Yesterday Percentages Ruled

Yesterday the Boss of the Fabric of the Universe called together all the mathematical concepts, had them line up in a row, and asked, who wants to have a big day?, at which point all the mathematical concepts (who, to a concept, like to have their days maintain a steady routine), stepped backward — all, that is, except %, who was a little groggy after a grand party the night before, and therefore appeared, relativity and all, to have stepped forward to volunteer for the job. So the Boss of the Fabric of the Universe said, thank you %, here’s what I have in mind for you, at which point the Boss of the Fabric of the Universe and % went off and huddled and planned.

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Yesterday we saw the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. Back then, the conventional talking-head wisdom and general lay comment was that OWS was too diffuse, too anarchic, and, above all, too lacking in a message to make any difference. But out of all that fog came a very clear message and a very memorable bit of language, about income inequality, with talk of the 99% and the 1% — so much so that, today, if you say the 99%, pretty much everyone knows what you mean. Same thing for the 1%.

Yesterday we also saw the release of a tape in which Mitt Romney — always thought to be a number’y kinda guy, because, hey, that’s what finance types are all about, right? — made another percentage famous, this one 47%, when he said this:

There are 47% who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it [I hear the Midwesterner in him in that last hyphen-filled chunk] — that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.

And then a few moments later he then went on to say,

My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to ten percent [there’s that % thing coming up again] in the center that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon, in some case emotion, whether they like the guy or not.

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So who is the 47%? Thank you to Annie Lowrey, of the New York Times (whose job it is to know this sort of thing), for pointing out, via the Twitter Pipes, that the now-famous 47% figure comes from The Tax Policy Center, which is a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, both of which Wikipedia lists as “liberal think tanks.”

You can see all of the TPC data online (I am working on how to more easily post tables in the WordPress visual editor box . . .).

The 47% figure is the “Percentage of Non Paying Tax Units” in 2011. In absolute numbers, it’s 76 million tax units (in law school, we called them “taxpayers”; I’ll sometimes call them “folks” below); those are the people to whom Mr. Romney referred.  76 million of ’em

Here are some interesting numberoids that jump out of the data:

  • The 1% (or, more accurately but less catchy-ly, the 0.9%) had cash income levels above $500k in that year.
  • About 2% of that particular 0.9% paid nada income tax (29 thousand folks out of 1.34 million)
  • 43% of the tax units had cash income levels below $50k
  • About 68% of that particular 43% paid nada income tax (71 million folks out of 104 million folks)
  • 15% of the tax units had cash income levels above $100k
  • About 2% of that particular 15% paid nada income tax (491 thousand folks out of 25 million folks)

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This is yet another Rorschach Test. What do you see when you look at those numbers? Do any of the numbers in there make you huff and puff?  Do any of those numbers make you snort a big ridicule of disgust?

Please do take a look at the the TPC data online — spend some time in there (5 minutes should do) and see a set of numbers which, apparently, both Repubs and Dems are looking at and using, and apparently agreeing upon . . . . See in there a set of numbers that speak loudly about how we have things set up right now.

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And aren’t you glad that you learned percentages in school?

They really are quite handy, aren’t they? Think about it: how comfortable are you in dealing with fractions? Or square roots or cosines or exponents or any of those other things you learned in math class.

Do you use ’em much? My hunch is that most people will answer that question in the negatory.

But how about percentages? I’ll give you 80/20 odds that most people over the age of 20 are pretty comfy using %s.

Just don’t ask ’em how many times something that’s increased by 200% has gone up.

. . .

. . .

. . .


The answer is 3.


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