The Sad Lesson of Million-Gate

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

As Snopes (and lots of others) have reported:

On March 3, 2020, a Twitter user posted a message that claimed former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg could have given each American $1 million for the amount he spent on advertisements during his failed 2020 U.S. presidential candidacy:

The tweet reached a much larger audience a few days later when it was uncritically presented by MSNBC anchor Brian Williams and Mara Gay, a member of the The New York Times editorial board:

The problem, it seems to me, isn't just that Williams and Gay made an arithmetical mistake; mistakes happen.

It's that they didn't have the basic math sense to realize that something was off. Agreeing with an assertion that $500 million split among 327 million Americans would be, say, $3 per person would be an arithmetical mistake; it shouldn't be that hard to quickly realize that 500/327 is about 1.5 rather than about 3, but one can easily flub that.

But $1 million for each American should obviously be vastly more than $500 million. Likewise, $500 million split among 327 million should obviously be vastly less than $1 million. More broadly, just as a matter of common sense, given that the average American's yearly income is somewhere under $100,000 (all of us should have a sense of that from ordinary life, even if we don't know the exact number off the top of our heads), no one American is going to spend ten times the national GNP on a political campaign.

The point of basic numeracy, I think, isn't that people should know their multiplication table or be able to do long division. It's that people should have a rough understanding of numbers that they can drawn on in situations like this, to know what makes sense and what doesn't. Sad to see that lacking here.

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  1. No, the real problem is that Ms. Gay then called out as “racist” the people who pointed out her math mistake. Really.

    The fact that anyone, including herself, would take such an assertion seriously for one second is so astoundingly stupid it makes the math mistake look like genius in comparison.

    Can we all stop accepting assertions of racism by persons who have discredited themselves on the subject in this manner? Please?

    1. Yeah, except she didn’t call out as racist the people who pointed out her math mistake. She called out as racist the people who attacked her with racist messages, like “You’re a great example of why we need to end Affirmative Action. Get a job scrubbing floors. It’s the only thing you’re good for.” And “Have a banana.”

      The nerve of her, right?

      1. Saying that someone could have not gotten their job but for a preferences program is an attack on their competence, not racism. This is especially true when it is supported by actual evidence of incompetence.

        It was, however, an unnecessary introduction of politics into the accusation. But given Gay’s history of comments, she doesn’t seem to have a lot of room to complain about gratuitous politicing. Goose and gander and all that…

        1. Saying that someone could have not gotten their job but for a preferences program is an attack on their competence, not racism. This is especially true when it is supported by actual evidence of incompetence.

          I understand the argument that Mara Gay got her job through affirmative action, but what’s the excuse for hiring Brian Williams? Certainly NBC should now feel free to fire him?

  2. “When you’re a black woman in America with a public voice, a trivial math error can lead to a deluge of hate.”

    https://www.foxnews.com/media/new-york-times-mara-gay-msnbc-math-fiasco

  3. Meanwhile, Mara Gay is trying to cloak herself in “this is really because I’m a black woman” clothing. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/11/opinion/racism-twitter.html DON’T LIE EUGENE WE KNOW YOU RESENT SHE EXISTS 🙁

    1. I often wonder if they’re selectively deleting tweets from the NYT comments section or if you can only post on it if you live on another planet.

  4. New York Times Company press release, March 26, 2018:

    “We’re delighted to announce Mara Gay will join the editorial board as our lead opinion writer on state and local affairs.

    “Mara arrives from The Wall Street Journal, where she has reported on the mayor and City Hall since 2013, covering daily life in New York City from local politics to the $88 billion budget…”

    https://www.nytco.com/press/mara-gay-to-join-editorial-board/

    1. I now wonder about all the WSJ reporting on the NYC budget.

  5. Is Mara related to Enola? Because they both bombed pretty badly.

      1. I don’t mean to be too persnickety, but I think it would have worked better as “they both bombed.” The Enola Gay bombed effectively, looking at things from the perspective of the intended function of the bomber.

        1. I was worried someone would notice that.

          How about “bombed spectacularly.”

    1. That’s so gay.

  6. I’m not sure what the point is of protecting the original Tweet author. Assuming its the same account as in the picture her name is Mekita Rivas and she writes for fine establishment media outlets such as Teen Vogue, Glamour, and even your old hangout WAPO. Although coincidentally there seems to be a recent effort to scrub this information. People should get to know the big brains that are part of the ‘authoritative trustyworthy mainstream news sources’ pols and tech oligarchs, especially of the leftwing variety, are always banging on about when it comes to combating misinformation.

  7. The question is, do you want a good story or not?

  8. But she can show the process she used, so the answer doesn’t matter. Common Core.

  9. “no one American is going to spend ten times the national GNP on a political campaign.”

    Or even ten times the national per capita gdp. But I agree with your larger point.

    1. TwelveInchPianist: I’m not sure I understand the “Or even times the national per capita gdp” — don’t many candidates spend ten times the national per capita GDP, which would be about $600,000?

      1. I may have misunderstood your point. Please disregard my comment.

  10. There’s a sadder lesson involving “close to zeroGate.”

    That one seems a poor candidate to be mentioned at this blog, though.

