Project put big numbers in context

Commentary, Taxation, Peter McCaffrey

The StarPhoenix editorial Think tank lacks thought (SP, Jan. 27) about the Frontier Centre’s Responsible Budgeting project explained that trying to compare the amount of money that a provincial government spends on health care or housing to the amount spent by the median household is pointless, because governments and households are completely different entities with different priorities.

As the author of that study, I couldn’t agree more, because that was not the point of project. Instead, our aim is to scale down the total spending done by our government to a more easily understood size, to help citizens get their heads around the enormous figures regularly thrown around by politicians.

Given that, what better scale to use than a regular household budget – everyday dollar figures that families are used to having to deal with in balancing their own budgets?

Research in cognitive science shows us that human beings are notoriously bad at visualizing and comprehending numbers larger than a few hundred. One experiment, published in Cognitive Science Journal last year, gave participants a number line with one thousand on the left and one billion at the other end, and asked them to mark where on the line one million should be. More than half placed one million in the middle of the line (where 500 million should be), and only a fraction placed it in the correct spot – extremely close to 1,000 on the left.

These results make sense, as there has been little evolutionary need for humans to comprehend large numbers. An early human might have possessed a stick, two dogs, five children and 20 rocks, but how many trees are there in the forest? “Lots,” is a perfectly sufficient answer for evolutionary purposes. No one needed to budget billions of dollars for health care for millions of citizens.

Modern man has learned to estimate some larger numbers. A stadium of 20,000 people, for example. But this new skill only works when we have prior experience of what those figures look like. It’s of no use when we start to discuss numbers in the millions, billions or even trillions, as in government budgets today.

So when we say that if Saskatchewan were a family, it would be spending $32,619 on health care, we’re not suggesting that that figure is too high compared to an average household; we’re simply providing context.

Different types of people learn differently, and understand concepts using different techniques. For those who prefer big numbers and detailed explanations, they can download the provincial budget from the government’s website. Meanwhile, our Responsible Budgeting project presents the data on a scale that will make more sense to some people. We hope it proves useful for them.