When numbers do matter

THE US federal deficit is recorded, second by second, on a counting machine above Times Square in Manhattan. The annual rankings of the quality of world universities and colleges creates excitement among all who care about such things.

By Paul Kennedy

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Published: Mon 30 Jul 2007, 8:45 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 8:52 PM

The highly successful "Guinness World Records" makes it sales upon our insatiable curiosity for figures: Who has eaten the world's largest number of sausages at one go, who has swum farther than anyone else? Who is the richest man in the world?

Most of this is harmless nonsense; who really cares who has swum farther than anyone else? Besides, most of us rightly avoid statistics, except when we are checking our bank balance. Any politician or professor who throws out lots of numbers during a speech should be cautioned that the audience's attention-level plummets immediately. Learned op-ed articles that are crammed with statistics cause even the most erudite reader to turn the page.

So, an essay on "When Numbers Do Matter" is a risky one indeed. Yet it seems to me that there are some data-laden items that bear perusal, and careful reflection. What follows is my reaction to a couple of recent such items that managed to disturb me — a lot.

They are not about high politics, so they are not about the Russian government's increasing share of energy supplies, or China's defence expenditures, or the cost of the war in Iraq. They are statistics — numbers — about lots of rather ordinary human beings. Unfortunately, both items suggest that parts of the social fabric of our planet are in deep trouble.

The first item, written for the Financial Times by Gunnar Heinsohn, a professor at the University of Bremen, in Germany, explored the connection between the ever-exploding violence on the Gaza Strip and the massive expansion of angry young men in that territory. Many of us refer to the connection between demography, frustration and street violence, but we do it anecdotally and rather casually. Heinsohn puts some real figures on this catastrophic problem.

Between 1950 and 2007, Gaza's population has soared from 240,000 to nearly 1.5 million people, due to the high fertility levels of Palestinian families. Decade after decade, the numbers march on. The Palestinians may not be able to defeat the formidable Israeli tanks and bulldozers, but they are outgrowing Jewish families at a stupendous rate.

In one of Heinsohn's more startling remarks, he notes that "Had the people of the US multiplied at the same rate as the people of Gaza, the US would have gone from a population of 152 million in 1950 to 945 million in 2007, more than triple the size of its current population of 301 million."

But the author's point is much sharper than that: It is that there are many more young (and frustrated, angry, unemployed) Arab boys than there are young Jewish boys, and that the former are growing in numbers so fast that no one can really control them. Worst of all are the private admissions by top Palestinian policymakers that neither of the country's top two parties, Fatah and Hamas, can really check this pent-up juvenile chemistry.

If that is true, then all the peace missions by the US or the European Union just fade into insignificance. Numbers count. And no one will feel that fact more than Israel over the next several decades.

The second item about numbers that caught my attention was an article in the June-July edition of The Catholic Worker, that rather obscure but most wondrous American Catholic magazine founded by the amazingly conscience-raising Dorothy Day well over 60 years ago. This particular piece was about a totally non-headlines-news-grabbing and absolutely non-sexy matter within the entire United States: prisoners.

The article, by Jim Reagan, is entitled "2,193,798 And Counting." That figure was the number of people incarcerated in the United States of America as of 2005. We rank number one in the world, way ahead even of China (1.5 million in prison) and our good pal Putin's Russia (870,000), according to the numbers provided by London University's International Centre for Prison Studies.

We incarcerate seven to eight times more of our population proportionately than do most of our European friends, and the absolute number of our prison inhabitants has doubled since the early 1990s. We are even better at incarcerating black, Hispanic and other minority males. At New York's best-known prison, Rikers Island, according to Mr Reagan, "over 90 per cent of its population is Latino and black."

Then there is the frequent abuse, disregard and poor treatment of not just a small number of crazed murderers (as if that would be a justification), but of many other incarcerated American citizens.

These numbers count in another remarkable way. In the state of New York, for example, while prisoners are denied the vote, their numbers are credited against the districts, chiefly rural, in which they are lodged. "At least seven Senate districts in NY State would be under-populated and need to be redrawn if their inmate populations were not counted," writes Regan. This is scandalous, but nobody seems to care; no wonder that we tumbled into the Guantanamo prison mess.

When faced with such mind-boggling figures, my mind blurs over. I can neither imagine what the youth population of the Gaza Strip will be in 2020 nor get a handle on how the United States will be able to run a prison system that could have three or four million inhabitants, the majority black and Hispanic, by that same date.

In much the same way, I admit, I find it hard to figure out the implications of the many reports on global warming, or those concerning Asia's rise to global economic dominance by mid-century. What's more, I'm pretty suspicious of anyone who claims to know exactly what any of these various statistical trends and projections mean.

Still, I'm sure they mean something. Which is why, alas, we cannot automatically close our eyes or hit "fast forward" when we come across a news item that contains a bunch of statistics, whether it is about the real prisons all over America or the virtual one that Gaza has become. Sometimes, numbers do count.

Paul Kennedy is the J Richardson Professor of History and the director of International Security Studies at Yale University. His most recent book is "The Parliament of Man," about the United Nations.

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