“Two-tenths of a pound” by John Edward

John Edward, a resident of Chelmsford who earned his master’s degree at UMass Lowell and who teaches economics at Bentley University and UMass Lowell, contributes the following column:

I purchase luncheon meat once or twice a month. A quarter of a pound makes the sandwich a little too thick. I order two-tenths of a pound. If it were a test, deli workers under 30 often fail.

Sometimes the young deli worker will admit their ignorance. I will have to tell them two-tenths of a pound is 0.20 on their digital scale.

More often, they will ask someone else behind the counter. It may end up in a search for the wizened shift supervisor. People over 40 rarely have a problem passing the test.

Most often, they just guess. In a recent transaction, the deli worker sliced the meat and put it on the scale. He looked at the reading of 0.29, and asked if I wanted a little more.

In the most recent assessment of 4th-grade math educational achievement the United States ranked 11th out of 36 countries. The Global Competitiveness Report put out by the World Economic Forum ranks us 51st out of 142 countries for math and science education. We are not even in the top two-tenths.

Cited frequently on the Internet is the tongue-in-cheek claim that “Math illiteracy affects 7 out of every 5 people.” In some sense it does not appear to matter – you can still get a job at the supermarket without 4th grade math skills.

However, it does matter. If we want a strong economy, we need a well-educated workforce. If we need a better workforce, we need well-prepared teachers. If we need prepared teachers, we need programs like UMass Lowell’s UTeach program: “an initiative to prepare a new generation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers.”

Math literacy also affects public policy. Exit polls show that people often appear to vote against their own self-interest. Lack of math and economic literacy helps explain why politicians get away with fooling voters.

A few years ago, I wrote a column using The Simpsons to explain tax policy. A paper titled Homer Gets a Tax Cut by a Princeton economist provided the inspiration. Homer Simpson can easily be fooled (d’oh) into gleefully supporting policy that benefits the greedy Mr. Burns (picture him rubbing his hands and saying “Excellent”).

The column had many numbers in it. In retrospect, it may not have been very effective in explaining what a good deal Mr. Burns is getting.

Opinion polls show that a majority of likely voters say they want to cut government spending. However, when asked about specific spending cuts in a recent Pew Research poll, only one proposal received a majority – cutting foreign aid.

Opinion polls also show that people think foreign aid is about twenty percent or two-tenths (or one-fifth) of the federal budget. The portion of the United States budget allocated to foreign aid is actually less than 1 percent.

The debate over putting part of social security in the stock market is on the back burner, for now. The plan, as reported in the media, was to allow 2 percent of social security to go into self-directed accounts.

If you put it that way, it does not sound like much. What was really proposed was allowing workers to risk almost one-third of their 6.2 percent social security payroll tax. I can only imagine the confusion if I asked for one-third of a pound at the deli. However, I hope the deli worker would sense it was a lot more than 2 percent of a pound.

Another proposal is a national sales tax. Proponents say the sales tax rate would be 23 percent. That makes it sound like you pay twenty-three cents on a one-dollar purchase.

The proposed tax rate is actually 30 percent. Politicians came up with the 23 percent by dividing the tax you would pay, thirty cents, by the total purchase amount including the tax (30/130 = .23).

If you gave that answer on a 4th grade math test, you would be wrong. Politicians get away with the deception because most people do not or cannot do the math. The press should reveal the dishonesty every time they report on the issue, but they do not.

In 2009, voters in Lowell had an opportunity to adopt proportional voting. A good argument could be made that Choice voting as it was called would improve representative democracy.

Voters need a certain amount of math literacy to understand that argument. If nothing else it requires knowing what proportional means. Choice voting advocates failed to clear a high math literacy hurdle and the ballot question was rejected.

Obama, Romney, Brown and Warren are all telling us how they will fight for the middle class. That is where the votes are. Even people in high-income brackets think of themselves as middle class. Households with income over $100,000 are in the top two-tenths. Their concerns may be very different from the real middle class.

The discount clothing retailer Syms used the advertising tagline an educated consumer is our best customer. I tell my principles of economics students that an educated voter is our best citizen.

