Posted by: khuang01 | September 27, 2008

Math and Politics

A friend recommended this video to me and it is absolutely hillarious (though completely unrelated to the rest of this post).  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XmcalSDhblM

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But on a more serious topic, last night’s presidential debate presents, in my opinion, a key example of why basic and widespread math education and awareness is so important.  A lot of numbers were thrown around last night, $300 billion in tax cuts, $18 billion in pork-barrel spending, $700 billion in financial bailouts, $600 billion spent in Iraq.  And at several points in the debate, it behooved listeners to use basic math intuition in order to truly understand the issues at hand.

One key recurring theme was the issue of size and relative size.  As Senator McCain pointed out, $18 billion in pork-barrel spending (the act “piggy-backing” smaller, self-beneficial projects on larger, more important bills) is a big problem.  But it must be up to the average listener to evaluate how big is $18 billion?  How does it compare to the size of other problems of corruption in this country.

Diamond and Kashyap, two financial economists, offer some perspective on this in their post on the New York Times “Freakonomics” blog here: (http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/18/diamond-and-kashyap-on-the-recent-financial-upheavals/).  In the blog, they write that the combined assets of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and A.I.G., which were all seized by the government this past month, totalled approximately $6 trillion.  To put that in perspective, our nation’s GDP last year, accounting for every good and service produced in all 50 states over the course of the entire year, was only $14 trillion.  Commenters on the story also note that the $700 billion bailout, of which the average person might know of but doesn’t get all fired up about, is more than all the money we’ve spent in Iraq, total.

Similarly, Senator Obama brought up that we’ve spent $600 billion in Iraq so far but that that number would soon reach $1 trillion.  $1 trillion is a very large number, but he then quoted that we are spending about $10 billion in Iraq each month.   If one does the math, that’s an additional 40 months (or about 3.3 years) until we hit the $1 trillion mark.

Whatever your political affiliation, last night’s political debate illustrates how it is absolutely critical for good citizens to be comfortable with numbers and basic math.  In a country that relies on the people to hold their representatives accountable, a basic math foundation for everyone is necessary to keep them from being mislead or misinformed.

(You can see the debate again on hulu at: http://www.hulu.com/watch/36859/presidential-debate-08-presidential-debate-sep-26-2008).

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Responses

  1. Thanks for the comparisons of some of the numbers! It helps put it in perspective. Of course, there are good and bad comparisons: anyone see The Daily Show’s comment on CNN’s description of what $700 billion means in terms of apple pie? The comparison you choose can influence what people understand. For example, I find it somewhat confusing to compare assets with spending, even though they are both measured in dollars.

    Sadly, innumeracy is still common. Many years ago John Allen Paulos wrote a popular book called `Innumeracy’ about this very problem, which teaches basic quantitative reasoning and an understanding of probability etc. It sold well, as have many similar books since, but the problem remains. Where do you think it stems from?

    On a related note, I’ve now seen in many places on the net, accusations that variously the investors, mortgage lenders, mortgage borrowers and the government, among others involved, `didn’t understand the math.’ Of course, in each of these cases, the level of understanding required is different. But I can’t help but wonder that we’ve gotten ourselves into something just too complicated for our own good!

  2. I found something totally fascinating relating to this. A very visual accounting of the national budget:

    Death and Taxes


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