A Proposed Math Quiz for Presidential Candidates

Watching political debates, I sometimes find myself hoping that the moderators will pose a simple arithmetical question or two.

Queries about the war, taxes, and cultural issues usually elicit rhetoric and canned answers that most of the candidates could recite in their sleep, but even very simple arithmetical questions would require a bit of thought and calculation that they couldn't easily evade.

Professional myopia may be part of the reason for my writing about this topic again, perhaps, but I do believe that some feel for mathematics (not algebraic topology or partial differential equations, but arithmetic) is essential to being an effective president. After all, almost every political issue has a large quantitative aspect: medicare and social security, the environment, military spending, tax and service cuts, social security, crime, and education, to name a few. A candidate who could answer, or at least reasonably respond to most of the following questions would, I think, be sufficiently numerate to hold the job.

To help insure this end, I hereby urge future debate moderators (both during the primaries and the general election) to announce that no candidate will be left behind, that each will be asked at least one basic numerical question during each debate. The answers the candidates provide might be more telling than their latest "bold new program" or inconsequential anecdote. They might even be amusing.

The Quiz

Below are just 10 of the many politically neutral questions that might be asked. The answers follow.

1. A crucial number to know is the population of the country of which you want to be president. What is the approximate population of the United States? of the world? What percentage of the latter is the former? Answer

2. A news article claims that 15 percent of all strokes occur sometime between noon and midnight on either Friday or Saturday, perhaps because of increased celebrating on the weekends. Do you check with the Centers for Disease Control? Do you stop campaigning on weekends? What's your reaction to this statistic?Answer

3. You must understand the electoral process, of course, so given the way the Electoral College is set up, what is the theoretically smallest number of actual votes (not electoral votes) a candidate can receive and still be elected president? Answer

4. Approximately how many Americans died in the attacks on 9/11? There's no moral comparison, of course, but approximately how many die in auto accidents annually? from heart disease annually? Answer

5. You're campaigning in a state in which the percentage of employees who subscribe to a particular drug plan has risen 1 percentage point, from 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent. By what percent has this figure risen? By what percent must it fall to return to its former level? Answer

6. In Disproportia, a small Midwestern town, the average tax cut per household is $2,200, but the median tax cut is $150. What does this say about the distribution of taxable incomes in the town? If the founder of a high-tech company were to move into the community, which is more likely to rise, the mean or the median tax cut? Answer

7. Roughly how big is the federal budget? What fraction of it is discretionary and non-military? By contrast, what is the gross domestic product (to the nearest trillion dollars)? Answer

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