Analyzing the numbers

By Randall Poulton | Aug 06, 2020

For this week’s column, I am going to dig into some of the numbers that define current events and “do the math.” That it is left to me to do this analysis is troubling but not surprising: Many media personalities wear their ignorance of even basic arithmetic as a badge of honor! In a society where numbers are the coin of the realm, having talking heads read a press release is not helpful. Here are just a few examples where a closer look at the numbers might change the message.

According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, 105,000 jobs have been lost in Maine since March 1. Meanwhile, the Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information, a state agency that reports to Gov. Mills, says, in its July 17 press release, that Maine has lost only 71,300 jobs. How very nice! Despite these catastrophic job loss numbers, the Mills administration claims that Maine’s unemployment rate is 6.6%, among the lowest in our nation behind only Utah, Idaho and North Dakota.

That looks wrong to me, so let’s do the math: According to CWRI, on Feb. 1 there were 637,000 Mainers employed at non-farm jobs and the unemployment rate was about 3%. Now, the Mills administration says there are 71,300 fewer non-farm jobs; 71,300 divided by 637,000 equals 11%. So, analysis of the numbers provided by CWRI reveals at least 11% of our pre-corona workforce is now unemployed! Add the new 11% to the February rate of 3% and that’s 14%, or more than twice the 6.6% unemployment level Mills claims. And if you believe the higher numbers from AHLA, the unemployment rate is well over 18%! At 18%, Maine would have the most unemployed in the USA.

In fairness to CWRI, it does say, in its press release, that “Unemployment estimates continued to understate the extent of workforce displacement.” Part of the problem is Maine’s unemployment website has been overwhelmed. Apparently, many folks cannot get through and are thus unable to register. And here is the double whammy: Not only are a whole bunch of people not working and thus not paying taxes (which means lower tax revenues); in addition, the state is paying many of these same people unemployment benefits (which means higher expenses). Balancing the budget should be fun.

Note: in doing the research for this column, I found a 25,000-job error in the CWRI data. Actually, there were two offsetting mistakes, so the errors did not materially change CWRI’s conclusions. But that such mistakes can go unnoticed for two weeks, both by the Mills administration and by the media, proves my contention that math remains a mystery to far too many people!

Here is another number you won’t hear: 25 million. There are countless stories touting the idea that commercial-scale solar electric generation is the solution to climate change and a clean way to meet our energy demand. But this idea is not practical or clean. Here is why: A standard 250-watt solar panel has an efficiency of, at most, 20% (remember, no solar generation happens when it is dark and panel efficiency drops sharply when it is cloudy, dirty or snow-covered).

To generate the same amount of electricity that CMP proposes to import from Hydro Quebec via the NECEC corridor (1,200 megawatts), it would take about 25 million 250-watt solar panels. How many is 25 million? If these panels were arranged end-to-end, the chain would be just long enough to circle the earth! Or, said another way, you would need a solar farm 50% larger than the one in Pittsfield (Maine’s largest) in every one of the 430 towns in Maine.

So, which do you think would do more environmental harm? A clear-cut corridor 50 feet wide extending 53 miles, or 25 million solar panels?

The idea of mass testing to control the spread of COVID-19 doesn’t work, either. Here is why: There are about 330 million people in the USA. For simplicity's sake, and to account for some retesting, let’s say there are a few more and call it 365 million. If the goal is to test every person just once a year, i.e., once every 365 days, it would require about 1 million tests per day. But right now, in the USA, we are doing fewer than 2 million tests per week. Could we get to 1 million tests per day? Probably, but getting tested once a year is worthless in terms of stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

How about testing everyone once a month? That’s over 12 million tests per day, seven days a week. Seems like an awful lot, right? Let’s do the math: 12 million tests divided by 1,440 minutes in one day equals 8,330 tests per minute, 24/7! Right now, in the USA, we are only capable of doing about 200 tests a minute. Increasing testing capacity by over 40 times, if even possible, would be a hugely expensive proposition. And, while getting tested once a month might make you feel better, the reality is you could get a negative test, be exposed the next day, get sick a week or two later, feel lousy for two weeks and finally recover just in time for your next monthly test! Pointless.

One more example: My guess is most readers think the number of deaths due to COVID-19 is far more significant than it really is. That is because the media has made the coronavirus body count a major focus. In the last four months the deaths of approximately 120 Mainers have been attributed to the coronavirus and you have heard, and read, about each one. No doubt many of these deaths were tragic and my thoughts and prayers go out to those impacted. But a closer look at the numbers reveals that, during that very same time period, about 1,100 Mainers have died of cancer and over 900 have died of heart disease.

I will bet you find these numbers surprising. In fact, if you annualized the number of COVID-19 deaths in Maine, coronavirus would rank eighth on the CDC cause of death list, just behind diabetes and just ahead of the flu. Incredibly, as of July 1, more than twice as many Mainers had died of drug overdoses (255) as COVID (105). Bottom line, at least 98% of the approximately 14,600 Mainers who pass away during 2020 will die from causes that have nothing to do with the coronavirus. Now that is a real story!

Randall Poulton is a Republican Journal columnist. He lives in Winterport.

 

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