Numbers in search of an image

As budget hysteria sweeps across America, politicians of all stripes will be hard at work concentrating vast proposals into easy-to-broadcast and easy-to-dupe sound bites. And this means that numbers will be carefully selected to suit many different interpretations of the same facts. Although the most procedural and desiccated minds of the most pure policy wonks may yet believe that numbers are the source of a holy and extrapersonal positivism, the most recent work in psychology suggests that numbers carry the freight of the contexts they are placed within— and so similar sets of data, and in fact the very same numbers, can often mean quite different things.

One issue deals with the lack of consistency in the terms of numbers given: it is not uncommon to see a raw figure (“$3.2 million dollars”), a percentage (“56%”), and a fraction (“three out of every five”), as well as yearly figures, annualized figures, and multi-year projections all sharing uncomfortable space with each other in the same argument. A larger issue, though, is the common inability to process the relative magnitudes of large figures. One poll found that just 21% of adults can correctly answer how many millions are in a billion. Even if you can mathematically figure the difference, though, it’s hard to internalize the relative magnitude of these amounts. John McCain famously tweeted about the wastefulness of a $165,000 grant for maple syrup research in Vermont. Out of a $3.5 trillion budget, this is laughably tiny—the equivalent of two-tenth of one cent in the budget of an individual spending $60,000 each year.

Annie Lowrey has broken down the 2011 budget proposals into relative fractions of a family’s spending. I don’t think this goes far enough in conceptualizing the magnitudes, however. What’s needed are better physical metaphors for these sums. Even though I read quite a lot about income inequality, I remember being really floored when I first heard about Jan Pen’s incredible ‘parade’ metaphor for imagining it. These are the kinds of images that allow us to really internalize the scope of what we’re talking about. The budget debate needs a metaphor with the kind of imaginative potential of Pen’s parade metaphor— but I have yet to dig up any clever suggestions.