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« Intuition and the Arts | Main | Steering Left, Right -- or Center »

February 09, 2006

Cellphones and Economists

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Terrible news for those who detest electronic chirps and one-side-only conversations: Cellphone use is invading the New York City subway system and may sometime soon be permitted on airplanes.

James Katz, director of a center for communications studies, volunteers that studies have demonstrated a reason why so many people find other people's cellphone conversations aggravating:

"Research shows cell phones become annoying because the human brain is uncomfortable listening to just one half of a conversation. 'Without that other part of the conversation, our brain constantly thinks we're being tickled to be involved,' [Katz] said."

But -- dismayed though I am by the news -- what this has all really got me musing over is economics. Specifically a handful of questions: What's the economic worth of being able to be alone with my thoughts while I stand on the subway platform? What's the value of my peace-and-calm while aboard an airplane? And: Will I be reimbursed once these goods are forcibly taken from me?

Here's the underlying thought. There are many things that we enjoy and value but that we don't recognize as valuable until after they've been taken from us. We all know this in a common-experience way. But do economists recognize it as a basic fact of life? Economists, after all, measure things, try to detect patterns in what they measure, reach conclusions based on these patterns -- and then give the rest of us advice.

What I'd like to know is, How much allowance do economists make for what they miss, for what they can't measure, and for what it would never occur to anyone to recognize as valuable until after it has already been destroyed?

Daniel Drezner supplies some real thinking about what he refers to as the "dark matter" problem in economics.

So far as cellphones, subways, and airplanes are concerned: Unless those of us who enjoy undisturbed peace are reimbursed, these developments strike me as a flat-out landgrab. After all, our undisturbed peace -- something quite valuable -- will be forcibly taken from us. Who can I sue?

I'm also left wondering if we shouldn't maybe take the statements and conclusions -- let alone the advice -- of economists with the same kind of skepticism we grant to the contributions of the health-advice industry ...



posted by Michael at February 9, 2006


I'm not a trained economist, so take these top o' the head thoughts and salt to taste.

This is a measurement problem. For a number of years the notion of valuing the environment has been kicking around. But so far as I know, nobody has come up with a measurement set that is acceptable.

Up to now, the best way to measure value is by money price, i.e., that Warhol silk screen was sold at auction for $43,500 so that's its value at the time it was sold. Other values are subjective. Even a questionnaire response of, say, "Very much" means different things to different respondents. Maybe adding up all the "Very much" responses and comparing those to the "Somewhat" responses can tell economists something, but with the same clarity as price?

Then there are positive and negative values. Presumably the environment has positive vlaues that are negated when it is despoiled. You seem to be saying that you have some state-of-mind level when you are in a Starbucks that becomes devalued when somebody at the next table starts a cell-gab. And you anticipate that the average state-of-mind you have while flying (presumably different than when in Starbucks) also would be degraded by a cell conversation (inversely proportional to the distance of the gabber, I suppose).

On the other hand, cell-phone conversations can have positive values. Occasionally, I would be overjoyed to be able to cell-phone from a plane. This would be if my flight had been delayed or was running slower or faster than scheduled and I needed to keep the Fiancee informed so that should could meet me without wasting too much time waiting at the San Jose terminal (while her cost for parking in the lot jumps a buck every 20 minutes or so).

Bottom line: I suppose I lack imagination, but I see no other way of measuring values aside from converting to money terms; if that can't be done, then measurement will be too fuzzy for practical use.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 9, 2006 6:58 PM

"What's the economic worth of being able to be alone with my thoughts while I stand on the subway platform? What's the value of my peace-and-calm while aboard an airplane? And: Will I be reimbursed once these goods are forcibly taken from me?"

This situation will create a demand for protective countermeasures. Countermeasures that will give you back the freedom to be alone with your thoughts, with your peace-and-calm. And we already have one such countermeasure, at least in an early, primitive iteration. A countermeasure that is proliferating kudzu-like, just like the cell phone. And perhaps, at least partly in response to it.

