Americans Must Be Bad With Fractions

December 19, 2011
48 Views

Americans seem to have a problem with fractions. As in, they don’t appear to grasp how they work. That’s the conclusion I’ve finally reached after noticing a striking trend among public opinion polls in which Americans like the parts of something, but dislike the whole. The only way that one can hold such a position, it seems to me, is if one is unclear that the parts together compose the whole. With fractions, we understand that 2/8 + 1/4 + 1/2 = 1, but the logic doesn’t appear to hold elsewhere.

Americans seem to have a problem with fractions. As in, they don’t appear to grasp how they work. That’s the conclusion I’ve finally reached after noticing a striking trend among public opinion polls in which Americans like the parts of something, but dislike the whole. The only way that one can hold such a position, it seems to me, is if one is unclear that the parts together compose the whole. With fractions, we understand that 2/8 + 1/4 + 1/2 = 1, but the logic doesn’t appear to hold elsewhere.

For example, consider the Affordable Care Act. When polled, the public strongly supported the individual components of the law. Asked to consider the law as a whole, though, and supported dropped off significantly. It’s a bit confusing, isn’t it? They might as well say “I love crust, cheese, tomato sauce, and pepperoni, but don’t you go putting it all together and trying to shove a slice of pizza down my throat.”

We see the same hard to reconcile pattern in Congressional approval ratings. The current approval rating for Congress is the lowest it’s ever been at an abysmal 13%. Asked to consider whether most incumbents deserved to be re-elected, the answer was another all-time-low: 20% said yes. In other words, very few of us approve of Congress as a whole. But the parts? Well that’s a different story. Asked to consider whether the incumbent in their district deserved to be re-elected, the answer was much higher: 53% said yes. Folks, those numbers just don’t add up. It’s time we realized that it’s impossible for everyone to be above average.

The parts necessarily make up the whole. That’s why fractions have denominators. If you, and more than half of everyone else, thinks that your (or their) member of Congress deserves to be re-elected, then the chances are pretty good that they will be. This explains why we keep voting the same people to another term, and yet we act surprised when the result is more polarization and less progress. It’s why we like all of the provisions of health reform, but oppose the law that would implement them, and then wonder why we continue to pay more and more for our health care. We need to understand the part we play in the way things are. If we don’t like the big picture, we need to stop assuming that we’re not the problem, and start figuring out how to fix it.

 

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