ont-debate-fullBy Andre Den Tandt

Tuesday night's televised leaders' debate convinced me that we need a new word in the dictionary: innumeracy, that is the inability to grasp the meaning of numbers, especially large numbers; the lack of skill in applying large numbers
to situations that are difficult to quantify.

It's not just large numbers either. Take former premier Dalton McGuinty, who famously said upon resigning that, at least, they (the Ontario Liberals) "got the big things right." Really?

More than a $1-billion cost for scrapping two gas plants; one seat short of a majority after the 2011 election; one failed attempt to reclaim that majority by filling Elizabeth Wittmer's former seat with a Liberal body. One could go on.

Admittedly, we're not back at the level of counting on our fingers and toes - quite. Nor is the issue here about children passing grade four or five without having to master multiplication. (That would involve memory work. Heaven forbid.)

More likely it's that we just don't like to think too hard about "illions" as in millions billions, and trillions. It's all just too much. When the numbers grow exponentially (as in 1-2-4-8-16-32), before long it's a figure larger than the total number of molecules on earth. Then we are really lost.

But numbers matter. And not just in economics and finance, science and engineering. It's skill with numbers that allows us to catch swindlers whose arithmetic is much better than that of their victims. And the same applies to promises made by politicians. Sadly, politics today is rife with innumeracy.

Tim Hudak, an economist, no doubt understands numbers. But he let his desire to present an attractive number, one million jobs, override his common sense. If the economy improves, the million jobs will be there. If the economy tanks, the jobs won't be there regardless of what he does, and he will have to resign as promised. Right?
Well no. Politicians will disagree about the numbers. Each side will have a bevy of economists to back them up, and so on. The number of jobs is quite meaningless, as is the promise to resign. He should have known better.

Andrea Horwath had a different problem. She says she no longer trusts the Liberals to deliver on their promises. Most of those made to her in the last two budgets were never delivered. She felt betrayed and it shows. Promised sums don't matter much when the debtor is bankrupt. The promises have lost their currency, literally. But, Horwath kept the Liberals in power. Surely she should have had their number!

Kathleen Wynne was clearly the least comfortable of the three, in the TV debate. She tried hard to distance herself from her predecessor, hoping an abject confession and apology would, like a magic wand, clean the slate. This clearly did not work, not even on her, judging by her body language.

Let's go back to numbers. Engineers and scientists use them and like them, need them in fact. Perhaps that's why we find relatively few such people in politics, where every fact may be magnified or shaded, where statistics are turned into tools of deception. (Winston Churchill, in old age, sheepishly admitted that he had at times freely invented and used fake statistics provided he knew no contradictory evidence existed).

How can we protect ourselves then? By becoming numerate. By developing a reflex that applies a quick rule of thumb to numbers that look too large or too small, too outlandish or too convenient, as a tool to make a point that defies common sense. By turning a critical eye when we become aware of factors that could lead someone to fudge, hide or falsify the data. Greed, partisanship, ideology, religious or cultural prejudice come to mind.

With a week to go before the vote, we might do well to recall some simple rules of small-scale economics. To the Greeks the word meant "the management of the household or of money matters; a frugal and judicious use of money and goods."

Live within your means. Some good and desirable things may be unaffordable, for now. Try not to spend money you don't have, nor have any prospect of making. Maintain the things you have. Don't replace what's working well. Keep a reserve for the unexpected.

These truisms apply to the political economy as well. Our parents knew this. Most politicians of their generation knew it too. How many politicians are saying something like this now? If the answer is "none," who comes closest?

Andre Den Tandt is a retired high school teacher and landowner who lives in Sydenham Township, in the municipality of Meaford.