Numbers Don’t Always Add Up (unpublished)

I wanted to warn you about this last Friday, but I didn’t. You’re being misled, over and over, betrayed by those you’ve come to trust. I thought last Friday would be a good time to break the news to you, since it was the beginning of tax preparation weekend. Most of us do more math the weekend before April 15th than the rest of the year combined, unless you’re a college football fan trying to understand how the BCS computers ranked the Ducks.

Last Friday was also the 13th, so I thought I’d better wait. But you really must be told.

Numbers are not always telling you the truth. At least not the whole truth. Or as numbers like to say, 100 percent of the truth.

I’m not concerned about the people who use the numbers. That chicanery always will be with us. I’m talking here about the numbers themselves.

Purell and other hand sanitizers promise to save you from 99.99 percent of those tiny meanies that make you sick. What that number doesn’t tell you is that scientists estimate your “clean” hands still will harbor probably “a few thousand” germs — and it takes only one to make you sick.

Are you safer washing your hands? Yes. Are you safe? No.

Words come with conventions to tell you when they are important. Italics, underlines, bold, ALL CAPS can all be employed when a simple exclamation point will not suffice. But with numbers — or often, more literally, numerals — you’re on your own. Nobody told you this, so you haven’t been as careful as you could be.

We’re not paying attention, so we invest more meaning in numbers that seem notable because they are large, small, round, or special. Last Friday had a 13 attached to it. Somehow that superstition seems more “real” than black cats or broken mirrors. In most situations, the extra meaning we assign to certain numbers doesn’t matter. But once in a while, it matters a great deal. Or, if you prefer, it really matters!

This newspaper publishes the names of people who turn 100, but not those who hit 99 or 101. Adding a digit to your age is worth noting, because we all hope to do it someday, but not because that year is more important than any of the others. The additional year we all want most is the next one.

Once numbers get really large, we naturally pay attention. Well, not naturally. It’s something we learn. When my son Dylan was seven, we bought a used car and he was proud we had the money to buy it outright. “Dad, we’re thousandaires!” He hadn’t learned that the bragging begins only after you accrue three more zeroes.

I’ve never spoken to a billionaire, but I have to believe that replacing an “m” with a “b” is a certain disappointment. Being a billionaire is surely better than being a millionaire, but it’s probably not a thousand times better. At some point, the zeroes begin to represent what they always did — nothing.

It’s a shame that public policy can so easily be shaped by public perception, because big numbers loom in our future. The Buffett Rule is attracting all the attention this week, because taxing millionaires is wildly popular among non-millionaires. A minimum 30 percent tax on millionaires is projected to raise about $5 billion a year for the U.S. Treasury.

Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio can’t get a Congressional hearing for a transaction tax on financial services of .01 percent, even though it would raise a ton more money.

DeFazio wants the United States to follow Europe’s lead and add a hundredth of a penny surcharge to each stock trade. That tiny amount would discourage speculators and slow (if not prevent) our next economic “bubble.” Oh, and it would raise “a few hundred billion” dollars each year to pay down the deficit. We’re talking about a big number here: $300,000,000,000.00.

It’s not a pure solution, but it is a Purell solution. Every time a stock changes hands, investors get to keep 99.99 percent.

But Congress has ignored DeFazio’s proposal for years. Maybe they’ll pay attention when he turns 100.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.