Thursday, January 27, 2011

Snow in Proportion

“The world doesn’t come to a stop because of a little bit of snow.”

That was the rationale of a business manager yesterday, trying to keep a business operation going in the face of inclement weather. The occasion, though, was not “a little bit of snow.” The forecast called for a major winter storm during which the major through roads would mostly be impassible for a ten-hour period. Anyone who had stayed to work late would have been stuck there for the night.

No one volunteered to stay, of course. Customers didn’t come calling either, for that matter, and that was what persuaded the manager to close early in the end. This inevitable outcome illustrates the value of viewing things in proportion.

There is a difference between a small snowstorm and a large one. With more snow, more work it required to move the snow aside. With more snow removal work to do, it can take longer to get the streets back in working order. Having a sense of proportion about the snow is just as important this morning as it was before the storm. Someone who expects to clear the sidewalk in the usual 15 minutes, even though the snow is knee-deep this time, is ignoring the scale of the problem. The snow cannot necessarily just be pushed to the side, for example. It might have to be carried to a snow pile.

Alas, while many things in economics appear to be instinctive, proportion has to be learned all over again for each new situation. People who know from experience that driving takes more time if the distance is longer are nevertheless surprised at how much more fuel their new larger car requires.

Numbers can help. I estimated the weight of the snow I personally will be moving today with my snow shovel: roughly 6 tons. That figure tells me I should plan on spreading the work out over at least half of the day.