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Fun with Numbers

In his important 1988 book, Cultural Literacy, E.D. Hirsch warned that "children in the U.S. are being deprived of the basic knowledge that would enable them to function in contemporary society."

Two decades later, we see the tragic results of our near-total failure to heed Hirsch's alarm. The basic information that most high school and college graduates don't know continues to astound those of us of all ages who managed to receive a pretty decent, often non-public education. In the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's 2008 test of civic literacy, gauging citizens' "knowledge of America's founding principles and texts, core history, and enduring institutions," 71% failed. (The 33-question test is here. It isn't that tough.)

That there has been a steep decline in basic math skills during the same time period is no secret to anyone who has taught classes to young adults and quietly gasped upon seeing many of them reach for their calculators so they could perform a division as easy as 72 by 9. Many of them literally cower in fear at the thought of completing a math "word problem."

In 1989, the year after Hirsch's book appeared, according to a November 14, 2006, New York Times article, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the nation's leading group of math teachers, introduced "standards" that "let children explore their own solutions to problems, write and draw pictures about math, and use tools like the calculator." This move, properly derided as "fuzzy math," contributed mightily to the nation's basic skills decay. One parent quoted by the Times reported being told by a teacher that "we don't teach long division; it stifles their creativity."

Though it would be easy to exaggerate its significance, it seems that there has been a bit of a rebirth of interest in basic math. If so, it's coming none too late, because nature abhors a vacuum. Those who wish to capitalize on a math-ignorant populace are only too eager to fill it. Many of the void-fillers work in government or for "advocacy groups."

Applying basic math to recent news reports can unearth very useful information. Here, phrased as those dreaded "word problems," are four such examples (numbers are rounded in some cases to make calculating the results easier).

Problem 1: Chrysler sold 79,000 vehicles in May during 26 selling days. During the month, before 800 dealers were terminated, it had 3,200 dealers. How many cars did the average Chrysler dealer sell per selling day in May?

Answer: Less than one (79,000 ÷ 26 ÷ 3,200 = 0.95).

Comments: That really makes you wonder what your billions of tax dollars are subsidizing, doesn't it? Even with the dealer reductions, if overall sales volume stays the same, the average Chrysler dealer will be selling about 1.27 cars a day. Big whoop.

Problem 2: The Underground Railroad Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati may receive a two-year subsidy of $3.1 million from the State of Ohio to keep its doors open. The Center receives 62,000 visitors per year who pay $9 or less to get in. If attendance is stable, how much will each visit be subsidized by state taxpayers during the next two years?

Answer: $25 ($3.1 million ÷ 2 ÷ 62,000).

Comments: The Center is a noble endeavor. But, in the white guilt-ridden aftermath of the city's 2001 riots, it was placed on too-valuable land and its potential was overhyped. There's no reason the important and awful legacy of slavery cannot be recalled on a smaller but equally effective scale. As long as the taxpayer subsidy of roughly triple what visitors pay continues, that won't happen.

Problem 3: President Obama claims that his health care plan will cost $1 trillion over 10 years while reducing the number of Americans without health insurance from 46 million to 30 million. If all of this comes to pass, how much will taxpayers shell out for the average newly insured person per year, even if the expected drop in the number of uninsured occurs immediately?

Answer: $6,250 ($1 trillion ÷ 10 ÷ the 16 million alleged reduction in the uninsured).

Comments: I know health insurance costs are high, but any pre-Medicare single person without major health issues should be able to get gold-plated coverage for far less than $6,250. The result also implies that the government will be shelling out an absurd $25,000 for a family of four. Where is all that money going to go? And how in the world can the Obama plan claim to be reducing costs? Additionally, the real answer to the problem is much, much higher in the real world, because the drop in the uninsured will occur gradually.

Problem 4: An advocacy organization claimed in mid-June that "clean energy" jobs grew by 9.1% during the decade ending in 2007, while jobs in the economy as a whole grew by only 3.7%. Seasonally adjusted data found at the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that there were 124 million Americans working at the end of 1997 and 138 million at the end of 2007.

A) What was the percentage of job growth in the whole economy during the decade?

B) What does that result do to the claim by the advocacy group that "the number of jobs in America's emerging clean energy economy grew nearly two and a half times faster than overall jobs between 1998 and 2007"?


A) 11.3% ([138 - 124] ÷ 124).

B) The result blows the claim made by the Pew Charitable Trusts to smithereens.

Comments: The Associated Press repeated Pew's claim. Its reporters were either ignorant, lazy, or conditioned to believe the organization's absurdly low number by the wire service's virtual non-stop denigration of the economy during the Bush years. Nobody with a brain at Pew or the AP should have bought the 3.7% claim. The fact that a Pew representative has lamely defended the study instead of retracting it is a risible disgrace. If AP has issued a correction, I haven't seen it, and I've looked.

Hmm. It turns out that my problems mostly involved only one of the four basic math functions. That goes to show that America badly needs a lot more of at least one kind of division.