Why Fuzzy Math Makes Sense in Politics

It’s a safe bet that you have never heard the presidential candidates explain how adjusted multiple correlation coefficients work.

(And that’s a very good thing too.)

Instead they talk a lot about individuals with specific problems (89-year-old Mrs. Kadoskins from rural Nebraska whose prescription bill is exorbitant) that, it is hoped, will resonate with millions of other people.

Politicians tell stories and anecdotes because they’re much easier to understand than numbers. Statistics, if they’re more complicated than batting averages, usually go relatively unnoticed. And even when politicians do insist on citing the relevant figures, they’re liable to be mocked. In the first debate, George Bush spoke derisively of Al Gore’s “fuzzy numbers.”

As a fuzzy mathematician, I took umbrage.

Fuzziness Covers the Unknowns

What’s wrong with fuzzy numbers? It is my opinion that, in politics or economics, there are no other kinds of numbers. Polls explicitly acknowledge some of their fuzziness by including margins of error, but fuzziness is implicit in many other contexts. If a politician, for example, were to say that the size of his tax cut was exactly $1,265,155,844,138.36, he would surely be delusional.

Economic numbers with a couple of significant digits (say $1.3 trillion) are usually the most we can hope for, but even this is often impossible due to all sorts of wild cards. A big unknown today is whether the current budget surpluses will last. Both candidates are banking on them, but that’s certainly no guarantee.

Consider some of the complexity involved. Interest rates have an impact on unemployment, which in turn influences revenues. And budget deficits affect trade, which sways interest and exchange rates. And what about external events and consumer confidence? They may rouse or depress the stock market, which alters other indices, and all of these interact with each other in complicated ways.

Another source of fuzziness is that one can define the same quantity in many different ways. Is Bush giving away more in tax cuts to the richest 1 percent of Americans than he will spend on a variety of social programs? If the estate-tax repeal is included, the answer is probably yes. If the fact that the very rich bear roughly 30 percent of the tax burden is taken into account, the cuts are less outrageous and the phrase “giving away” seems less apt.

Grading Al, George W. and Bill

Even nonpartisan experts disagree on the candidates’ numbers. The Oct. 6 issue of The Economist contained a very revealing article in which the prestigious magazine asked 54 eminent economists to grade the Bush and Gore economic plans. Their varied responses reminded me of President Truman’s quip about the desirability of a one-armed economist who would be unable to waffle and say “but on the other hand. . .”

Despite his top-of-the-class persona, Gore received only a B- grade average from the economists, who awarded Bush a gentleman’s C. In comparison, Clinton’s average grade was a B+. Based presumably on his opposition to big tax cuts for the very wealthy, Gore scored much higher on his plan’s fairness, while Bush scored a bit higher on the economic efficiency of his proposals.

Most of the economists agreed with Gore that debt reduction was a better use of the surplus than tax cuts and that repealing the estate tax was a bad idea. Most agreed with Bush that tax credits (as opposed to deductions) were not an effective way to stimulate savings and that simple tax policies were better.

Substantial minorities of the economists were much more open than either of the candidates to raising the retirement age for Social Security and limiting disbursements for those with sufficient assets. And an outright majority were in favor of a tax on consumption rather than income.

I was a bit surprised that the economists’ evaluations were so low. (Disclosure: I’d have given Clinton an A, Gore a B+, and, for opposite reasons, both Bush and Nader a C.)

The most interesting result of The Economist survey, however, was the uncertainty and wide range of expert opinion on most aspects of the candidates’ economic plans.

Learning to Say, ‘Beats Me’

Given these well-reasoned but different opinions, I wonder why the candidates so seldom say anything remotely like “I don’t really know,” “I’m not at all certain,” or, simply, “Beats me.” Surely, this sort of admission is the correct response to so many of the economic questions put to Gore and Bush by Jim Lehrer that its non-utterance should be something of an intellectual scandal. It isn’t.

Alas, one reason for politicians’ pose of confidence and surety is not hard to fathom. They fear that voters will confuse a slow, qualified response with ignorance or evasiveness, while they hope voters will confuse a quick, glib response with knowledge or resolve. As a result, candidates feel they must sometimes square their jaws and forthrightly make pronouncements that are the political equivalent of predictions from the Psychic Network.

But might the electorate not be more impressed by an occasional and courageous confession of ignorance — not ignorance of basic facts, but of the economic consequences of adopting a particular policy? Certainly economic history, the mathematical discipline of chaos theory, as well as common sense, strongly suggest that uncertainty and tentativeness frequently are more than justified.

Of course, I could be wrong. My electoral accomplishments have been limited to a losing campaign for high school senior class treasurer.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His Who’s Counting? column on ABCNEWS.com appears on the first day of every month.

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