Saturday, January 01, 2005
The fairness of "per capita" comparisons
(You know, I really would like to move on to laying a serious beatdown on intelligent design but, apparently, there is the occasional reader that needs to have some sense pounded into him with a meat mallet. Sometimes, it's a real burden having to be smart enough for two people. Sigh.)
Lately, in order to justify their cheap-ass, chintzy, miserly contribution to international relief aid, American conservatives have taken to flaunting the absolute dollar figures of U.S. pledges. None of that high-falutin', book-larnin' having-to-do-actual-arithmetic per capita based on GDP fancy, schmancy calculations for these folks, no sirree. Apparently, the fact that the U.S. can afford to contribute more money than, say, Madagascar is cause for all sorts of hootin' and hollerin'. To be fair (and I'm nothing if not fair), we can at least consider whether they have a point.
Certainly, when you're the biggest, baddest motherfucker on the planet, there's a definite appeal to sticking to absolute numbers but, really, it is kind of a shallow, meaningless victory if you think about it. The same yahoos who are currently crowing about how much the U.S. is donating as a straight dollar figure sound depressingly like those basketball fans who whoop it up, high-fiving each other, when the American basketball dream team lays a smackdown on some third-world, African nation in Olympic qualifying. Yes sir, there's nothing more satisfying than knowing that your country's b-ball team, made up of professional multi-bazillionaires and able to draw from a pool of a quarter of a billion people, can wail the living crap out of, say, Ghana. Or Belize. Take that, Mozambique! And don't you be showing your sorry ass around here or we'll do it again. Damn straight. (I guess, then, getting your butt kicked at hockey by us Canadians is not something you really want to talk about. But I grow vicious. Onward.)
So these folks really don't want to get into your basic "per capita" comparisons; they prefer your straight-up, flat-out, bottom line numbers, do they? OK, let's do a little thought experiment here. (And for all you right-wingers, please, be careful -- the concept of actual thought might be unfamiliar territory for you and we don't want you to get lost.)
Consider a hypothetical conservative -- let's call him, oh, "Jay". Now, Jay lives in his own house on a street in a small town. One day, the local utility company screws up with the water mains and floods the basements of dozens of houses on two streets, Jay's street and the street next to it. Since it's their fault, the utility company offers a cash settlement. On the street over from Jay's , each home owner gets $50,000 to cover the damage. They seem happy with that, and they all accept the offer.
The utility company then offers all of the homeowners on Jay's street $100,000. They're more than happy with that offer, until they're told that that figure is not per household, it's the total settlement offered to all of the affected homeowners. And they're welcome to divide it up any way they see fit.
"But, wait," cries poor Jay, "that's not fair! All of those other folks got $50,000 apiece."
"Sure," says the utility company, "but you're stuck in this whole 'per capita' kind of thinking. Don't think of it that way. Each of those people got $50,000. But we're giving you all $100,000! That's a bigger number!"
"But, but ...," sputters Jay, "that just doesn't make sense!"
"Oh, sure it does," says the company. "After all, it's just the total, bottom line figure that counts, right? You didn't actually want to compare settlements on a 'per capita' basis, did you? You don't strike me as a 'per capita' kind of guy."
And, in a blinding flash of insight, Jay realizes that maybe, just maybe, this whole "per capita" comparison thing isn't such a bad idea after all.
Oh, who am I kidding? Jay realizes nothing of the sort. All he knows is that, somehow, he's been screwed out of a fair settlement and he's not quite sure why. But he's thrilled that his country can still beat the shit out of Sudan in basketball.