Programs like UTeach are important for preparing students for careers in engineering and science. Beyond that, basic math literacy is essential to fulfill our duty as citizens.

5 Responses to “Two-tenths of a pound” by John Edward

  1. Bill C says:

    John –

    Great topic and well written. Interesting I have yet to see the “more tax revenue is the solution to the problem” comments. You and I have had some of this discussion. Our educational system/process (school, home, community etc) is a major element of the foundation for success. It is broken. Collecting and spending more money (on education) is an easy out. Just like passing a casino bill makes it look like our legislators care. From a global competitive standpoint the US is in trouble. Your article highlights the risk that the next generation may not be able to turn it around. At one time, unions were a powerful representative force for the middle class. We also had real people (not politicians) in the state legislature and congress. Not so much anymore.. Your article highlights the results of our current approach. It should scare the daylights out of people… It doesn’t… It’s too bad.

  2. Fran McDougall says:

    This is a sad reflection on Math Ed. in the primary schools. Having been in this business for many, many years, I have found that the lack of good math sense has been slowly trickling up to those who set the curricuum. Those in the administration as well as those in the classroom our completely mathaphobic. The old ways of fact drills and other tools of the mind have been eliminated. No need of them. Just write a sentence about how you might tackle a problem, not actually do the calculation is all that’s required. If you were in my third grade class, you came out with some mastery of math facts. That’s a tool that will keep you in good stead when dealing with calculations. When someone who should know better says, “I should have went.” and all around them noone hears the error, I cringe . So too, I have some red mlights in math lingo.. How do you read the number 20012? Do you read it with Mr. Andy in the middle? Two thousand AND twelve? Throwing decimal points in numbers drives me just as crazy as “I should have went.” By the way the number is two thousand twelve. Do not use Mr. Andy unless you are reading a decimal point. So John, I think we’re fighting a losing battle and it’s very sad.

  3. Joe S says:

    I’d like to see a hybrid tax system, combining some elements of the proposed national sales tax with a high-deductible, progressive income tax. The sales tax rate would be 17%, and the standard deduction of the income tax would be $100K for married couples, with 20% above that, and another 5% for each $50 above $100K to a maximum rate of 40%, with virtually no itemized deductions.

    Compensating for this (apparent) onerous tax would be a single-payer health insurance system funded with these revenues, with a maximum $100 per month per person premium (but lower for lower income, and zero for children). In addition, the employer portion of the social security tax would be zeroed, but there would be no cap on the earnings subject to social security tax for the employee.

    The prime motivation behind this system is to partially level the playing field for US producers compared to importers.

  4. Greg Page says:

    Fran, thanks for writing this portion: “The old ways of fact drills and other tools of the mind have been eliminated. No need of them. Just write a sentence about how you might tackle a problem, not actually do the calculation is all that’s required.”

    This New School pedagogy that says facts don’t really matter and no one should ever be asked to memorize anything sounds like a total overreaction to entirely rote-based learning systems from many years ago. The result is that we get people who don’t know what two-tenths of a pound is, why it’s wrong to say “I should have went,” or who graduate high school unable to locate Canada and Mexico on a world map.

    This seems like a great way to perpetuate inequality, because people from high socioeconomic status homes are more likely to pick that sort of stuff up along the way from places other than school.

    We laugh so hard at segments like “Jaywalking,” in which Jay Leno (a fine product of Merrimack Valley education!) goes around asking people what the Bill of Rights is, what the Constitution is, who the Vice President is, etc. but if we don’t teach that sort of stuff in school, how could we expect any different?

    We talk about “teaching to the test” like it’s the bogeyman (or Evil Monkey?) living in the closet, but if the test was the basic math mastery you expected of your third-graders, and you taught them by ensuring they knew fractions, decimals, and could read large numbers out loud correctly, then how exactly is that bad?

  5. Fran McDougall says:

    Sorry about my extra 0. I meant the current year 2012. I do sometimes make mistakes. Thanks, Sue. Blame it on my advanced age.