David R. Henderson  

Numeracy Watch

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One factor in the poor reporting of economics is the innumeracy of many reporters. Most people have trouble getting big numbers straight--distinguishing millions from billions, for example. Unfortunately, so do many reporters, even those who report economic news. Today's New York Times has a glaring instance of innumeracy. In a report on the New York state government's budget and New York's governor David A. Paterson, reporter Jeremy W. Peters writes:

In August, he summoned them back to Albany and persuaded them to agree to $427 billion in cuts.

Of course, he meant $427 million, not $427 billion.

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CATEGORIES: Fiscal Policy

COMMENTS (11 to date)
ThomasL writes:

I am becoming persuaded that a certain amount of this is deliberate; that huge sums are used in language as if they were, or interchangeably with, small sums expressly for the purpose of persuading the public mind that $500 billion here and $200 billion there are no more of consequence to government coffers than $500 million or $200 million, and that all of them are in scale to the average family no different than spending $5 and $2. None of it is true of course, but if done well enough the staggering numbers cease to be staggering and, given time enough to produce this foggy haze, will cease to raise any sort of impression at all.

MattYoung writes:

I have also noticed this and wonder if it significant, as in Freudian.

shayne writes:

To paraphrase an Everett Dirksenism, "A trillion dollars here, a trillion dollars there, pretty soon your talking about un-real money."

realist gun nut writes:

What is the impact on the economy of some fraction of the smartest people in that economy devising ways to avoid and evade taxes rather than devising creative new businesses, products and technologies?

Perhaps it is possible to quantify the expected increase in unemployment.

Then again, if the far right end of the bell curve is worried about taxes, perhaps that will let other people elsewhere in the curve be creative once they are no longer blocked by the selfish end of the curve.

Robert Franklin writes:

cheap shot.

RL writes:

Shame Paterson didn't really persuade Albany to cut $427 Billion. Since I assume that's greater than the entire NY state budget, we could have had our first experiment with anarchocapitalism...

Alverson writes:

...probably just a typo on the 'millions/billions'.

I have a very low opinion of media "reporters", but the bulk of their problem is merely sloppiness... and lack of incentives to produce quality work.

John Fleck writes:

One anecdote does not a statistic make, and you'll need to offer more than a single example to make your "many reporters" case. You might, for example, do a tally of proper versus improper use of million/billion in today's New York Times, and then argue why the ratio of improper to proper use (my guess is it's 1/many, but I don't have data either), justifies your assertion that "many reporters" get this wrong.

dearieme writes:

Many people on the Continent view the American use of "billion" with lofty disdain.

Steve Sailer writes:

Yeah, like how the newspapers were recently full of stories about how the federal government was going to give away to deadbeats 810 billion dollars of the taxpayers' money.

C'mon, $810 _b_illion??? Somebody in Proofreading slipped up big time. Not even Congress would give deadbeats $810 billion. Obviously, it was only $810 million.



JF writes:

A new word is needed. We have "innumerate" and "illiterate" to describe people who are unable to use mathematical concepts and who are unable to read and write.

We need a word to describe people who don't understand economic principles or methodologies.

I have given this a fair amount of thought but haven't come up with anything yet, only such clinkers as "ineconometric" or "economics-challenged."

Any ideas?

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