In 1960, the Milton Bradley Company marked its centennial by issuing a new edition of its flagship game, the Checkered Game of Life. Players inherited the trappings of existence as the spinning Wheel of Fate hurtled them towards retirement in their tiny plastic cars on the highway of Life. One had to earn money, support children, buy auto insurance, invest in stocks, pay doctor’s bills, make good on promissory notes, and, as of 1992, have a mid-life crisis. All this and more on a budget of fake money. ‘That’s Life!’, proclaimed the game. If only life were that easy. Although Milton Bradley and his successors failed to reckon with the fine print of life––the difficulties of maintaining relationships and the pursuit of happiness, for example––they did capture one truism about humanity: that the game of life is often a game of numbers.
Numbers have become our dominant means of interpreting the world. We calculate costs, dividends, debts, percentages, and exchange rates, somehow linking our notions of wealth, poverty, and quality of life to these figures. This is unsurprising considering that we measure out time and temperature, use quantity to define productivity, and conceive of our pasts in terms of decades. We even have a precise mathematics of life and death. It seems we are hard-wired to think, well, in numbers.
In many cases, numbers serve us well by signalling the difference between good and bad. It is true that there is usually a correlation between higher salaries and improved access to better health care, education, food, and leisure time. Likewise, weight functions as a solid barometer of whether one is overweight or in good health. There is, however, a limit to the utility of numbers as significant indicators, and in some instances, numbers can be misleading. For example, while money and the kind of living it can afford certainly help, they by no means guarantee a sense of well-being. Similarly, the BMI (Body Mass Index) system assigns very muscular individuals high numbers, wrongly giving the impression that they are overweight. Not all numbers bear out logical conclusions.
What, then, are we to do with numbers? If Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion is any indication, we are supposed to employ statistical evidence to make helpful policies. Collier’s book––which outlines how governments and agencies should help the world’s bottom billion develop––offers insightful analysis, but leaves much to be desired regarding the qualitative aspects of lived experience that cannot be neatly encapsulated in an intricate web of equations and mathematical relationships. As contributor Seán Muller points out, Collier’s inattention to the importance of pre-independence colonial history (among other things) combined with the selective criteria of statistical evidence have ensured that ‘no intractable questions [have been] cracked.’ This is symptomatic of what Muller calls ‘the economist’s burden’: the dilemma produced by the fact that ‘the tools exclusive to the field are incapable of answering the social and economic questions which are most important.’
Economists are not alone in facing this problem. Generally, numbers are useful because they give us a very precise understanding of scale, but they cannot necessarily impart the intimate details of human experience. For example, the thousands of Coalition casualties in Iraq give us an idea of a continuous and bloody struggle, but the numbers of deaths alone tell us very little about the condition of political stability, the demands of armed service, or the pain of those who have lost their loved ones. What do we do when the numbers become so abstract, so divorced from most of our lived experiences that we are unable to connect with the realities they represent? Or worse, what happens when we begin to take false comfort in the face value of numbers?
To avoid such lamentable scenarios, a change in how we process information is needed. This is not to say that numbers should become a less prominent tool for making sense of life. Instead, we should come to expect more than just quantitative answers from numbers. Take, for example, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s recent promise to ‘do his duty by the [Armed] Forces’. Brown proposes accomplishing this vaguely-defined task by increasing the Ministry of Defence’s spending by roughly £1 billion each year, bringing the budget from £33.4 billion to £39.9 billion in 2010. Additionally, the Times also informs us that the current cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is £6.6 billion; that current army power is 3,640 soldiers shy of the required 101,800; and that 42% of Forces are ‘suffering from critical to severe weaknesses in their ability to be ready to deploy.’ While these figures relate an inadequate military situation, they leave us wondering what exactly is at stake. How is the money being spent, and to what end? Would the additional £1 billion a year be used to ensure better armament, protection, and benefits for soldiers and their families? Or would it be used to entrust private companies with the UK’s security concerns abroad, potentially leading to another Blackwateresque scandal? What would the addition of 3,640 soldiers accomplish, and why is 101,800 the magic number? What constitutes ‘critical to severe weaknesses’ in deployment capability, and is more funding really the answer? It is not enough to be given just the raw numbers. We need to know what stands behind them, and whether sensible policies are being made that adequately reflect the situations at hand. In other words, numbers should be our initial means of questioning assumptions and policies. It is time that we started using numbers to more forthrightly demand accountability, thereby ensuring that extraordinary problems are met with deliberate and significant solutions. It is time to make sure that the game of life remains more than a game of numbers.