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Dear Mitch,

Last night in the Democratic Convention President Clinton used math to try to prove his point about Obama and to show that over the years the Democrats have created more jobs than the Republicans.  I thought it was interesting but my aunt said that math can be used any which way a person wants to, just to prove whatever he wants to say.  I was curious to know what you say about this.  And did you see it last night?

- J.G 


Dear J.G.,

I did watch the convention, and so I heard Former President Clinton's speech.

To be clear, the word President Clinton used wasn't "math," but "ARITHMETIC".

Arithmetic, which is the word adults use to refer to the basic operations of math (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division), does not produce different answers to the same problem when the work is done correctly, even if two very different methods are used to arrive at that answer.  What your aunt was referring to is the interpretation of the answer, and motivated people seem to be able to come up with all kinds of ways to interpret the same answer to prove that they are right about something.  

Last night, the question some viewers might have had was this:  Were the numbers President Clinton used correct?

I'm sure they were correct, because they are the type of statistics that are easy to check, so a public person like him would be highly unlikely to even think about changing them for such an important speech on national television.  There is too big a risk of getting caught.

As far as the arithmetic goes, we're talking about pretty simple numbers, even if they are large.  (And with large numbers, it is always easy to check our work on a calculator!)


While we're on the subject of politics, there is one mathematical fact that I have always believed is very, very important for politicians to keep in mind, yet I have never heard any of them ever mention it.  The idea usually screams its way into my head whenever a Republican like Mitt Romney speaks of how he managed to become a big success through hard work and (presumably) some intelligence, etc.  Occasionally, and truly only rarely, will any of them ever allow in even a hint of the fact that luck also played a part, because they seem to feel that by including luck as a factor it diminishes how much they deserve to be successful, or it diminishes their claim that anyone they govern could and should be able to do what they did.  But. . .

BUT, even if the listener allows in such nonsense for a moment, or even if the speaker believes that luck is an insignificant part of the story, the one thing that everyone seems to leave out (AND THIS HAPPENS TO BE A VERY BIG THING) is that there are two kinds of luck that a person can have in life:  The luck that happens to you before you are born, and the luck that happens to you after you are born.  Whether they realize it or not, each and every person who has ever held a high position in our government has had a great deal of luck prior to birth.  Our brains are constantly changing throughout our lives, but an important part of its formation occurs before we are born.  It is important for politicians to keep this in mind, because the result is this:

It is not true that everyone is born with the same potential for "success" that "successful" people experience from the time of birth.  

The idea behind luck (whether it be good luck or bad luck) is that a person gets something that he or she did nothing to deserve.  Or something happens to you that you do not deserve. Lightning strikes a child, and the child dies; a man chooses a number for Lotto and . . .   

At the least, I think, when deciding public policy, it can't hurt for a politician to have this idea somewhere in his mind, and in his heart.

- Mitch

P.S. "Luck" is another word for "chance", and "chance" is another word for "probability", and probability is an exciting and important area of math.  However, I'm going to save my discussion of the mathematics of luck for another day.