America, Minus A Human Factor
From Guns to Bunions, A Statistical Portrait That Doesn't Quite Add Up

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Did you know that whiskey that went for 23 cents a gallon just before the Civil War was fetching 70 dollars, wholesale in Richmond by April 1864? Is that a comment on Confederate dollars? Or how much you'd want to drink with the Union Army heading your way? How much do we drink, anyway? From 1900 to 1919, the amount of money spent on alcohol increased from $955 million to $2.24 billion. But then the numbers end. After 1919, reality gets sketchy. With Prohibition, the sale of alcohol becomes illegal.

Okay, so what about illegal drugs? In 1979, there were an estimated 29,869,000 pot tokers in this country, but that number dropped pretty steadily, to 18,710,000 in 1998. Cocaine users dropped dramatically, from 10,459,000 in 1982 to 3,664,000 in 1995, before going up by half a million two years later. What was that about? Crack?

Such random, mind-boggling connections are the beauty and sensational weirdness of the recently released, 28.5-pound, $825, five-volume Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition.

It's called the Millennial Edition because it's the first major update of this monumental work since the Bicentennial Edition, 31 years ago.

What it is, really, is a marvelous walk through a bizarre notion -- that America, our culture and values, indeed our reality -- can be described in numbers.

Humans have thought for a very long time that the universe could be so captured. The Egyptians who designed the pyramids thought it could be done in triangles and squares. Greeks such as Pythagoras even thought that everything, including beauty, could be so described. Kant described time as if it were just numbers stretched out in a straight line; space, as if it were just numbers in three dimensions. Mathematics was real and certain, and it came before the more uncertain knowledge of the human world.

But America? This surpassingly glorious young mess? Can its essence be captured in 4,641 pages of digits?

What an outrageous idea.

That's why a stroll through the Millennial Edition is a strangely fortuitous, irregular and imagination-firing one.

Why was the number of people with unclassified dry, itching skin going up, from 16.3 per thousand in 1982 to 24.6 in 1995?

Why was the area of the state of Maryland 9,999 square miles in 1790, but only 9,941 square miles 10 years later? Where did those 37,000 acres go? To the District of Columbia? Why, in 1940, did it all of a sudden drop to 9,887? Then, from 1950 to 1960, Maryland gained 10 square miles -- 6,400 acres -- from 9,881 to 9,891. Then it started dropping precipitously, to 9,775 square miles in 1990. What happened? Were the surveyors drunk? Is the Chesapeake rising?

More to the point, one set of questions leads to another, then another.

Meditations on alcohol and drugs, for example, lead us to 19 recent years, from 1979 to 1998, during which the number of people older than 12 taking a drink in the past year rises only modestly -- from 131 million to 140 million -- meaning almost half of all Americans remained teetotalers during that period. What about other walks on the wild side? Female high school students who shoplifted something once in the previous year stayed fairly constant from 1975 to 1998, in a range between 10.4 percent and 13.3 percent. The percentage of male high school students trespassing -- going into a home or building when they were not supposed to be there -- dropped fairly steadily in those 19 recent years, however, from 16.6 percent to 10.7 percent.

So the kids are all right? They're spending all their time hanging out in the malt shop? Ah, maybe not. Every year through that whole period, about one in eight male high school seniors said they had participated in a gang fight, peaking at almost one in six in 1989. About one in 10 female seniors had such a fight in 1990, and about one in 12 in 1998. About one in four had something worth less than $50 stolen from them. The number of white seniors who experienced more serious thefts doubled, from one in 12 to one in six. For black seniors, the serious thefts they experienced rose from one in 12 to one in five.

See how this works? We started with the price of whiskey in 1859 and wound up with a succession of snapshots of America that painted a picture of who we are, how we got that way and where we're headed, through history.

At the New Orleans auction in 1859, a healthy young male field slave cost $1,564. Factor in inflation, and in today's dollars the price of this slave would be something like $37,000.

What does that compare to? Call John Deere, and it turns out today's top-of-the-line, 500-horsepower, four-wheel drive, satellite-connected, whip-through-4,000-acres-of-wheat Model 9620 tractor costs $282,638.

Can it be said, thus, that today's state-of-the-art tractor equals 7.6 slaves? What does that mean? Was the Civil War necessary? Was slavery about to implode of its own economic stupidity? Is the very idea of comparing slaves to tractors offensive?

Richard Sutch, one of the six editors of the Millennial Edition, thinks not. "Slaves were considered legally to be pieces of machinery -- chattel, in legal terms -- that were bought and sold and mortgaged and insured," he says. "This is a subject that may horrify some people. It fascinates others. The fascination is due to the shock value that, not too long ago, people treated human beings as if they were not human beings. People valued these slaves because they were able to be put to productive use -- typically in agriculture -- just like people were buying and selling mules and, later, tractors. We're quite sure that the system that the Southerners adopted made economic sense to the plantation owners, even if it doesn't make moral sense or sense to the slaves themselves."

Nonetheless, it leads to other questions. In 1860, a paid farmhand earned $11.08 a month in the south Atlantic states, not counting room and board. That's more than a decade's worth of hired-hand work that you could get before you approached the price of a slave. (Almost a century later, by the way, in 1948, farm help still earned only $57 a month.) What was a world like in which slave capital represented 44 percent of all wealth -- the largest single component -- in the cotton-growing states in 1859?

