Should the U.S. sue Balloon Boy's dad for $2.8 billion in lost productivity?

On the afternoon of Oct. 15, the world suddenly became spellbound -- focusing its attention on a shiny, oversized tinfoil popover that supposedly contained a six-year-old named Falcon Heene -- the so-called Balloon Boy. I estimate that the time Americans in the workforce spent watching Balloon Boy coverage on TV and the Internet cost $2.8 billion in lost productivity. Should Heene's bad dad pay for this?

Before examining this, let's talk about what the Balloon Boy caper cost society. This idea came to me by way of Canada's Macleans, which interviewed me about this last week. It occurred to me that one way to measure the cost would be to estimate the lost economic output from people who stopped working and started watching.

To reach that $2.8 billion, I estimated the U.S. GDP per hour: $53.61 ($7.1 billion = $14,151 billion/250 work-days/8 work-hours/day) per worker (132 million) and multiplied that by the number of workers distracted by watching the bubble boy: 26.4 million (20 percent of the workforce) times the number of hours they were distracted: 2 hours. (I acknowledge my assumptions could be wrong. The estimated percentage of the workforce watching is just my guess -- but if you disagree, you can plug in your own numbers and recalculate.)

Who should pay for this lost productivity? In practice nobody will pay for it. But in theory, I think the cost should be split 40 percent by Balloon Boy's family, who conceived and executed the scam, 40 percent by the media that decided to broadcast it uninterrupted for at least two hours, and 20 percent by those workers who should have been working but could not tear themselves away from the coverage.

What do you think?

Peter Cohan is a management consultant, Babson professor, and author of nine books, includingCapital Rising (due in June 2010). Follow him on Twitter.

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