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Man of Words

Have numbers taken over the world?



While walking across an empty parking lot recently, I came across two pennies lying side by side. I stopped to look at them: glints of copper on a swath of black asphalt. Then, suppressing the urge to pick them up, I walked on. That I would not bend over for 2 cents—a decision influenced by muscles grown inflexible in the years since a bite-size Tootsie Roll cost a penny—got me thinking about how my life is beset by numbers.

I don’t much care for numbers. I rarely have a use for them. In fact, my last encounter with math was an algebra class 40 years ago. On the other hand, I am fond of words. I find them useful every day. They are as congenial and accommodating as old friends. Numbers are stainless-steel calipers. To illustrate the difference, consider these two sentences: 1. Carl, 17, is 5 feet 10 inches tall and 200 pounds; 2. Carl is a stocky teenager. Which do you find more pleasing?

Of course, I prefer Carl 2, even as I recognize that I myself have become an aggregate of numbers, just like Carl 1—pounds, inches, years, milligrams and an eight-digit, government-issued identification number that has become more important than my name. My taxes are levied in dollars, my retirement savings are reported in percentages, my diet favors carbs by the hundreds, my bank requires a PIN and I don’t bend over for pennies. It feels like a Monty Python sketch. Rasmuson is more and more a persona whose parameters are the points of intersection with the outside world. In the netherworld of social media, he is scored by Klout if he cares to be (he doesn’t). The interior Rasmuson, who clings to the belief that even one penny should be picked up, takes cold comfort from a headline in The Salt Lake Tribune that asserts, “Age is nothing but a number.”

There are plenty of numbers that offer no comfort whatsoever. To wit: Utah has licensed 215,000 nonresidents to carry a concealed weapon; 16.7 percent of registered voters in Salt Lake County voted in the last election; 12 percent of all drivers carpool; less than 1 percent of Americans are fighting our country’s wars; the interest on the national debt will be $800 billion in 2019; the number of newspapers has declined by 30 percent since 1980; the average temperature of the Earth’s surface has increased by about 1 degree in my lifetime; more than 110,000 American troops are stationed in Cold War bases in Europe; and 30 percent of our population is either “poor” or “near poor.”

These data points are cautionary. I have chosen them because each resonates with me and because I sense they have an underlying connection, just as a field of mushrooms has an underground mycelium in common. Here is an example: After the oil embargo of 1973, my employer designated a full-time worker to promote and manage a carpool program. It lasted until gas prices dropped. The decline of carpooling is one factor in the air quality of smog-bound places like Salt Lake City. Voter apathy allows the Legislature to pursue a zany agenda instead of addressing itself to such exigencies as unhealthful air.

Many of the cautionary data are related to money. Thanks in part to the princely sum City Weekly pays me to write these 950 words, my two-person household earns more than the official poverty level of $14,710 a year. I am not in the “near poor” category, either. However, in the tax bracket assigned to me by the IRS, my share of the country’s total income has been declining for years. All the while, the top 1 percent of the population (including 57 congressmen) has enjoyed a 400 percent increase in its share. Come April 15, 46 percent of all tax filers will pay no federal income tax, including 24,000 who have incomes over $500,000. Moreover, the “tax gap,” the difference between what taxes should be paid and the amount actually paid, is around $350 billion a year. Is there any doubt that our 70,000-page tax code is irredeemable? But it has been that way for more years than Orrin Hatch has been our man in Washington. Like farm subsidies and campaign-finance reform—huge, festering problems—the loophole-riddled tax code gets little more than lip service from those like Hatch whose job it is to fix those problems.

Some numbers are as unexpected as a rogue wave. Who would have guessed that the profligate Greeks, their economy a paltry 2 percent of the world’s GDP, could cause a 9 percent reduction in my retirement account in a matter of days? Or who could have predicted that the Utah State Board of Education’s new school-grading scale would give an “A” for a score of 390 out of 600? Or that the approval rate for Congress would fall to single digits? I am often at sixes and sevens. There are so many numbers, you need Snopes or FactCheck to filter out the bogus ones. I find most of the data have a kernel of truth, but the numbers are often manipulated for personal advantage by pols and pundits. Mark Twain was right when he observed: “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”

You have to share Twain’s appreciation of irony to live in this number-ridden age (and not know your friends’ telephone numbers). I find it ironic that the digits I dislike are insinuating themselves into the realm of words I love. “W00t,” a gamer’s cry of joy spelled with two zeros, was Merriam-Webster’s 2007 word of the year. Hardly a gr8 development—alarming, actually! That is my two cents’ worth.