The Challenge of Perspective and The Burden of (So Many) Numbers

By June 17th, 2015

Blog No. 59

June 16, 2015

The Challenge of Perspective

and

The Burden of (So Many) Numbers

By Mack W. Borgen

Santa Barbara, California

University of California at Berkeley (Honors, Economics); Harvard Law School; Author, The Relevance of Reason – Business and Politics (Vol 1) and –Society and Culture (Vol 2)  – As Advertised in The New York Review of Books and Recipient of Four National Book Awards

This essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Mack W. Borgen.

Copyright 2015. All Rights Reserved.

 

If ”1” was to indicate a mere second,

Then

One million seconds will pass in just 11.6 days.

But

It will take 31.7 years for one billion seconds to pass!!

Perspective is almost, by definition, personal. “One’s perspective” is unique. It is held in tight possession by each individual.

Perspective is rooted in the latitude and longitude of one’s birth. It is influenced by the presence or the absence of family. It is affected by the color of one’s skin and by the nature and proximity of one’s community. It is influenced by one’s outlook on life and by the importance of one’s religion. It is molded by the circumstances of upbringing, by the availability of education, and by the experiences of life. Over the course of years, it can become hardened and encrusted by intransigence, or it may change as one grows older with wisdom, reflection, and understanding.

A common starting point for the concept of perspective is the glass half full or empty analogy. But even then, it is hard to remember that, technically, a glass is always full – half-water and half-air. At any given time we may “see” things one way or the other, and in that sense our perspectives of the world are constantly changing.

Paraphrasing one of the mottos of a prior generation — sometimes (but incorrectly) attributed to Bobby Kennedy, people were encouraged “to stand still until they really saw.” But things have changed in Modern America.

In Modern America the burden of perspective weighs heavier because of the nature of our society, by the expectations of brevity, by the insistence upon speed, and by the blur of numbers which are thrown into our lives and by which so much and too much is now measured.

It is hard to get through a day without suffering another data-dump of numbers. More and more, it seems as though words are discarded as things of clutter — for the unduly passive, tediously patient reader with obviously too much time on his hands. Numbers are offered as the alternative; the new truth. Numbers are where the action is.

But numbers have their own problems. Above a few thousand, they blur together – millions, billions, and trillions. Packaged as “news,” numbers are tossed around like little nuggets. They are used to indicate measurement and to suggest precision. They are presented in their supposed natural state — stark, cold, and unassailable, and as such, they are too often accepted as a means of distinguishing facts from rumors; reality from theory. Sometimes numbers are offered as confirmations of authority, as gages of size, proof of success or markers of failure.

They can be terribly important, but they are always only part of the story. 

As if emphasis is needed, just glance at some of the numeric news over any given period:

TRILLIONS AND BILLIONS

$16.0 Trillion in federal debt.

$  1.1 Trillion held by U.S. corporation in offshore accounts, on any given.

$716.0BB – Amount spent annually by federal government on defense (more than 5 times than the $139BB spent on education).

$240.0BB – Settlement amount Big Tobacco paid to the states in 1998 to stem the growing tide of whistleblower data.

$237.0BB  – Amount collected annually in federal corporate income taxes.

$     7.0BB – Amount paid by Citigroup, Inc. to settle “shoddy mortgage” claims made by the Justice Department.

$     6.5BB –  Fine paid by JPMorgan Chase & Co. in connection with its “London Whale” misdeeds.

(Personal Note: In fairness to all of the other corporations, JPMorgan Chase & Co. deserves its own special list – the amount of JPMorgan’s fines and settlements could go on for pages).

4.3BB  – Number of pennies produced every year by the U.S. Treasury.

$     2.2BB – Fine paid by Johnson & Johnson for intentional “mislabeling” of the drug Resperidal.

MILLIONS

$690.0MM – 2014 salary of Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group.

316.1MM  – Population of United States (Of whom 74% — or 234.6MM, are adults).

300.0MM  – Number of privately-owned firearms in U.S. (whose ownership rate is 50% higher than any other country on earth.

$194.9MM  – Amount paid in 2015 for Pablo Picasso’s painting, Women of Algiers and also the highest amount ever paid at auction for a painting.

$  81.6 MM – Criminal fine paid by Walmart in 2013 for routinely dumping hazardous waste in local trash bins.

$  68.0MM – Criminal fine paid by Duke Energy after admitting to dumping coal ash into three North Carolina rivers.

$  54.0MM – Yahoo’s severance package given to Henrique de Castro after just 15 months on the job.

49.0MM  – Number of Americans living in poverty.

9.3MM – Number of millionaires in the United States (See 421 below).

8.3MM  – Number of Americans living in New York City (compared with 14.4MM in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the world’s largest megacity).

8.0MM  – Number of U.S. auto industry workers.

$   1.2MM  – Average income amongst the “Top 1%” of Americans.

$   1.0MM – Amount of the “deflategate” fine to be paid by the New England Patriots.

THOUSANDS AND HUNDREDS                   

$55.0K – Median salary of a U.S. police officer – the 10th most stressful job in America.

$42.0K – Median salary of elementary school teacher in U.S. (but as high as $69K in CA).

421  – Number of billionaires currently living in the United States.

(All Data from Borgen, M. The Relevance of Reason – The Hard Facts and Real Data About the State of Current America (Vol I – Business and Politics and Vol 2 – Society and Culture), 2013 and Draft of Second Edition scheduled to be released in 2016). (See Special Offer Below).

And so how do we bind the edges of our numeric perspectives within the bounds of reality? How do we more easily grasp and remember the meanings and reach of these kinds of numbers, especially the larger numbers – the millions and the billions? This is important because more and more it is these numbers which drape our news – too often thrown around to fast and almost interchangeably. One of the more offensive examples are news commentators constantly referring to the fact that a proposed budget savings would “only” save $X billions of dollars — a mere Y% of our annual deficit.

Stated again, the analogy of time may assist in comprehending the true amount of these numbers.

For example, if ”1” were to indicate a second, then one million seconds will  pass in a mere 11.6 days. By itself this is at best a curiosity of math——the conversion of numbers in time. But the more interesting and potentially more useful comparative lies in the contrast of millions to billions.

One million seconds can pass in a mere 11.6 days, — but one billion seconds will pass only after 31.7 years!!

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