It was the day before the president's speech on his revised economic program, and I was lunching with three professionally engaged students of the current fiscal drama, people who have probably spent more time studying the Reagan budget figures than anyone but David Stockman. And yet, to my fascination, they could not be sure even of the numbers they were talking about. "Is that $15 billion the same as the $16 billion?" seemed to be the key question. One thought they should be added. "So we're talking about $31 billion, then," I mused wisely, attempting to get into the game and also to demonstrate a certain dazzling technical proficiency. Maybe, but probably not, came the collective reply--no one knew. It didn't matter: two days later we had a whole new set of numbers to argue over and misunderstand.

Numbers. It's the way we talk now, at least about things that are really dangerous or important. It's also the way we mislead ourselves and confound our purposes and our values, all the while managing to do so with an impressive air of scientific authority and detachment. Numbers, unlike words (the thinking goes), are truth. Words are mere approximations, opinions, ideas. The current dispute over the social and economic consequences of the president's program is far from being the only example. Consider the dispute over our military strength relative to that of the Russians.

I cheerfully acknowledge that the numbers of weapons and the size and strength of overall arsenals are critical elements in our relationship, just as all those chimerical $15 billion and/or $16 billion and/or $31 billion budget savings-and-cuts are. Both have meaning in real terms and also for the message they are meant to send to those far- flung commissars and moneylenders and other recalcitrants an American government must try to influence. But there comes a certain point in the arguments we have over these things when the numbers overreach themselves, put on airs. They demand to be regarded as the whole story, rather than as useful (sometimes) measurements of where we are in relation to a real goal.

You would think, for example, that our fundamental argument with the Soviet Union was over nothing more than the arms figures everyone bandies about when that subject is being debated, the weird implication being that once we get those stockpiles and characteristics of the weapons in the right relationship . . . well, the problems will be resolved. And you would think, too, listening to the same disputes, that the numbers and sizes of various weapons systems were, in themselves, sufficient indicators of the strength of our defense, never mind the condition or efficiency of the rest of our military enterprise or the wisdom of the strategy that chose those weapons systems over others in the first place.

The numbers, unadorned--out there by themselves--are no more reliable as a guide to social values. As in the strategic-arms case, they mislead, falsely alarm and falsely hearten (depending which side you're arguing) and create a dangerous confusion: we see the numbers and take them for the "reality." I believe that right now the country is in the middle of a valuable and long-overdue reconsideration of our ideas of social justice, economic equity and even national possibility: What can we do? What should we do? Reagan's choices have forced choices on the rest of us. But once again we are in danger of distorting the argument by sinking into the numbers trap.

I observed that the day after the president's speech, with its rosy reference to the way his welfare program in California had helped the needy while forcing the suspect off the rolls, that all the old arguers came charging out of their corners again, using the same numbers to demonstrate (1) that Reagan's California program had worked and (2) that it had not. The numbers can be used, and are, in the national context to prove that blacks are economically better or worse off than they were a few years ago, that the poor are gaining or losing in relation to everyone else, that the administration program is at least fair to the disadvantaged or downright brutal to them.

But what can a number really tell you about a social or personal reality? Up until now, poor people have been allowed to have $2,000 worth of assets over and above their household necessities and still stay on the welfare rolls. Why not bring that limit down to $1,000, the Reagan people ask. But what is $1,000? When you are thinking of the good life lived in the upper reaches of the nonwelfare crowd, it is an article of clothing or a minor entertainment. For the welfare family, it can mean half of the stake in any semblance of middle-class life they are trying to achieve. OK: I'll stipulate there are cheaters and scoundrels on the welfare rolls. Is punishing them at the expense of the others whose lives are already pretty hopeless and bleak really what we want to do? What do you buy and what do you sell with that $1,000?

The brief, unhappy life of ketchup as a vegetable should surprise no one. When you move from these numbers to the real-life objects people can understand, this always happens. These may be in some respects as misleading or as ambiguous as the different minimums and maximums, floors and ceilings that have become the currency of our political discourse. But they are much more helpful in enabling people to get at least an idea of the size and shape of the argument before them, and to come down on one side or the other.

The misbegotten school-lunch guidelines, with their graphic micro- hamburger and half-glass of milk, made certain things clear, I think, to a lot of citizens who, by protesting, were in a way establishing their own ceilings and floors concerning what is permissible. There is, no doubt of it, a fairly broad consensus in this country that the government's social-program initiatives had become too elaborate, too mindless, too costly, too intrusive and too unfair. But there is equally an impulse, while fixing these things, to do what is right by one another. The numbers are of comparatively little help in judging where we are on this. We should stop talking about them as if they were. Sometimes you can see more of importance throught the bottom of a ketchup bottle, darkly.

Meg Greenfield; Copyright (c) 1981, Newsweek, Inc. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved