Every four years around the soccer World Cup, the same pernicious pattern of lamentable link-baiting takes hold. Some sales data firm or a bunch of employment lawyers will come up with an “analysis” of productivity losses incurred as a consequence of the attention people choose to pay to the tournament, and they will always find reporters happy to summarize their “findings” and propagate the idea that bad things are happening. In 2006, for example, British businesses supposedly stood to lose at least $160 million a day. In 2010, the Huffington Post reported that economic output was reduced by $121 million in the United States, and by $7.3 billion in the United Kingdom. This year, hyperventilating headlines about “major disruptions to UK business productivity” suggest similar levels of damage to growth and prosperity.
These reports are useless and misguided. They are also dangerous.
First of all, the reports are useless because their sketchy assumptions are everywhere, from the idea that the last hour worked by an employee is as productive as the first three, via the idea that soccer-related interruptions always add to pre-existing interruptions instead of crowding them out, to the idea that human activities and interactions are perfectly smooth and divisible, with no room for rescheduling or reorganization. Do you ever sleep? Have you ever procrastinated because no deadline was looming anywhere? Conversely, have you ever managed to work just a tiny bit harder because a deadline was fast approaching? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, your mere existence casts serious doubts on the assumptions underlying all of these “studies,” and leads one to suspect that their results are extremely poor indicators of even the narrowly defined economic cost they pretend to measure.
Meanwhile, the narrow accounting-based view of cost, productivity and prosperity they adopt is misguided if the goal is to produce some sort of estimate of happiness or human flourishing. Let us set aside, for now, the transcendental glory brought by any Dutch victory on the world stage. Think of what the individual worker in Sunderland does when he decides to work a little less and watch England get eliminated, again, after a penalty shootout, before the semifinals have even started.
In most standard economic models, what he just decided to do is forego compensation for his marginal productivity. Why would he do such a thing? His decision makes sense because, in expectation, he values the joy that comes from watching English striker Wayne Rooney shedding tears of disappointment more. Even in pure and simple economic terms, his revealed preferences teach us that no losses were incurred here, that his marginal utility from watching the game was greater than his marginal productivity, and that society was indeed made better off by those 22 men running around in Brazil and perhaps even the corrupt FIFA officials lording over them.
Most importantly, these reports are dangerous. They suggest a shortsighted, materialistic attitude that reflects some of the same impulses that led Chairman Mao to his Cultural Revolution, though, fortunately and for now, without the same tragic consequences. Attempting to reshape the culture this way – along the lines of your personal, particular priorities – shows a deep disrespect for the tested and tried institutions that keep us from returning to the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short lives of Hobbes’ natural state of affairs. It is phenomena like a jointly experienced sports tournament that bring our common humanity to the forefront. Particularly in the highly secularized societies of the West, few occasions bring us the type of deeply felt communal experience that is celebrating the victories, or deploring the many losses, of perennially struggling club teams like NAC Breda, this year’s number 15 in the Dutch league. Ignoring the value in such sentiments is irresponsible; harboring desires to tear apart the social fabric for a brief uptick in GDP numbers is revolting.