High-priced stunt

How much did the Balloon Boy drama cost the economy?


High-priced stuntWhere were you when the empty balloon floated over Colorado? Last week’s drama-turned-alleged-hoax was no presidential assassination or shuttle disaster. But the clichéd question is still getting asked a lot lately. Where were you when Michael Jackson died, or during his funeral, or when the jet plane miraculously landed on New York’s Hudson River? Nowadays, the answer is often the same: at the office, watching it happen instead of doing any work.

Even before last week’s story about the boy in a runaway balloon was exposed as a possible scam, a question emerged. What happens to the economy when millions of workers simultaneously ignore their jobs and gather around the TV, surf for gossip about the weird family behind the stunt, or Twitter each twist and turn of the story? “The amount of work hours that are wasted by people playing around on computers is already mind-bogglingly astronomical,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of media studies at Syracuse University in New York. “When something like Balloon Boy or Michael Jackson’s death comes along, workers all waste their time on the same thing.” That collective procrastination can easily add up to vast sums at a time when the recession is already hammering companies.

How many people followed the balloon story? Hard to say. Major cable networks like CNN, Fox and MSNBC attracted a combined 4.8 million viewers during the saga. Each minute, 1,000 new messages were posted on Twitter. Meanwhile, KUSA, the Denver TV station that tracked the balloon with its helicopter, saw the number of visitors to its site jump tenfold, to nearly one million. Given the fact that 65 million Americans go online at work every day, according to research firm eMarketer, it’s not stretching things to assume between five million and 10 million workers ignored their jobs for Balloon Boy. Maybe they weren’t glued to their screens the whole time, but it adds up. “The Internet allows us to follow a story as it progresses though the day, so it wasn’t just a one-time thing, it’s an entire-day thing,” says Shaun Williams, who works in a New York advertising firm and whose co-workers huddled together to watch the drama unfold over the Internet.

One way to value the hit to the North American economy is to peg a dollar figure to each hour of lost work, says Daniel Trefler at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Conveniently, the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity conducted a study in 2006 that found the average worker in Ontario puts in 128 fewer hours than his peers in the U.S., reducing per capita prosperity in the province by $29 for every hour he works less. In other words, if everyone in the province stopped working for an hour, it would hit the Ontario economy to the tune of $330 million. Another more basic approach is to work backwards from America’s US$1.4-trillion GDP, says Peter Cohan, an instructor at Babson College near Boston, who teaches economic competitiveness. Based on the number of people employed and the average workweek, an hour of shirking then costs about US$6 per employee.

That might not sound like much, but if the Internet has taught us anything, besides how to waste time, it’s that millions of tiny actions can aggregate into a major force. If just five million people spent two hours following the balloon, it could have easily sapped between $60 million and $300 million, depending on the measurement. Duplicate that for time spent watching passengers escape from Flight 1549 as it floated on the Hudson. And way more than five million people wasted several hours the day Michael Jackson died, easily costing the economy in excess of $1 billion. If those figures sound far out, consider the following. Five years ago Salary.com, a company that provides HR management tools, estimated workers waste 2.09 hours a day, costing employers US$759 billion a year in salaries for work that never gets done.

Don’t expect workers to change their wasteful ways any time soon. Unlike two decades ago when Baby Jessica fell into a well and upstart CNN made the bold move of following her three-day ordeal around the clock, today wall-to-wall coverage is a given on even mundane stories. So is the expectation we’ll each know all the details. “Twenty years ago, when we were much less connected, people weren’t embarrassed if they hadn’t heard about a particular story,” says Trefler. “Now if you don’t keep up to date, there’s something odd about you.” But something more basic is going on, says Thompson. Work has moved from the factory floor to the office, and the temptations are vast. “It would be as if in the old days the drill press you worked on also had dancing girls,” he says. It’s a wonder we get anything done at all.


High-priced stunt

  1. It certainly made a fortune for the news media. Major economic stimulus, in fact.

  2. My productivity at work would definitely improve if I didn't visit this site continuously throughout the day…

  3. but then again, I'm a policy analyst, so being in the know on current events must have some benefit…

  4. I was in class and followed it for most of the nearly 2 hours. Didn't stop me from working but definitely unfocused me for a while.

  5. This piece takes a very narrow view of economics, and vastly overstates the economic cost (balloon boy actually produced economic benefits as I will get into).

    Economics is not about money, but rather, utility. Economic models assume that individuals are rational-utility maximizers. Even if people aren't always rational, such models generate fairly good predictive values and are broadly true (with some noise).

    Some people shirked work to watch balloon boy, true. However, some of those people likely would have shirked work anyways. Secondly, of those who would not have otherwise shirked, the entertainment benefit of watching balloon boy may have exceeded the value of goods they would have otherwise produced. In that case, the country was better off. Thirdly, most companies have sanctioning methods against shirking. This should ensure that the vast majority of those that did watch balloon boy were in the group for whom the benefits were high, relative to their output.

    When you consider entertainment to be a valuable commodity – and surely it is – the likely impact of balloon boy was unambiguously positive.

  6. It's moderately outrageous, certainly irresponsible and at minimum morally questionable for you to have suggested that Richard Heene not be charged and jailed, while in the same Issue, reported on how many millions of dollars his hoax cost the economy!

    What on earth were you thinking? Let's ignore for the moment the somewhat debatable figures reported in Jason Kirby's article; how about the real costs of diverting the police, EMS and others to following the balloon (and the story)? Do we know if this diversion delayed or prevented timely responses to other "real" emergencies taking place simultaneously? Had this occurred and resulted in a fatality would Macleans' still be calling for leniency?

    What Heene did was akin to pulling the fire alarm as a joke. Of course we all believed it and reacted accordingly – that was the whole point! The fact that we were collectively duped by the execution of the prank in no way minimizes the waste of time, money, resources and potential for harm that resulted.

    A teenager might receive only a slap on the wrist for such behaviour, a grown man and father of 3 has absolutely no right to expect such leniency! It is inconceivable that he didn't know or could not foresee the consequences of his actions. He deliberately and intentionally tried to hide the fact that the entire spectacle was a hoax; showing consciousness of guilt. This is more than mere "public mischief" and Heene certainly should have known better. His actions were criminal and he should be dealt with accordingly.

    That Macleans would even suggest that such irresponsible, thoughtless and self-serving behaviour should not be punished is reprehensible and inconceivable. Shame on you! I am appalled! Macleans' editorial staff ought to give their head's a shake. Your editorial was a boneheaded, idiotic response to this event.

  7. I just want to say I agree with the above two comments. This article was an excuse to be controversial. Where were the complaints when millions more who tuned in for Jackson's Memorial and Obama's inauguration? by this logic more productivity and money were wasted for those events because more than 4.8 million people tuned in for those (31.1 million people for Jackson's service, and 21.3 for Obama).

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