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, 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.