The Numbers Game

One advantage to running a blog is that you have a public platform available for ranting. If something pisses you off you can tell the world (or at least a very tiny percentage of the world that reads your blog). This post is another one of my rants and it has to deal with numbers.

Everywhere you look today we see people throwing around numbers. Some will say politicians shouldn’t be allowed to accept gifts over $10,000, others say we need to pump $1 trillion into building infrastructure, and others claim no person should be allowed to own more than two homes. What irritates me about these statements is that the numbers are apparently selected arbitrarily. Whenever somebody makes a statement involving a number I always ask them how they come to the conclusion that number was valid. How comes a person making $1 million or more qualifies as “rich” and thus has to pay a 90% incomes tax? What criteria lead to the selection of $1 million and 90% tax rate? Demanding justification for the selected numbers seldom nets you any logical justification. After asking one person the logical reason for selecting $1 million as the threshold that defines “rich” and “poor” the answer I received was, “Uh, err, it’s just common sense! How do you not understand it?”

It’s not common sense though. Common sense involves culturally accepted norms and as humans are not good at dealing with large numbers there can be no cultural norm revolving around large numbers. Those who wish to restrict the number of homes a person can own also fail to provide any real justification. They will often say something along the lines of, “Nobody needs more than two homes!” Such statements are correct in a technical sense since one could always rent an apartment but from a logical sense the statements hold no water. What if a businessman periodically travels between four different company sites? Let’s say he spends an average of three months a year at each location. Why shouldn’t the businessman be allowed to own a home in each of the four locations? Allowing him to own multiple homes doesn’t hurt you in any way and does benefit the economy since it requires each home be built, maintained, and provided with utilities.

Speed limits are another arbitrarily selected number with piss poor justification. While the government claims speed limits serve as a mechanism of increasing road safety this is easily proven false by the fact that the German Autobahn has not speed limits in many locations and has a low fatality rate. Likewise if the speed limit was really a limit people should be getting into more accidents when they exceed the speed. Everyday my trip to work involves traveling on two highways where the posted speed limit is 55 mph but everybody drives around 70 mph. The number of accidents isn’t obscenely high meaning 55 mph must not be the threshold of safety where exceeding it will cause an increase in accidents. Speed limits are just another arbitrarily selected number with weak justifications.

Any desired policy must be completely justifiable. Selecting an arbitrary number and claiming it is a threshold of some sort is not justifiable. I can say my Magpul SR-25 magazines have a maximum capacity of 20 rounds of 7.62x51mm because 21 rounds will not fit. That’s a hard fact and thus using the number 20 makes sense. Saying somebody who makes $1 million should pay 90% income tax makes little sense because there are no solid facts for defining the thresholds of $1 million and 90% other than saying they “feel” right. Feelings have nothing to do with policies and should be completely ignored in that regard.

The next time somebody tells you a policy should be enacted that involves any number whatsoever demand they explain how that number was chosen. You’ll be amazed at how quickly demanding justification for the selection of a number can shutdown a debate.