< A Number of Challenges

Transcript

Friday, December 19, 2008

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:
And I'm Bob Garfield. A philosopher once said, wherever there is number, there is beauty. Oh, really?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
Breaking news. In the 50 billion dollar scandal that has cost thousands of investors- MALE CORRESPONDENT:
Ford wants a nine billion dollar line of credit.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
State budget shortfalls will exceed 100 billion dollars.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
Unemployment is up two full percentage points, 43 percent increase. That’s two million jobs.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
New unemployment claims for benefits jumped to 573,000. That is a 26-year-
BOB GARFIELD:
Beauty, maybe not, but confusion, bewilderment, maybe a little panic, for sure. These days, there are so many numbers hurtling toward us from our imploding economy that it can be exceedingly difficult for reporters to contextualize them and for news consumers to understand them.

Michael Blastland is a journalist and coauthor of The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life. Michael, welcome to On the Media.
MICHAEL BLASTLAND:
Thanks very much.
BOB GARFIELD:
Can we start, please, with the 700 billion dollar bailout?
MICHAEL BLASTLAND:
I think the problem with that number and a lot of the numbers that are hurtling around at the moment about the American economy is that they just have a heck of a lot of zeroes on the end, and probably most people’s facility with numbers disappears as soon as they get to something bigger than their mortgage.

What we really have to do is kind of bring it down to a level which individuals can make some sort of sense of it, and that’s really a very simple thing. We just start dividing it between all the people it’s supposed to affect or all the people who are required to pay for it.

Well, we have a population in the United States of about 300 million, and you come up with something like a little over 2,000 dollars per head. So you think, well, hey, I don't want to pay that, but you might also want to say, well, what’s the American economy worth? And it turns out that that’s around about 50,000 dollars per head.

And you look at that 2,000 and a bit, and you say, well, maybe it’s not so bad, you know. It’s around about four percent we're looking at now. Well, maybe we can afford four percent. Maybe this isn't going to cripple the whole economy for the next [LAUGHING] three or four generations.
BOB GARFIELD:
You've looked at the headlines swirling around the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme revelations, the hedge fund that collapsed, costing investors 50 billion [LAUGHING] dollars, and say, well, you know, when you really look at that number, while it’s obscene, it’s not really as large as it would seem at first blush. Why is that?
MICHAEL BLASTLAND:
I think you just have to start asking that question, what sort of context do we need to understand this number? And for particular investors - and there will be some who've been wiped out – for them, it’s a 100 percent loss.

Another piece of context, what’s it going to do the hedge fund industry? And you could say, well, it’s not going to in and of itself destroy the industry, but it might damage confidence.

But as far as the whole American economy is concerned, it’s an absolutely enormous beast, the American economy. And even 50 billion dollars of fraud isn't going to really make any significant dent in that.
BOB GARFIELD:
These numbers are so large as to be just dizzying, but are they also wrong?
MICHAEL BLASTLAND:
I think some of them really are wrong and some of them are really misleading. And I just am genuinely puzzled about that, because the economy is in a pretty serious state. And there’s just no need to exaggerate.

I'll give you an example from media here in this country. The BBC said on the news recently that the economy had ground to a halt. [LAUGHS] It kind of conjures images of the sort of a sort of rust and mass redundancy on an absolutely epic scale as the whole wheels of industry, they all grind to a stop and nothing happens.

And what they've done, really, is they'd kind of confused the fact that the economy wasn't getting bigger with the idea that it had stopped altogether. [LAUGHS] And I think that just betrays a little bit of feverish excitement about the economy at the moment because, let's be honest, you know, [LAUGHS] it’s been boring for a while. We've had a lot of steady growth for quite a long time, particularly in the United Kingdom.

And, you know, the economics writers, I think, were just itching for something a little bit more tasty to get their teeth into, and along it comes, and they just can't help themselves.
BOB GARFIELD:
One of the reasons that journalists love to use numbers is because they, at least, seem so definitive. They seem real. Often what we're talking about so elusive.
MICHAEL BLASTLAND:
Yup.
BOB GARFIELD:
But that definitiveness is sometimes an illusion, I gather.
MICHAEL BLASTLAND:
I think you’re absolutely right. As journalists we’re looking for the killer fact, that sort of certain bit of data that you can put in the headline and it seems to capture everything important that you need to know right now, and invariably that killer factor’s a number – this harkens back to a very old tradition that – or Platonic idea that numbers capture an eternal truth about the world. Just as we learned in math in [LAUGHS] kindergarten or, you know, our first schools, they have an absolute correlation to real things.

The problem is that when you grow up, you realize that these numbers, these things that we're going out there to try and count, are much softer, much more imprecise.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, Michael, I've known you now for, you know, something like 10 minutes, and I believe that -
MICHAEL BLASTLAND:
[LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD:
- on the basis of that I can really unload on you. And I'm going to tell you one of my deepest, darkest hatreds, and that [LAUGHS] is news stories that quote economists as saying, such-and-such will cost the economy an estimated four billion dollars. Traffic jams cost the economy four billion dollars, schizophrenia costs the economy 206.3 trillion dollars and so forth and so on. And if you start adding up all of the costs to the economy [LAUGHTER] of the various diseases and dysfunctions, you know, we have a negative economy by something like 46 quadrillion dollars.
MICHAEL BLASTLAND:
There is a certain class of numerical gibberish where I think all we're really doing is using this thing as an excuse to talk about some issue, you know. And it doesn't really matter that much [LAUGHS], frankly, whether the numbers make any sense whatsoever, and very often they don't. And, as you say, [LAUGHS] if only we didn't have any traffic jams, you know, and if only we didn't get sick and if only there was no graffiti, and, you know, if all these things that cost us money weren't there, well, heck, we could all retire tomorrow, you know. [LAUGHS] And it doesn't quite work like that, I don't think.
BOB GARFIELD:
Well, Michael, I want to tell you this was 36 percent better a conversation than I had expected -
MICHAEL BLASTLAND:
[LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD:
- so thank you very much. [LAUGHS]
MICHAEL BLASTLAND:
Okay. It was a great pleasure talking to you.
BOB GARFIELD:
Michael Blastland is a journalist, and coauthor of The Numbers Game: The Commonsense Guide to Understanding Numbers in the News, in Politics, and in Life.