Lost productivity from workers glued to Comey testimony? Maybe $3 billion

By most all early accounts, the televised hearing of former FBI Director James Comey drew blockbuster audiences during the workday on Thursday. How much did that lost or delayed work subtract from the nation's economic output? A very, very rough estimate: $3.3 billion.

This is a parlor game, to be sure, and the amount involved in an $18 trillion gross domestic product is a pittance, a tiny fraction of 1 percent. And it is far below that of natural disasters, such as the economic toll exacted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, $108 billion. 

How does one get to $3 billion in "testimoney"? 

First look at total viewership. That won't be known until the companies that track broadcast, cable and online audiences release their numbers. But a conservative projection can be made by splitting the difference between the estimated number of workforce members watching televised congressional hearings of the last two major presidential scandals -- the Iran-contra affair in 1987, when Ronald Reagan aide Oliver North testified, and the 1973 Watergate hearings, when numerous Richard Nixon staffers appeared. (There were no such hearings for the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to Bill Clinton's impeachment.)

That amounts to 10 percent of the entire population for the Oliver North hearing and 25 percent for the Watergate inquiry. The midpoint between the two for the Comey appearance is roughly 18 percent -- or around 26 million employed people who were watching the hearing on the tube or their desktop and mobile devices rather than working.

Then, take the average hourly economic output per American worker, which the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development puts at $63 per hour, and double it to cover the two-hour public hearing. Next, multiply that by said estimated 26 million workers viewing the proceedings. Result: just over $3.3 billion in lost or delayed productivity.

Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is looking into allegations that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election. He told the senators about what he believed were President Donald Trump's efforts to get him to drop an investigation of Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump's former national security adviser. The president later fired Comey. 

  • Larry Light

    Larry Light is a veteran financial editor and reporter who has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, Money, AdviceIQ and Newsday.