The Corporation and the Commuter
01 June 2007
For my birthday last week my youngest son gave me a DVD voucher for $30 (quite a sum for a boy who only gets $3 a week pocket-money). With this I bought a copy of The Corporation and started watching it last night. Many things in the film struck me. But this morning when my train was cancelled causing massive overcrowding on the next one, it was the concept of 'externalities' that I was thinking about.
Basically, externalities are costs involved in a business's operations which are 'externalized' - passed on for somebody else to deal with so that they don't show up on the company's bottom line. Obvious externalities are pollution and family breakup due to stress. As someone said in the film – wealth isn't just the stuff you can put a dollar sign on. Things like relationships, health, happiness and security are also part of wealth.
So when I noticed myself getting angry and stressed about this morning's transport problems and muttering things like 'waste of **** time commuting to work, I'd be better off working from home' it struck me that I was experiencing an 'externality' – a cost had been passed on to me and the other commuters by Connex, the train operator, in terms of frustration and grumpiness. Some of us would, no doubt, also be 'externalizing' this cost by passing our anger on to work colleagues and family. You know how it goes: Boss shouts at Dad, Dad shouts at Mum, Mum shouts at Son, and Son kicks the cat.
Somewhere in the process, the decision to cancel this morning's train was an economic one – whether it is not having enough spare trains for when things break down, or not having enough staff for when people get sick, or something else. I doubt whether the cost of a few thousand angry commuters was factored in to that decision – and how do you put a figure on that cost anyway?
To be fair, Connex is not the only corporation involved here and I don't blame them or the individuals involved in the decision. The problems are systemic. I went on to ask myself why I was feeling what I was feeling. Why does it matter if I am a few minutes late? What is it about modern day city living that makes us all so stressed? It strikes me that there are other externalities at play.