Numbers don't add up for people with poor math skills

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Americans are math challenged. We've been that way from the beginning.

We weren't sure how many states were in the Louisiana Purchase, but we knew it was a bunch.

Growing up, I always thought of accounting as an exact science. Now, we're learning it isn't so exact, at least not at Enron, WorldCom and other giant corporations.

As it turns out, a lot of businesses are admitting it doesn't add up. The balance sheets, they say, are more song and dance than hard and fast numbers.

That doesn't surprise me. I've always been math challenged and so have most of my friends.

When I was growing up, I questioned why two plus two had to be four. I didn't know it then, but I was ahead of my time. I could have been an accountant for Enron and stashed away a nest egg in an off-shore account.

But as it turned out, I was too early for the new math of the new millennium.

Still, it's reassuring for math-challenged Americans to know they're not alone.

Private accountants in chrome-plated offices aren't the only ones who can't add, subtract, divide or conquer algebra.

Cape Girardeau city staff members recently were off by more than $600,000 as to revenue that could be generated from a tax proposal.

But, hey, this is America. It's not supposed to add up. Besides, if it's taxes, we know it's too much no matter how you add. For everything else, we rely on machines.

We have electronic scoreboards to do the math. We don't expect the referees to keep score. Nor do we ask the fans to keep track of all those numbers either.

Today, we rely on computers, cash registers and calculators to do the math.

Some people view the recent accounting scandals as a terrible crisis.

I, however, find it comforting to know that almost everyone is bad at math. Accountants, as it turns out, are just more creative with numbers than the rest of us.

The federal government, which ironically has always found it hard to keep track of our tax dollars, now requires executives of major U.S. companies to swear they aren't drawing up budgets like Congress does.

Fortunately for the bureaucrats, budgets bore most people. We don't like reading about them because they involve too many numbers. We're a nation that likes the bottom line, provided we don't have to calculate it.

Surprisingly, in the middle of all this mystery math, Becca and Bailey have taken a liking to number crunching.

I'm not sure why. Joni isn't big on math either. Both of us are better at adding up words than numbers.

But Becca and Bailey seem caught up in numbers games. Becca likes math, especially if it adds up to her allowance.

Bailey regularly adds up numbers in her head, with the help of her fingers.

Maybe she could teach a thing or two to all those Enron execs and their accountants who would have done well to rely on elementary math.

Those who flunked the latest corporate math can take heart, however. Americans are a forgiving people, particularly when it comes to bad math.

Deep down, we all know it doesn't add up. Still, there's little point in poring over the books again at least not until we get a better calculator.

Mark Bliss is a staff writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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