David R. Henderson  

When Numeracy Misleads

PRINT
Wilson vs. Debs... John Papola on Behavioral Econ...

Are you indifferent as to whether Oskar Schindler lived?

In every course I teach, I do about a 45-minute segment on numeracy. Numeracy is one of the things I find lacking in people who fall for a lot of politicians' nonsense and reporters' nonsense and so I try to combat it. I draw on the book, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, by mathematician John Allen Paulos, some of my own stories and examples, "Risk and Safety" by Aaron Wildavsky and Adam Wildavsky, and "A False Sense of Insecurity" by John Mueller. [For some reason, Mueller's article can't be accessed on the web. It's in Regulation, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall 2004.] In a nutshell, numeracy isn't mathematical ability per se but, rather, the ability to think in terms of relative magnitudes.

A student recently sent me the following link--a powerful 6-minute illustration by Roy Beck on immigration. Using gumballs, where each gumball represents one million immigrants, he shows that the United States can't hope to make a dent in world poverty even by doubling the number of immigrants allowed into the United States. His moral of the story is that the United States should restrict even more the number of immigrants to the United States and that the way to solve their poverty problem is to solve it in their countries. He's very vague about how to help them but maybe that's because this 6-minute segment is an excerpt from a longer talk--I don't know. It would have been nice if he had at least suggested allowing more imports from those countries.

But there's a bigger problem. By comparing one gumball (one million people) to over 5,000 gumballs (over 5 billion people), he gets his audience thinking that one million people don't matter because they are such a tiny fraction of 5 billion. But one million people do matter.

If you think that one million people don't matter, then surely one thousand people don't matter. Oskar Schindler saved over 1,000 Jews from murder. Did they not matter? Did he not matter?


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (19 to date)
Hyena writes:

That's correct: Oskar Schindler's actions were numerically insignificant. We think of him as significant because of later media attention and emotive impact. You would not, however, argue that Schindler is the, or even a, solution to the Holocaust. The solution there was a very large war.

Likewise, you cannot argue that immigration is a solution to global poverty. It won't work. That does not mean humanitarian immigration isn't good in its own, it means it's not a general solution and shouldn't be sold as such.

Beck is correct insofar as the solution to poverty is reform in other countries. But solving discrete personal poverty is still more humanitarian than doing nothing.

Gian writes:

So you think that disallowing a foreigner to settle in US is equivalent to murder?

You seem to have a magical view of poverty and its alleviation. Just let in poor people to US.

And how many are you willing to take in?. Half a billion, one billion?

Lars P writes:

"He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense"
--- John McCarthy

MDS writes:

http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv27n3/v27n3-5.pdf

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=604063

John Mueller's article is freely available online at the above links. Google still found the link to the article on Cato's website, even though it may be inaccessible navigating to it through the Cato website itself.

[html edited to show urls visibly--Econlib Ed.]

Jody writes:

Does a vote not matter?

Jacob Hedegaard writes:

I don't see Roy Beck saying, that the one million does not matter.
All he is saying is, that if you want to help concur poverty, immigration is not the way - something is adding more people to the 'poor-pool' than immigration takes out.

I see Beck as saying, that immigration might help some poor people, but it does not help concur poverty.
I believe this is right?

ben writes:

i think roy is being a bit dodgy because describing a problem as too big to solve is a known way to get people to turn off and not care. while letting 5 billion people immigrate to the united states will probably lower global utility rather than raise it. letting in a couple million people would probably do a lot to raise global utility. if we have a chance to do a lot of good we shouldn't ignore it because we can't solve every problem.

mdb writes:

If all you look at is the immediate affect, most actions are insignificant and nobody should do anything. How many should even get out of bed?

There are many affects of immigration beyond the actual act that help people escape poverty (e.g. remittances) and help change the original country as well (it is a lot harder to control info when people move - China is a good example).

Overall a stupid video.

David R. Henderson writes:

Gian asks:
"So you think that disallowing a foreigner to settle in US is equivalent to murder?"
Not at all. What I'm getting at is that if you start thinking that changing one million people's lives for the better is not worth doing because it's a drop in the bucket, you can easily slide into thinking that it's not worth saving 1,000 people's lives because that pales by comparison with the 6 million murdered.
Hyena writes that the solution to the Holocaust was a large war. But, in fact, there was a much more peaceful solution, which FDR refused to implement: let them in.

joecushing writes:

Glan, why is it that whenever sombody makes an comparison to the events of wwii era, sombody like you has to point out that the item being compared isn't murder? He didn't say it was the same. Why are people not capable of seeing how the two are comparable even if not identical? It's like when sombody notices totalitarian direction in Obama, sombody always has to point out that Obama doesn't murder people. Murder isn't the only fault of totalitarianism. There are many ways rights can be violated that are short of murder. That said, Obama DOES have an assasonation list and Americans are on it.

