Monday, May 15, 2000

Week of 05/15/2000

What’s In A Number?
- by David Matthews 2

"There is apparently no surer way of turning a thing into its opposite than by exaggerating it." - Eric Hoffer

As I am putting keys to the keyboard, the MILLION Mom March is going on in Washington DC. Well, it won’t exactly be ONE MILLION mothers. In fact, even the organizers of the march say that at best there will be two hundred thousand mothers participating.

But let’s face it.. which sounds more impressive to the sound-byte members of the media? Saying you will have one million mothers, or simply two hundred thousand? It’s not like anyone will be keeping count, right? Besides, when C-Span covers the show, even a thousand people looks like a million.

And of course, this would not be the first time the numbers are fudged for publicity’s sake. How about the so-called "Million" Man March a few years ago? Well, at least the organizers there tried to get a million African-American men to come to Washington. So they were off by a few hundred… Doesn’t really matter, right? It’s the fact that they were THERE that mattered, right?

In the world of politics, numbers are important. When reason and logic cannot be used to gain political support, numbers are used. In a democratically-elected government, where the majority often rules, politicians often vote not by political philosophy as much as whatever can ensure the highest number of votes come election time. That is why some politicians are heavily addicted to polls. They want to feel like they are following the wishes of the people… even if "the people" is maybe 55% of a sample segment of the populace.

This was true when it came to the so-called "Moral Majority" - the gang of highly religious moralistic thugs led by Reverend Jerry Falwell, who tried to run roughshod through the political world and over our constitutional rights in the 1980’s. In truth, though, the so-called "Moral Majority" was hardly a majority. It was, as with most gangs of moralist thugs, simply a very vocal minority. However, the name alone gave the illusion to politicians and to members of the media that they were much larger than they really were.

Politicians also fudge the numbers when it comes to the budget. Both Democrats and Republicans love to boast of "cutting" the budget while at the same time spending even more money than the previous year. How is this done? Simple. Let’s say an imaginary federal department watching widgets wants to increase their budget by $5 million for next year. The politicians overseeing the funding for the Department of Widgets asks if they could operate at $3 million over this year’s spending. The Secretary of Widget-Watching does his or her prerequisite teeth-gnashing, sighs, and then says they can operate at $3 million over this year’s spending. The politicians then claim that they just cut the budget by $2 million.

The truth, of course, is that the Department of Widgets is going to spend $3 million more than they did last year. However, in the world of politics, that $3 million is actually a $2 million "budget cut." See how that works?

Of course, budget numbers are not the only things fudged in the federal government. Military numbers are as well. Remember Vietnam? According to the number of battles we supposedly "won", Saigon should never have fallen to the North Vietnamese. That was our excuse to pull out of that conflict.. we "won" a certain number of battles, game over.

How our government taxes us is also a matter that is easily quibbled over. When Bill Clinton was running for President of the United States in 1992, he made a vow to cut taxes. A few months after he was sworn into office, Clinton went in front of the cameras and told America that he would have to renege on that promise, but "according to the numbers" his tax hikes would actually become a tax cut for middle-class families. The operative words, of course, are "according to the numbers." In truth, everyone got soaked with Bill Clinton’s tax hike.

Let’s get brutally honest here.. politicians love to fudge numbers. After all, who else would try to claim that fifty-one percent of the populace is considered a "mandate from the people"? Once upon a time a so-called "mandate" was when a politician won with the support of three-fourths of the voting populace.

It is, of course, another form of lying. Not as dramatic as, say, "Read my lips, no new taxes"… or as bold as "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"… but it is lying nonetheless.

Worse yet, this is a kind of lie that destroys the credibility of any organization. The message that is presented is that the organization cares more about appearance than the cause they support. In other words, they value symbolism over substance.

It is one thing to give an approximate number to someone. The organizers of the Million Man March can say that approximately one million African-American men showed up in Washington DC. However, the organizers of the so-called "Million" Mom March didn’t even attempt to live up to their name. Instead, they relied on the name and their political agenda to skirt their little lie past the American public.

We expect our elected officials to be honest with us, but how can that happen when we don’t live up to our own level of honesty? If the founders of the so-called "Million" Mom March wanted to make a statement, they could have easily used a more honest name for their day of protest. Calling the event "Mother’s March For Peace", for instance, sounds just as impressive and more honest than trying to baffle people with exaggerated numbers.

Thomas Jefferson once said that "It is error alone which needs the support of government." Clearly the people behind the so-called "Million" Mom March organized their demonstration for purely political reasons, and that in itself is sad; because all they appear to be interested in, then, is to get government to pass laws instead of making real changes in society.

Real societal changes do not come from government, and they do not come from symbolic gestures fraught with over-exaggerations. Rather, they come from credible arguments and sound reasoning and persistence. The changes do not happen overnight, but they do happen, and without the need of legislation.. or rallies, for that matter.

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