    1. Does it involve bitter clingers who are about to be replaced by their betters?

  11. There’s a book titled “Innumeracy”. Perhaps someone should send her the Amazon link…

    1. Wouldn’t help. She can’t read either.

  12. These people arent news, media, they are ideologue propagandists. Hume even mentioned the math mistake briefly then let her continue uncorrected. These people are harming the country.

  13. Putting aside that it is fun to poke the journamalists, I’ve seen people make similar numeric mistakes when reading similar things, and I wonder if this mistake is less about basic numeracy than about a semantic quirk.

    The repetition of ‘million’, I think, tricks one into assuming the math being discussed happens all in the same magnitude. It is about money, so folks are used to chopping off “to the right” when talking about them. Essentially, it smuggles division into a context that, if you’re not paying attention, might intuitively feel like integer addition/subtraction.

    I’m not saying the mistake isn’t a howler, twice. (How many people reviewed it before televising?) I just think it might happen for a different reason.

    1. The problem is it doesn’t pass the most basic smell test. It’s not innumeracy or poor arithmetic skills. It’s someone so focused on insulting the opposition as to throw all thought out the window. That is what is wrong with her brain power.

      1. Even if their brains went wonky, or they are that dumb at arithmetic, $1 million per person should have immediately seemed suspect, but as wish fulfillment of evil, it felt good to feel you had rooted out something astounding.

        I’ll go with journalists aren’t as bright as their confirmations of money and hanging out on TV lead them to believe. Join the Hollywood and sports stars crowd.

  14. It is possible that an implicit complication has gone unremarked. It may be that the potential spending referred to is not limited to the $500 million Bloomberg actually spent. The reference might have been intended to indicate what Bloomberg could do if he spent his entire fortune. Of course, that would still be wildly short of making every American a millionaire, but it adds a slight extra complication to seeing the point. Nothing can save it from being a stupid mistake.

    1. That isn’t what they said, its not what they meant. And it doesn’t help your argument a bit that if he did spend his entire fortune on the campaign it would be about 150.00 per person, still a little short of a million.

  15. I’m not sure it’s math sense that’s missing, it’s common sense.

    If it were even approximately true that one rich businessman could give every American $1 million, that would imply that the same rich businessman could, instead, fund vast national spending programs on his own.

    On that basis, the idea that the very rich represent an untapped, inexhaustible, pot of money that can provide everyone with milk and honey, at no cost to the hoi polloi, would make perfect sense, and would appear in lots of politicians’ stump speeches.

    I had always assumed that the fact that some politicians are happy to do precisely this was simply an illustration of their unscrupulous venality. One now has to face the more alarming possibility that some of them actually believe it.

    1. Totally agree – it has nothing to do with numeracy. It’s that certain people, likely due to heir ideological priors, lack the intuitive sense to realize that if one rich guy could that easily solve literally everyone’s financial problems, it would have happened a long a time ago.

    2. Exactly.

      If your sense of the state of the world is such that you don’t immediately go “That can’t be right” to a claim that one rich guy is in a position to give every American a million dollars, then the issue isn’t your math, it’s that you don’t live in the real world. Your opinions on economics and fiscal policy should be as readily and totally dismissed as the opinions of a Young Earth Creationist on geology and biology.

      Further, if a media outlet pays you write material on economics and fiscal policy, they should be taken as seriously as an outlet that pays a Young Earth Creationist to write on geology and biology.

  16. This reminds me of the trivial yet confusing math problems Daniel Kahneman writes about in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

  17. I think the real problem is that it exposes the lack of vetting of the information they put out there. I understand making a math mistake when under the pressure of reacting live on camera, but I have a hard time believing that anyone who took a few uninterrupted seconds to think about it would approve of airing it.

    I hate, HATE the “FAKE NEWS” refrain Trump and his supporters are so fond of, but incidents like this just give them more fuel to keep spewing their crap about the media.

    1. No, not vetting of information – it’s screening of doofuses.

      Never mind the math, if you’re a reporter and you’re told “there’s this guy who could give every American a million dollars”, your brain should be reacting the same way as if you heard “there’s this guy and he keeps a pack of T Rex’s on his private island on Mars.”

      Something is wrong with the answer. Even a pigeon should know that. In fact that’s precisely the point my pigeon made when I discussed the issue with her.

  18. Prof:

    I do not dispute your analysis but I feel it misses the larger point. The ‘error’ is a classic case of confirmation bias. Williams and Gay believed the math because it fit the narrative. They believed it was true because they wanted it to be true.

  19. Million, Billion, Trillion, whatever.

    1. just a bunch of zeros all lined up

  20. Here’s the real math. According to Newsweek, Bloomberg spent $234 million on Super Tuesday states and received 1.7 million votes. That works out to about $138/vote. Now if Bloomberg had sent me a $100 bill, I would have gladly voted for him in the Washington primary. 😉

    1. Which once again raises the puzzle – promising voters lotsa money and goodies if they vote for you is :

      (a) perfectly fine, normal and even praiseworthy in many quarters, if the money you promise to spend is somebody else’s, but

      (b) criminal and scandalous if the money is your own

      Very odd.

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