Walter Sharpemen writes:

What a strange topic. The idea that poverty can be alleviated by bringing in low-skilled, low IQ individuals (who more and more are unwilling and/or unable to assimilate into the culture at large). How do we know they are low skilled and low IQ? Because they couldn't make it in their own countries.

I assure you that one million immigrants such as that can make a great difference, especially in conjunction with the welfare state. Look at Fresno.

I happened to be going through my bookmark list when I found this. There must be some reason I saved this site, but for the life of me I have no idea why.

Brian Clendinen writes:

I find the whole idea of eliminating poverty idiotic. We will always have poverty, it is part of the human condition. So the video misses the point. The solution is not about getting rid of something that is impossible to remove. It is about making it smaller.


By the same logic, I will never be a billionaire, therefore, I should not bother to make any money. Or punishing one criminal will not get rid of crime therefore I should not punish criminal behavior.

The argument should be does a given action help the poor in the long run or due they become dependant on the welfare. Many things help, most of which are temporary in nature; however, many more do more harm than good in the long run.

Daublin writes:

The problem with the gumball argument is that it makes the wrong comparison. The correct comparison is how many people's lives are improved compared to how much effort is put into it. Compare the results to the possible.

Saving 1000 lives is unimportant on the global scale, but it's a stupendous achievement for one individual. If Schindler had made any other choices, he probably would have saved many fewer people. Similarly, one million people is small on a global scale, but given the realistic options that Americans have, it's a respectable improvement in human welfare.

In comparison, if we don't help people through immigration, what else are we going to do instead? For example, is the plan to manipulate Mexican economic policy? I have a hard time expecting that to have a positive effect, much less an effect on the order of millions of people.

Jeff writes:

Suppose the U.S. were to grant American citizenship to any healthy Cuban or Venezuelan under the age of 30 with an IQ over 120, along with their spouses and children. How long do you think the Castros and Chavez would last?

Walt French writes:

What school of economic thought lends the least support for this claptrap?

Is there some new replacement for Pareto optimality that claims unless every single one of the world's six billion people have the freedom and wealth that the author's position entails, they may as well be consigned to live under murderous dictators?

Some all-or-nothing logic that sneezes at a man who risked his life and livelihood to save victims of one of the world's worst travesties, and celebrates a society that is becoming increasingly divided by economics?

Perhaps, some empirical work that shows how an ambitious, well-educated individual would be a more productive entrepreneur in say, Russia than she would be in the US?

A comparative analysis of the US labor market showing that it is essentially perfect in its matchup of skilled workers and jobs, and would be harmed by being more open to workers?

This "saccharine" concern for the little gumballs… uhhh, people would be touching if there were any reason to believe there was either evidence OR well-vetted theory behind it. Instead, it has the tone of, "well, if ALL the people in the world were investment bankers, there'd be nobody to buy our self-exploding CDO debt bundles."

David C writes:

Currently, 59% of the population of Miami is foreign-born, and they seem to handle that much immigration just fine. Between 1970 and 1980 the metro area population increased by approximately 50%. Taken across the US that's about 15 million people a year. Moreover, what about the other 1.7 billion people not included in Roy Beck's definition of poverty? (7 billion worldwide - 300 million Americans - 5 billion in poverty = 1.7 billion) Couldn't the people of those countries stand to let a few people in too? That's an extra 85 million people per year or 1 billion total every ten years. Wouldn't that put a sizable dent in global poverty?

Matt Flipago writes:

The real problem is his false dichotomy, we can't bring in immigrants and help countries with mass poor population. To a very large extent they help each other.

Of course by his argument the hurting of the poor is only maybe 5 gumballs or so, which compared to that 5,000 he showed. If only a small percentage of people can be American poor, why would I want it to be a bunch of people who are out competed by low skilled, low IQ, and can't speak the language?

BK writes:

Having spent time in Mexico and gaining a feel for the people there ( I talk about Mexico since that country seems to the the center of the immigration issue. ) I become aware of several things: They are a very proud people; their culture although different, is influenced by the US, Good and bad. Their economy is ifluenced by the US economy. If they had a choice many would stay there. It is a sad story, the love hate relation between our two countries. Economic restrictions by both countries continue to stiffle any hope of Mexico prospering.
Mexico has it's problems and because they are proud will not necessairly bow to the wishes of our government policies.It's a shame.
Mexico can be the next China to the US. However,before that can happen the governments will have to get their act together.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

"How do we know they are low skilled and low IQ? Because they couldn't make it in their own countries."

Well, my immigrant ancestors were a milkmaid and a waiter. Yet I am an engineer with an advanced degree. So how do you explain that?

Most of those against immigration are unwilling to conceive of the value of posterity, despite the fact they themselves often come from unskilled immigrant backgrounds.

In the future, we may be able to have genetic therapy to solve low IQ issues anyway...

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top