Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Figures never lie

Our pastor said in last Sunday's sermon that the average American household owes $8,000.00 in credit card debt. Wow! But what does that mean? Some households owe less. Some households owe more. That's all. I can't deal with 305,000,000 people in my pea-sized brain, so let's reduce the number to something I can understand. Let's suppose that the total population of America is eleven (11) persons. If ten (10) of those American persons are in a room, and none of them owes a penny to anyone, the average debt in the room is zero. But when one (1) more American person walks into the room and he or she owes, say, $88,000.00 in credit card debt, the average debt of the eleven American persons in the room--of the entire population--suddenly becomes $8,000.00 -- which would prove what, exactly? In our example, only that ten-elevenths of the American people, 90.9 per cent to be exact, are (is?) very disciplined in their (its?) financial dealings, and 9.1 per cent of the American people are (is?) in pretty dire financial straits and are (is?) headed either to financial ruin or intensive credit counseling, depending on what step they (he or she?) decide (decides?) to take next. (Aside to my readers: Here are some sentences from page 108 of Theodore M. Bernstein's The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, Atheneum, 1967, to ponder: "Whether to treat collective nouns as singular or plural is a continuing source of perplexity. The British seem to resolve their doubts in favor of the plural; the Americans seem to resolve theirs in favor of the singular. Both should resolve them in favor of good sense. If the idea of oneness predominates, treat the noun as a singular...If the idea of more-than-oneness predominates, treat the noun as a plural." So, confused readers, take your pick.)

Back to the topic at hand. Benjamin Disraeli or Mark Twain or somebody is supposed to have said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

I hope the people in the room last Sunday who owe less than $8,000.00 in credit card debt don't feel too smug, don't feel they are better than the average American. Such a reaction would make them alarmingly like the fellow in the eighteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel, the Pharisee who stood in the temple and prayed within himself, "God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men...I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess." And I hope the people in the room last Sunday who owe more than $8,000.00 in credit card debt don't feel that they are worse than the average American or that they are miserable failures or that there is no hope for them. And I hope that all such persons can get their acts together with the help of God and be able to get out of the holes they have dug for themselves. I hope the one who owes $88,000.00 and to whom a mere $8,000.00 in debt might look pretty good at the moment will remember that the first thing to do when you find yourself in a deep hole financially is to stop digging. And I hope that every person in the room last Sunday, regardless of debt level, prays the prayer of the other fellow in the eighteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel, the Publican (tax collector) who stood afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

Figures may never lie, but they certainly can leave a skewed impression.

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