The Comparative Politics of The Office

brentThe TV series The Office provides a wonderful opportunity for social scientists. The fact that a show with the same premise has been produced for two culturally-distinct countries presents us with a natural experiment, allowing us to use Mill’s Method of Difference to empirically test hypotheses in contexts where statistical analysis is impossible.

There is potential for an interesting economic analysis of the fact that the UK version only ran for two seasons, while the US version is in its fifth and going strong. This can be explained by the fact that the former was produced for the BBC, a state-owned corporation while the latter was produced for NBC, a private corporation. Employees of the bureaucracy are unhindered by the profit motive and free to seek status.

The downward trajectory in quality seems to be a fairly general rule of television, and it seems only a matter of time before any show jumps the shark. I conjecture that the status of the producers (i.e. producer in the economic sense: writer, director, whatever) of a show is enhanced by maximizing average episode quality. Producers insulated from market forces will therefore choose to end the show sooner that the profit-maximising private firm.

Good short-running shows like the UK Office and Fawlty Towers enjoy a lasting legend unsullied by later bad episodes, while long-running shows will produce more total consumer welfare without being so fondly remembered. This could be exacerbated by the cognitive bias giving undue weight to recent stimuli.

Moving into the fictional world of the show itself, there are interesting sociological lessons to be drawn. The one I find most interesting concerns the boss: David Brent in the UK version and Michael Scott in the US. Both are incompetent managers, too concerned with how others perceive them and without the requisite intelligence for effective management. I conjecture that David Brent reached a leadership position simply by virtue of long service. The relatively traditional bureaucratic culture of the UK values seniority and loyalty: if you stick around long enough you’ll advance through the ranks (though we can’t rule out the Dilbert Principle – maybe David was put in management to limit the damage he could do).

The ascent of Michael Scott is a different story altogether. While an incompetent manager, Michael is a very talented salesman. Evidence of this can be found in Season 3, Episode 12: Traveling Salesman. Michael’s position in management seems entirely due to the Peter Principle: workers are rewarded with promotion for good performance, and so will eventually end up in a job just above their level of competence. This is unfortunate, but consistent with the American vision of meritocracy.

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