Podcast #15: Mathlessness – America’s Fundamental Problem (ca. 2011)

(This appeared in Rick Lazio’s Ignite Blog back in July of 2011 . . . I reread it and liked it, so I thought I would repost it.)

by Frazer Rice.

Modern Americans are largely innumerate. They are, to borrow Richard Posner’s felicitous phrase, “mathless”- most can’t use or judge the effects of numbers.

Such ignorance would be of little concern, except that math permeates everything and ignorance of it imperils both America and Americans. For example, mathless Americans can’t understand or interpret statistics popularly discussed in the media, thereby disabling their ability critically to assess what’s reported. Nor can they comprehend the scale of the numerical problems addressed in government budgets, leaving them to the not-so-tender mercies of craven politicians funding government programs through deficit spending.

Most importantly, mathless Americans lack the quantitative tools to prosper financially and avoid bad investments, critical skills of self-reliance in a non-welfare state. If you want to see this in action, watch a lawyer try to equitably divide the bill and calculate a tip at a nice restaurant. It takes twenty minutes and they usually have to consult an accountant … by phone.

Consider the millions of people who bought houses they couldn’t afford. Cautionary tales abound about people making $50k/year who were living in $400K houses that are now in foreclosure. The analysis exposing such folly isn’t rigorous: Assume (optimistically) after-tax income of $37,000, or $3,125 per month, that the buyer paid 10% of the purchase price ($400,000) at closing, which leaves $360,000 remaining. With an interest-only mortgage of 5% (historically low, but a reasonable figure), the buyer pays at least $1,500 in monthly interest, which is nearly half his or her take-home pay (you do get to deduct the interest, but you don’t see that until the following year).

The above scenario is unmercifully tight, especially if income taxes or the cost of living increases and/or income declines. Financial common sense bristles at such a position. Unfortunately, most Americans lack such common sense. And that is the core of the problem: math can help lead logical decision-making by spelling out future realities that predatory lenders’ hawking teaser rates don’t want you to consider. Lotteries, casinos and the investment banks thrive in part because Americans can’t or don’t want to think about math. As Homer Simpson put it when told that having mayonnaise and whiskey at the same time was a bad idea, “That’s a problem for Future Homer.”

Obviously, one can’t prepare for every eventuality, but more mathematical common sense could have prevented people from committing what amounted to financial suicide. The ability to see the immediate snapshot of a mathematical situation isn’t the glaring problem for America. Intuition and the advice of others tend to get most past square one. The real issue is getting people to conceptualize the numbers governing their lives in such a way that they can anticipate future consequences of financial decisions. For that task they are ill equipped.

Mathless Americans are also increasingly outstripped by foreign competitors. There are 98.8 color televisions for every 100 U.S. households. Television is the most important thing in America! There used to be over 70 US TV manufacturers. However, in 1995, Zenith sold to LG. That brought the number of U.S. TV manufacturers to zero. Only tiny startup Olevia assembles Asian TV parts in this country.

In the business world, being deficient in math is going to be like running a race with no legs. According to Time Warner Cable’s Connect a Million Minds program, eighty percent of jobs created in the next decade will require math and science skills.

Furthermore, the American education system isn’t up to the task. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, the United States ranks thirty-fifth in terms of the mean score for mathematics. Ours is not the path back to economic competitiveness, let alone dominance. Mathematical considerations increasingly dictate the world economy. Meanwhile, the United States government spent billions to bailout an auto industry that didn’t understand two simple mathematical realities: their costs were too high and they didn’t sell enough cars. The uptick in unemployment is the latest symptom of the American difficulty in competing in business without the required numerical skills.

Domestically, mathlessness perpetuates caustic social and income inequalities. The small fraction of people who understand math and can use it as a tool do exceedingly well. The ones who can’t cope with numbers are left behind – far behind. Such disequilibrium fosters creation of an elite “over class” the mathless will never be able to join (except, perhaps, by winning the lottery).

Adult American mathlessness is a problem politicians won’t address, given anyone doing so obliquely implies that potential voters are stupid. More cynically, politicians prefer an ignorant, pliable electorate less likely to call them to account. Until American mathematical literacy improves, most Americans will be at the not-so-tender mercies of unfriendly foreign nations, self-aggrandizing government and, worst of all, their own ignorance.


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