The precision of all this, of course, reflects a touching faith that reality can be measured.

Maybe "The god delights in an odd number," as Virgil said, but there are some pretty odd numbers in the Millennial Edition. Odd verging on mysterious:

· There are enough guns in this country that, if they were spread around, there would be one for every 916 men, women and children out of 1,000. What's wrong with the other 84 people?

· If the number of stonecutters and stone carvers went from 44,000 in 1900 to zero in 1980 and 1990, how do we still manage to have tombstones?

· There are no numbers about sex. Not a lot of long-term data sets, we are told. Disease and pregnancy, yes. But sex, no.

"Numbers as reality misbehave," says Douglas R. Hofstadter in "Godel, Escher, Bach," the marvelously bestselling meditation on the intersection between human thought, creativity and mathematical ideas. "However, there is an ancient and innate sense in people that numbers ought not to misbehave. There is something clean and pure in the abstract notion of number . . . there ought to be a way of talking about numbers without always having the silliness of reality come in and intrude."

Talk about silly realities: Barbershops, beauty salons and health clubs went from making $500 million in 1929 to more than 50 times that -- $28.5 billion -- in 1999. But what does that tell us about comely appearance? Sad is the drop in the number of "tailors and tailoresses," going from 172,000 in 1920 to 27,800 in 1990, no matter how cheaply you can get your pants at Wal-Mart.

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics," said Mark Twain, quoting Disraeli.

Nonetheless, corns and calluses are going down, from 21.2 complaining people per thousand in 1982 to 16.6 in 1995.

Migraines, however, are up -- 33.6 per thousand in 1982, 45.4 in 1995.

Asthma is up.

Ingrown nails are steady.

You'd think modern medicine would have really put a dent in acute infective and parasitic conditions, but you'd be wrong. They're not down by much.

Acute digestive conditions -- urp -- are going down.

Of course, too much faith in numbers has consequences.

In 1980, IBM predicted that the total market for personal computers in the following 10 years would be something like that year's 246,000. Not 250,000, but a nicely precise, confidence-inspiring 246,000. The actual outcome was almost exactly 100 times greater. If the leaders of IBM had been more optimistic, would they have ever dreamed of letting their operating system be supplied by some snot-nosed kid named Gates?

Tysons Corner looks the way it does because it was created by the marketplace for commercial real estate. The marketplace is a wonderful thing, allowing us to eat good food and live in nice houses. But, by definition, the market can process only things that can be measured in dollars. Not all things can. "Beauty" is notoriously difficult to quantify. Thus we have this strange world in the early 21st century in which Americans remain the most widely traveled and highly educated civilization in history. Many of us know firsthand the difference between Paris and the old East Berlin. Yet emulating the lessons of the Left Bank and what constitutes "nice" does not easily plug into the numbers of "the deal."

Here's what we know:

Foreign travel by U.S. residents climbed from $1.307 billion a little more than a century ago (in 1987 dollars), to $2.893 billion in similar constant dollars in 1929.

Spending on higher education per year soared from $380 million to $2.893 billion in that 29-year period.

Meanwhile, the automobile had begun its relentless roll. We spent $2.6 billion on new cars in 1929, just before the stock market crash. That spending dropped to $600 million in 1932 and essentially nothing during the war years. Then came the postwar boom. New car sales accelerated to $10.3 billion in 1950. Fifteen years later, increases by tens of billions of dollar became regular, passing $20 billion in 1965, $40 billion in 1977 (after a dip during the first energy crisis), and $80 billion in 1985, finally hitting $99 billion in 1986, when it began to level off and even shrink. In part that's because used car sales began to take off. From a market of essentially zero in 1929, used car sales were more than $20 billion in 1984, and $50 billion in 1995.

The built environment that now surrounds us, marked by shopping centers and office campuses -- and their parking lots -- is the result.

We may define ourselves and others by numbers -- he's a GS15, she's a 36-24-36.

But numbers tell you everything, and nothing. What does knowing what a slave cost tell you about being a slave? Did anyone record how many migraines slaves had? What did they weigh? How much did they eat?

Counting things may have started as an act of faith, giving us control over the universe. If you can count the days, you can determine how much food and firewood you'll need until spring returns, giving you control over nature, or so the builders of Aztec temples and Stonehenge believed.

But the world doesn't really look like numbers, although it does obey Einstein's laws.

"The world is a buzzingly complicated thing," Sutch agrees. "To make sense of it, we abstract. We don't tell you everything we see and smell and hear. We pick out what we think is important. Think of it as a painting or a poem. It may be meaningful, beautiful or evoking emotion. But it is incomplete. That's why Magritte, in his painting of an apple, wrote below it, in French, 'This is not an apple.' Social scientists would say the same thing. These are abstractions with a purpose, to say something insightful or provocative about concerns people have today."

That's why thumbing through the Millennial Edition is like cleaning out your mother's attic and finding a big old box of snapshots. You compulsively make connections. Was that Grandfather Alphonse? What a bizarre moustache. No wonder cousin Fred looks the way he does. This photo of a woman in a tennis outfit. Was that Aunt Agnes before she became a nun? Wow. Great legs.

The photos are pretty random and not much of a narrative until they are made into an album, probably with the help of an older relative. You can piece this album together however you wish. But until then, you don't have a story of who you are and how you got that way. All you've got is a box of historical snapshots.

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