The Daily Iowan

Elliot: Take a number, any number

The relationship between people and numbers, iffy at best, inevitably leads to a morass. Just ask ee cummings.

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DI columnist Beau Elliot

DI columnist Beau Elliot

DI columnist Beau Elliot

Beau Elliot, Opinion Columnist

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The problem with numbers, of course, is that there are so many of them. So many that you might say that numbers are numberless.

Well, you might say that if your mind was bent in a certain way, which we rush to assure you that ours is not, because if you contemplate numbers being numberless long enough, you just get number and number. (To steal a line from ee cummings. We tried to reach ol’ ee a number of times, but he didn’t respond. Which is the way things go these days. You notice?)

Not that we’re leaping into the Sabermetrification of life or anything. Sabermetrics (sometimes going under the code name of metrics) have taken over MLB (matchups, the managers say, gazing at a long list of numbers that seem to an outsider like hieroglyphics) and are subtly or not so subtly working their way into the NFL and the NBA. And college sports.

Which is all well and fine. Metrics can give observers an understanding of certain sports not previously known. Sometimes, even the desire to know was not previously known. More or less, anyway.

But at times, that universe can seem more than a bit self-statsified. (Not to coin a word or anything, but doing so anyway.)

And when we try to statsify life itself (or at least that meager portion that exists outside of sports), we run into trouble. Or at least a topography near there.

Because human beings, the majority anyway, are simply bad with numbers. We mean, just watch them in action. (Always remembering Mark Twain’s admonition about lies, damn lies, and statistics.)

Take Steve Mnuchin, for instance. And his insistence in December 2017 the the GOP tax cuts would not only pay for themselves, they would bring down the federal deficit.

Well. It turns out that, under the Grand Buffoon and the GOP, and the tax cuts, the deficit has skyrocketed to $779 billion.

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Of course, saying the GOP tax cut would pay for itself was pretty laughable back then, more now. Pretty soon, Republicans in government will tax laughing about the deficit in order to try to reduce the deficit. That won’t work, either, so they’ll start taxing laughing about the failed deficit-reduction laughter tax. People will learn the art of the silent snicker.

And to stay away from numbers in polite company.

The problem with numbers and people doesn’t stop with tax cuts. If it did, this would be a much quieter, calmer world. Mostly because you can’t talk about tax policy for very long before most people start dozing off.

Take the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Just leave aside, for the moment, all the questions of morality the slaying raises and the notion of the price of a country’s soul.

According to the Grand Buffoon, that price seems to be $110 billion. That’s the size of an arms deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that the Buffoon doesn’t desire to wreck.

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Well, his Buffooness has a history of having trouble with numbers but only when he tries to use them.

According to the experts interviewed by NPR, most of that $110 billion is part of deals done during the Obama administration. Another big chunk is “aspirational” notions, as in the Saudis might want to buy, say, more deadly missiles to kill Yemeni civilians if it turns out that the deadly missile stockpile is running low and there are still more Yemeni civilians to kill.

So the actual figure of arms sales to Saudi Arabia under the Buffoon administration is $4 billion. And the Saudis can’t just go to Russia or China if the U.S. won’t sell the Saudis more at the moment, because the systems are incompatible.

Hmm. This is the problem with people and numbers. No wonder cummings wrote number and number.

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