Stick to good, old-fashioned, apolitical math

Opinion: Columns

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Matt Baron

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For 15 years, I have been teaching numeracy (aka mathematical literacy) through my writing and workshops. From schoolchildren to professional journalists around the country, I have helped folks "go figure," which happens to be the name of my training program.

My passion to "make numbers count" includes a lesson that I want to share with my neighbors, including state Senator Don Harmon. On Friday, during his "Springfield Report," sponsored by the Business and Civic Council of Oak Park at the Carleton Hotel, Harmon discussed the 2011 state income tax increase from 3% to 5%.

In a finance-centric discussion, replete with bar graphs, pie charts and other data points that would make the hearts of math geeks (like me) flutter, Harmon repeatedly referred to the income tax hike as a 2 percent increase. At the same time, he dismissed those (including "our Republican friends") who referred to it as a 67 percent increase.

Harmon is an intelligent man. So either he has a tiny hole in his grasp of math or he is reluctant to acknowledge the difference between "percent change" and "percentage point change."

Starting at 3% and then going to 5% is a 2 percentage point increase. But it's a 66.7 percent change.

Most importantly, that 66.7% figure relates to the bottom line for you and me. It's the actual impact of the hike. Someone earning $50,000 annually would have paid $1,500 in state income tax until recently; nowadays that same individual making the same amount is paying $2,500 in state income tax.

If it were a 2 percent increase in the tax, then the $1,500 sent to Springfield previously would have inched up to $1,530, or $970 less than the current reality for that taxpayer.

My remarks here will not explore the relative merit of the income-tax increase or how those additional funds are being spent. But in public discourse, let's steer clear of Democratic math, Republican math or any partisan math.

Let's stick to good, old-fashioned, apolitical math.

Matt Baron is a member of the Oak Park Public Library board. His comments do not reflect his connection with that board.

Reader Comments

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Uncommon Sense  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 10:26 AM

I see that kind of math dishonesty on the left moreso than on the right. Regardless, journalist need to hold politicians feet to the fire in regards to playing it fast and loose with numbers. Of course, Harmon's approach works well with low information voters.

Disgusted Illinoisioan #4307  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 10:22 AM

Thanks Matt, for calling Harmon on this. If that's the way he sees things, then why is he so recalcitrant when it comes to cutting state pensioners COLA adjustments and raising their pension contributions by a mere few percent? Honestly, this shows how little respect he has for his constituents and how willing he is to twist the truth on behalf of his party bosses and union campaign funders.

Lisa Keefe from Oak Park  

Posted: July 3rd, 2013 9:03 AM

Thanks, Matt, for reminding folks that a little linguistic shift (or sleight-of-hand?) can change the picture utterly.

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