• Last modified 469 days ago (April 7, 2023)


Losing our common cents

Whether we blame overburdened schools, ubiquitous calculators, or populist anti-intellectualism, in which opinions become facts and facts become opinions, it’s clear that — as a nation — our math skills no longer add up.

It’s easy to blame our innumeracy on young people. While teaching a class how to make a pie chart, I once asked 12 university seniors and grad students how many of them planned to go out of state for spring break. Nine held up their hands. And all 12 whipped out their smart phone calculators when I asked what percentage that was. In case your phone isn’t handy, it’s 75% or three-quarters (as in, from 12 o’clock to 9 o’clock) on a pie chart.

It isn’t just the young, however. The other night, while listening to a presiding officer try to figure out when a 30-minute executive session would conclude if it started at 5:42 p.m., I was amazed to hear him stammer for seemingly half the time before finally turning to the youngest member of his group, who promptly came up with 6:12 p.m.

Where things have changed the most is in getting change — for those of us, at least, still so stuck in our ways (or so concerned about fees charged to merchants) that we don’t automatically hand over debit or credit cards whenever we pay for anything.

When was the last time a clerk counted change back to you? You know: buy something for 77 cents, give the clerk a dollar, then hear three pennies counted as “78, 79, 80,” and two dimes counted as “90, a dollar.”

Maybe at a bank — an old-fashioned one, at that. Everywhere else, it’s as hard to find a clerk counting change as it is to find anything that still costs only 77 cents.

I watched a clerk the other day try to make 32 cents in change for me. His register told him the total I was due. Logically, I’d get a quarter, a nickel, and two pennies. I could see his cash drawer. He had plenty of all three types of coin. But instead, after half a minute of puzzlement, he handed me three dimes and two pennies — one more coin than I wanted thudding around (coins no longer jingle) in my pocket until I could consign them to a coin-sorter at home.

Then there were a pair of clerks at another store. Both were baffled after I made a $10.70 purchase and handed one of them a $20 bill and a $1 bill. Both insisted I was overpaying. Only after a minute or more of conversation did they understand that I would prefer getting back a single $10 bill instead of four $1 bills and a $5 bill as the paper part of my change.

It’s not as if any of these problems involve differential calculus. It’s just basic arithmetic — addition and subtraction, not even long division.

Customers apparently are equally as innumerate, which may explain why many stores’ credit card machines now have buttons to push to automatically add 15%, 20%, or 10% tips.

Part of why I was paying with cash instead of plastic at one store what that I’ve always been embarrassed to have to choose the size of tip in the presence of the person being tipped — especially when the “service” wasn’t someone waiting a table but rather simply showing up at a counter or a pickup window. Since when is it necessary to tip people who don’t provide a discretionary level of service?

All of this innumeracy may help explain why governments seem so willing to tax and spend. Voters may not be able to figure out how much of their money government is frittering away unnecessarily. A million here, a million there, and pretty soon it adds up to real money.

Perhaps we all should empty our coin sorters, penny jars, quarter piles, what-have-you, and donate the bags of treasure to someplace willing to get us back to understanding arithmetic. Our global economy may speak many languages, but the one language that’s always in common is math.


Last modified April 7, 2023