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Some 'Splainin'

The agony and the ecstasy of numbers


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When they let the Big Dawg out in Charlotte, N.C., earlier this month, he gave them more than they hoped for. In a virtuoso performance, Bill Clinton galvanized the Democrats with a nomination speech that will set the standard for all those to come.

Even Fox News pundits conceded it was a barnburner. As a speechmaker, the former president has few equals. One of his singular abilities is making complex subjects understandable. He is, in Barack Obama’s words, gifted at “ ’splainin’ stuff.” He does so by blending the folksy and the wonkish—words and numbers—in deft rhetorical flourishes.

As a scribbler, I try to do the same. However, an opinion can come across as wobbly or unpersuasive despite the care I take to frame it with words and sentences. In such a case, the addition of a number is as stabilizing as an outrigger on a tipsy canoe. Suppose the subject is inflation, a concept only slightly less abstruse than its opposite, deflation. No matter how carefully I choose the words to explain “constant dollars,” a cogent explanation needs some numbers to prop it up. To that end, I might invoke the Tooth Fairy. When I lost a baby tooth, I wrapped it in toilet paper, put it under my pillow, and happily claimed the quarter left by the Tooth Fairy the following morning. What I could buy with that 25 cents would now cost $2.12 because inflation has eroded the buying power of the dollar in the intervening years.

Sometimes a number catches my eye like a quarter on the sidewalk. It may be that the number comports with a long-held opinion, or it might be that it offers a glimpse of one not yet fully formed. I was surprised to learn the Tooth Fairy’s cost of doing business has outpaced inflation. Nowadays, she is paying $3 a tooth, on average, according to a story in USA Today. Why? Status-conscious parents don’t want it known that their kid has been visited by a cheapskate fairy. (No surprise that there is now an app that calculates tooth value.) The $3 data point has caused me to consider how much I dislike status seekers.

I discovered a better example of an eye-catching number in the reports from New York City in August, when police officers shot and killed an armed murderer on a midtown sidewalk. Two policemen fired 16 shots. Nine bystanders were wounded by errant bullets. Sixteen and nine are large, unnerving numbers, but the telling one is 34: New York police officers who draw and fire their guns hit the bad guy just 34 percent of the time. It is a matter of historical record. In other words, those who practice marksmanship as a condition of employment miss two out of three shots when adrenaline is surging. Frankly, it doesn’t surprise me at all. I have fired a lot of .45 and 9mm rounds on Army ranges, and even under perfect conditions, hitting the bull’s-eye on a target is difficult with a hand-held, short-barreled gun. Had I been breathing heavily, hands trembling, I think it probable I would have missed the target entirely.

That’s why I believe Utah ought to curtail concealed-weapons permits. I don’t intend to pick a fight with the Second Amendment crowd, but it seems to me that more people packing pistols means more risk of bystanders being shot—not by a crook but by a well-intentioned citizen whose marksmanship skills are either rusty or nonexistent. If a trained policeman under duress hits the target only 34 percent of the time, it is reasonable to conclude that the average, pistol-packing Utahn would do much worse. Those among us concerned about their personal safety would be better off buying a Kevlar undershirt than a handgun.

The most interesting number I have seen in a while is central to a 2010 Princeton University study by Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman. The two professors examine the relationship between household income and happiness. According to their study, the sense of personal well-being has two components.

One is emotional—the anger, joy or sadness you feel on a daily basis—while the other, broader in scope, is evaluative. My evaluation of my life improves as my income increases, the study says. With more money, I move up the scale from good to better to best. But once my income reaches $75,000, I hit the upper limit of emotional satisfaction. “Beyond $75,000, money is important for life evaluation but does nothing for happiness, enjoyment, sadness or stress,” the study concludes. “The take-home message is high incomes don’t bring you happiness, but they do bring you a life you think is better.” It is a conclusion I understood intuitively. The number gives it shape and substance. If I care to pursue it, I can tease out its implications with two other numbers: $50,054, the median household income in the United States; and $70,000, the median answer to the question of how much annual income is required for a family of four to have a middle-class lifestyle.

You have to be careful about numbers, however. In a column like this, you don’t want too many, and you don’t want to foreground them. I think a number is best cast in a supporting role. For example, it is not sufficient to write, “Bill Clinton’s approval rating these days is 69 percent.” The percentage wants for some context, some ’splainin’. One way to provide that context is to write: “At 69 percent, the Big Dawg is slightly more popular than Michelle Obama.”

“Slightly” shifts the focus slightly, and the winsome first lady upstages the number.