Thursday, June 12, 2014

Why Math is Important

I can recall from my high school days this repeated question, proffered by yours truly and many of my peers: “Why is math so important anyway?  What am I going to use Algebra and Trig for if I am not going into Engineering?”

The answer usually came packaged in a readied quip that informed us we would need the math to get a job after we graduated from school.  Through a lifetime of continuing education, I have come to a much more profound and urgent answer to this question: we need math skill in order to survive individually and collectively as a species and to maintain a functioning and meaningful democracy. 

This reasoning can be applied to all areas of society but there are certain of them that warrant critical and urgent attention.

These are the current, central facts of American foreign policy; not opinion, not a slant, not a partisan critique, just bare reality:

Radical Insurgents have just overrun the city of Tikrit and are headed toward Baghdad.
701 civilians have been killed in Iraq this month.
To date, approximately 188,000 people have died violent deaths in the Iraq war, with an estimated 134,000 innocent civilian deaths.
The Iraq war has cost US taxpayers more than...please pause and think about this...two Trillion dollars in direct cost.  This does not include interest on the war debt, which is calculated to add another four trillion dollars over the next four decades.

Significantly, this does not include the cost of the Afghanistan war, which the Brown University Study Group on War Costs estimates to be between $3.2 - $4 Trillion in direct cost, with civilian deaths estimated at 21,000 and total violent deaths at 225,000.  Here is the numeric value of the direct cost of our two recent wars, without interest: $6,000,000,000,000.  Put another way that is one billion taken six thousand times, or six times ten to the power of twelve. 

For last year, the total annual budget for the Food Stamp program (SNAP) was $74.6 billion, this during an historic period of record unemployment.  That is 1.2% of the direct cost of the two wars, without their required interest payments.  The program, which 47 million Americans rely on, was just cut by Congress.

Halliburton has been awarded $39.5 billion in Iraq war and "post-war" contracts.

Other companies, such as Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics. Raytheon, United Technologies, BAE, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have earned hundreds of billions of dollars in war profiteering.  The top three US Defense contractors' revenues represents 1% of the entire US $10 Trillion GPD and each are listed on the Fortune Most Admired Companies list.  Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman and Boeing are the largest arms producers in the world.  The term “war profiteering” can and should be understood grammatically and empirically as non-political as well as political since making private profit on war is, in fact, profiteering.  This language needs to move into the mainstream narrative by virtue of its objective, factual nature.

Regarding the largely ignored moral calculus, Richard Clarke, Chairman of the Counter Terrorism Security Group under President G.W. Bush has stated his view that President Bush and others are guilty of war crimes.

One of my favorite books, one that should be required reading in all high schools and continuing education programs is Innumeracy, by John Allen Poulos, Professor of Mathematics at Temple University.  Poulos explicates the problem of the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy in our society and our great difficulty with grasping numbers and absolute value at grand scale.  We seem to literally lose the ability to count and to assess proportion and therefore meaning and value at great orders of magnitude.  I think in some ways, this has made it easier for us to be hoodwinked into accepting the media narrative on wars, war debt, casualties, global warming and rates of change relative to time with a shrug of the shoulders and a "let's just move on" attitude.  We can't just move on: we need to stop and critically assess what has happened, understand it and respond. 

The cartoonish presentation of anti-war activists as a "Leftist" or "radical" is part of the media narrative.  This has to be challenged, as does US Defense policy, on rational and empirical grounds.  We are cutting food stamps and support programs for the poor.  Elites are negotiating major trade agreements in secret, without Congressional or citizen involvement.  We have the highest prison population on earth.  We have made access to higher education (where we can learn how to think analytically and critically) more difficult with skyrocketing costs and crushing student debt.  US college tuition and fees have increased 1,120% since 1978, while other successful modern democracies offer free, higher education.  These disparities are themselves radical but are not portrayed as such in popular media.

The Defense sector has contributed nearly $11,000,000 in PAC contributions in the 2014 election cycle alone.  This is split at roughly 60% to the GOP and 40% to Democrats and does not include millions in direct political contributions to individual campaigns.

Corporations are people.

We are committing passive suicide.  It’s in the numbers. 

I dedicate this post to my high school math tutor, Michael Ferris.