The iPod is the countermeasure to the cellphone.

Posted by: PatrickH on February 9, 2006 7:39 PM

This is an interesting post. I live as an expatriate in the cell phone capital of the world, i.e. Hong Kong. I speak/understand some Chinese, but I have to concentrate to do so. That means when I'm out in public, I can just 'turn off' and not listen in on people's cell phone conversations, so they only bother me when they're really, really loud.

But when I come back to visit the States, I can't escape into my little world of incomprehension, and other people's cell phone conversations (and often even their ordinary face-to-face conversations, if they're nearby) drive me to distraction. So I think there may well be something to Katz's hypothesis.

Posted by: mr tall on February 9, 2006 9:19 PM

Perhaps another countermeasure for subways and - God forfend! - airplanes is to stare intently at your nearby cell-phone jabberer. Start a running sotto voce commentary on what they say. Audibly speculate on what the person on the other end is saying. I think they'd get the picture soon enough.

Posted by: Greg Hlatky on February 9, 2006 10:46 PM

I've been doing a bit of reading on economically measuring environmental amenities, so I'll pipe up.

There are basically two main ways that are applicable here.

First off, you just ask people "How much would you pay to ride on a cell-phone free subway" or "How much would you pay to get to use your cell phone on a subway?". Do it right, add up the answers properly, and you get a number. But there are various problems, including that people often treat hypotheticals and real situations differently and that people don't have much reason to tell the truth.

Second off, you find some way to measure it as an already implicit price. In my city, airplanes are routed over a couple neighborhoods. When the FAA proposed changing it, some economists did a regression on housing prices as a function of square footage, acreage, views, stuff like that, and whether or not it the house was under an airplane route. In this situation, you'd have to find comparable environments that do and don't allow cell phones. Not sure how you'd do that. My guess is instead you'd use quiet and loud environments as a proxy.

Posted by: ptm on February 10, 2006 10:11 AM

Very general comment. For the "dreamer type," the quality of life, or standard of living, has gone down drastically in the past few decades, and may never recover. In my own youth (the '50s) I remember so many places and spaces (museums, city sidestreets, roads and highways, even subways at off hours) that were less crowded and quieter, or at least less clogged with distractions. You could actually go for long periods of time without interfering sound. Of course there was sound but it was background sound, less invasive. Now, no such thing. Makes dreaming impossible. A terrible loss.

Posted by: ricpic on February 10, 2006 11:54 AM

I'm down with the frustration generated by the one-sided theory, but I think the real frustration kicks in with the *volume* of that one-sided conversation, and the solipsistic disregard the conversator (to cop a word from the kids) has for the real, live humans around him. I don't have a problem with discreet, quiet conversations; I have a huge problem with ones that are way too loud for the setting, whether they're one-sided or not.

Also, I hate that the countermeasure is a sound muffling (earplugs) or sound amplifying (iPod and brethren) device. Born and raised in a city, I was always told to stay alert to my surroundings. And in situations where safety is less of an issue, as someone with average, tail-end-boomer hearing loss, I'm not thrilled about aggravating the situation by blasting content directly into my ear canal.

At the same time, I get nervous about legislating anything remotely uncomfortable for some people out of existence. While I'm all for smoke-free environments (especially after a cold-weather visit to Chicago...yikes!), I'm aghast at the creeping horror that is "smoke-free" legislation here in California. I know I'm an old coot and there were many hideous things about the Good Old Days, but a return to certain aspects of common courtesy would be so much nicer than regulating everything.

As for Donald's airplane scenario, that is handily solved from the ground: if you New Yorkers don't have your version of the cell phone waiting lot we have at LAX, the waiting party can always call the airlines to check in from the ground--even on a cell phone!

Posted by: communicatrix on February 10, 2006 12:10 PM

Rick, I read your comment right after this one; makes for an interesting pair.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 10, 2006 2:08 PM

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