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The Power of Numeracy

Summary:
In 40 years of teaching economics, I have always followed my rule of not commenting on my preferences about politicians, even when asked. Well, almost always. There was one exception. In a lecture on numeracy, which is basically literacy with numbers, I told my students that my favorite candidate for the Republican nomination for president was Indiana governor Mitch Daniels. The reason: as a former director of the federal government’s Office of Management and Budget, Daniels knew the difference between a million and a billion. The difference, of course, is huge. A billion is a thousand times a million. Another way of saying it is that a billion is 999 times more than a million. Daniels could not have been even a semi-effective head of OMB had he not applied that

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The Power of Numeracy

In 40 years of teaching economics, I have always followed my rule of not commenting on my preferences about politicians, even when asked. Well, almost always. There was one exception.

In a lecture on numeracy, which is basically literacy with numbers, I told my students that my favorite candidate for the Republican nomination for president was Indiana governor Mitch Daniels. The reason: as a former director of the federal government’s Office of Management and Budget, Daniels knew the difference between a million and a billion.

The difference, of course, is huge. A billion is a thousand times a million. Another way of saying it is that a billion is 999 times more than a million. Daniels could not have been even a semi-effective head of OMB had he not applied that distinction dozens of times a day. Yet we see politicians regularly demonstrate their innumeracy in matters of public policy. And the results are costly. A little attention to numeracy by politicians, the media, and average citizens would elevate public discussion and would result in better decisions on policy, whether the issue is government budgets, terrorism, or job safety. As a bonus, applying some basic numeracy to our own private lives would help us make better decisions.

The two most important ways people are innumerate are in confusing one large number with another large number and in confusing one small number with another small number.

This is from “What’s Your Number?,” Defining Ideas, January 22, 2020. Read the whole thing.

David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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