My Percentage / Percentage Point Primer & Plea For Apolitical Math

Sixteen years ago this summer, an editor at the newspaper where I toiled came to my desk and asked if I would be interested in writing a column that centered on numbers.

He was aware of my passion for and facility with numbers–in fact, I was in the midst of creating the Home Run Power Ratio as steroid-abetted sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were just then making an assault on Major League Baseball’s single-season home run record.

So it took me less than one-fifth of a second to accept the assignment with glee. That brief chat in the newsroom of The Courier News in Elgin was a career-altering moment.

The column, “By the Numbers,” was eventually syndicated nationally and led to the 2001 creation of a training program that I dubbed “Go Figure: Making Numbers Count” and sent me throughout the country to train journalists and other communications pros on numeracy, or mathematical literacy.

Along the way, in 2002, The Christian Science Monitor provided me with a forum to discuss stuff like how many years (and months, days, hours, minutes and seconds) you are when you attain one billion seconds of life. The piece, “Numbers Figure Strongly in My Life,” was published almost precisely one-quarter of my life ago.

So whenever I see people, particularly those in positions of power and influence, wield numbers carelessly or irresponsibly, I can’t help but speak up.

This is all preamble to the letter, on the crucial distinction between percent change and percentage point change, that I sent recently to local newspapers. My writing came on the heels of Illinois State Senator Don Harmon’s “Springfield Report” to his constituents in Oak Park, and his misstatement of the 67-percent increase in the state income tax rate as being only 2 percent.

The headline in the Oak Leaves reads “Let’s stick to good old-fashioned, apolitical math.” Meanwhile, the Wednesday Journal of Oak Park & River Forest dropped the “let’s” but left everything else intact.

From what I have observed over the years, Harmon is a decent, conscientious elected official. So I’m looking forward to writing a letter of praise to him and all other state politicians when they follow through on their pledge to reduce the “temporary” state income tax increase from 5 percent to 3.75 percent.

By then, I’m confident Harmon will lead the charge in describing the reduction as a 1.25 percentage point decline and a robust 25-percent decrease.

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