Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Social Math & Priorities

Yesterday, my colleague Brian wrote about rapping economists (a brilliant Tuneage Tuesday idea!). This passage really got me thinking about priorities:
The idea of social math is presenting complex issues in a way that can be easily understood by anyone: For example, a 2010 report by the National Retail Federation found that graduates were expected to receive nearly $90 in gifts – in all, spending on grad’s gifts were expected to reach $3.9 billion.

Few of us can comprehend a billion dollars, unless you had boatloads of Microsoft stock back when it took off. Social math, then, insists we take another step: Find a way to translate. Knowing our audience here, that $3.9 billion could fund all but two institutes at the National Institutes of Health for a year – and in many cases, for several years. (Even the two exceptions, NCI and NIAID, would have a majority of their budgets covered by that amount.) The same $3.9 billion would fund 8,193 NIH research grants, according to FY10 numbers.

Social math is finding the common ground between a niche and the mainstream.
The case described above doesn't just elaborate on the social math - making it simpler to see what billions of dollars represent - it makes a point about the value of our dollars. If we're willing to spend $3.9 billion dollars on stuffed animals in graduation garb, balloons, and alma mater mugs, would an extra dollar a week in taxes to advance research be a real burden on American finances? For the cost of a beanie baby or tassel a piece, could we mark an important genome? Treat cancer? Provide a healthier future for all those graduates?

I'm not saying don't celebrate or shower grads with gifts (most of my first apartment's security deposit came from graduation gifts, and I still have a Minnie Mouse that plays Pomp and Circumstance). I'm just saying that in tight times, it's important to make investments in the things that really matter. Whether that's siblings using air horns to cheer for the first person in their family to receive a diploma or the government keeping pace with inflation at federal research agencies.

Priorities matter. What are ours?

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