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The saying goes that time is money. On the other hand, you’ve probably heard that rich people live longer than poor people. So we can turn the old saying around and say that money is time. A few years ago, a movie with premise that time and money are interchangeable came out. The action-adventure sci-fi thriller was called In Time and starred Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried.
The movie takes place in an alternate present where everyone’s diminishing 25-year life expectancy is visible in luminescent numbers on their forearm. The body-clock stops at age 25, after which you have a year in which to buy more time, if you have the money. If you don’t, you can gamble for it, beg for it, steal it — or give up and die. The premise is very interesting, but the film is disappointingly commonplace with the usual smooth talking rich villains, the lower strata of relentless killers, and the dashing heroic lovers who steal from the idle time-rich to give to the desperate time-poor.
The most interesting scenes are simple visuals where Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried — he with a shaved head and not-quite-shaved cheeks, she in a high-heels and tight miniskirt — run as fast as they can to escape thugs and the time police. The pair are good runners even when holding hands. It’s too bad everything else is so lame, because a movie in which more money means more time alive dramatizes an essential fact of life in the US today.
Nowadays, men in the top 1 percent can look forward to celebrating their 87th birthday, which is about 15 more birthdays than those poor guys in the bottom 1 percent. As a matter of fact, really rich men in the USA can look forward to living longer than men anywhere on the planet. Those other guys down in the bottom 1 percent of in the United States, can expect to live as briefly as men in Sudan.
These sad facts come from an investigation into wealth and life expectancy by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty and seven other researchers. The surprising news in this news is that for the poor, where they live will help determine how long they live. The rich do well in any city, but the poor – while generally living more abbreviated lives – live longer if they reside in, say, San Francisco or New York city rather than in Detroit or Tampa. According to the researchers, it helps if the place where you live has an abundance of affluent smart people and social policies which encourage a healthy lifestyle. To be specific, if a municipality reduces the areas where you can smoke cigarettes and increases the areas for bicycling and other healthful activities, all people will benefit.
Another effect of wealth is that it tends to even out the differences in life expectancy between men and women. Poor women tend to live 6 or 7 years longer than poor men, but as men and women rise in wealth, the difference in their life expectancy shrinks and at the top, women can expect only 3 or so more years than men.
Of course the movie is, as we tell our frightened children, only make believe. In real life a phone call doesn’t cost you a minute off your life, and breakfast in a really good restaurant won’t chop eight-and-a-half weeks from your lifespan. One of the In Time characters says, “Many must die so that a few can live forever.” The relationship of wealth to life expectancy in the United States isn’t that bad. Not yet, anyway.