceless).

Even though you could not capitalize on both the intrinsic value and exchange value of such a unit of time or gold, the expansion of the total set of opportunity costs (to include the “priceless” ones) means that paying for something with time (or gold) can or will mean paying more than one would with fiat cash.

Indeed, a higher opportunity cost of a unit of time than gold can be claimed on the grounds that the intrinsic value of time is greater than an equivalently dollar-denominated unit of gold, since unlike gold, time is that without which we cannot live—a point comparably made next.

  • running out of time is always worse than running out of money or gold, if only because running out of money or gold doesn’t preclude having enough time left to get more and because having run out of time makes money and gold irrelevant.

Therefore, if running out of time is worse than running out of money, it can be further argued, as it has above, that, despite its status as a platitude, “time is money” is inaccurate now and will always remain so, even in an “In Time” cash-replaced-by-time dystopian future.

Put more precisely and indeed, “Time is more than money.”

If you think you need more time to grasp this, you can try to get it back when we switch to a time currency…

…if you have enough time left to wait for that.

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