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The World in Numbers

The Harper’s Index was begun in 1984 by the magazine’s current editor Lewis Lapham. His idea was that a clever juxtaposition of statistics plumbed from what he calls “the infinite sea of numbers and events,” can give as true a picture of civilization as any description. Juxtaposition? We’ll have more about that shortly. The Index was an immediate success and was imitated by other prominent mags.

These snappy columns have been collected into The Harper’s Index Book, now in it’s third edition [Franklin Square Press, N.Y.,2000]. The volume is organized into chapters on subjects such as history, geography, economics, media, science, and family life. Those chapters have subheadings to help you find things; for example, the Science chapter is divided into sections about technology, space, the weather, agriculture, animals, the environment, energy and health concerns. Oh yes, and the Index has an index, too, but it is the subtle juxtaposing of individual facts that makes the book both entertaining and enlightening.

Juxtaposition, a word you must know in order to succeed at college, is best explained through examples. Here are some from the book. The average cost of tires used by each car during the Indy 500 ($12,800) is coupled with the price of renting a duck to compete in the Great American Duck Race held each summer in Deming, New Mexico ($10). Or how about the number of states in which it is illegal to publicly disparage a particular foodstuff (13) juxtaposed with the number of state and county fairs that participated in the 1998 National Best Spam Recipe Contest (77).

Often the juxtapositions flow through numerous individual items. We begin with the $30 million spent by a Japanese theme park on a Mount Rushmore replica, followed by the $3 million that Mount Vernon spent in 1998 to give George Washington’s reputation more “sizzle.” From there we pass to the $15 fee that a museum charges a customer to spend time as a runaway slave would have; and then to $200 prie fixe for dinner in an NYC tenement kitchen; and we end up at an Austrian nudist cross-country skiing resort charging $30 per day. I wonder where you stick the ticket?

There are recurring themes such as Frank Sinatra, Texas justice, campaign financing, Bill Clinton and the Starr report. Those were hot topics in 1999, oh yeah. And also the city of Detroit(?). Start with the fact that 45% of U.S. artists earn less than $3000 per year for their art. Mix in the 19 National Public Radio employees with salaries over $100,000. Add to that the 9,173 employees of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs with six-figure salaries, and the six Wal-Mart employees nationwide for every five people in the entire state of North Dakota, and you come to the seven hairstylists for every ten teachers in the city of Detroit.

We’ve only just begun in Detroit, the auto capital of the world. We discover that one-third of its households have no access to a car. What are they doing about that? We find them last among the 20 largest cities in spending on public transportation. The Feds don’t help much, either. They’ve increased spending on roads 50% faster than spending on mass transit since 1994. The tax code allows businesses a $175 deduction per employee parking space, and a measly $65 deduction per employee for vanpool or mass transit expenses. Meanwhile in 1995, the city of Stockholm, Sweden, converted 750,000 gallons of red wine to the ethanol which fuels its public buses.

Some numbers are so remarkable they need no juxtaposition. In 1998, Americans spent over $2 billion on golf clubs. We bought plenty of SUVs also, but we find that 87% of all Ford Explorer owners have never taken their vehicles “off road.” In 1998, we (that is US) threw away over 5 million tons of clothing and footwear. They went to landfills or incinerators, but those are topics for the 4th edition perhaps. We are a free, and yes, an affluent society, and we expend much to maintain that freedom. We also had 43,000,000 more people watch the 1996 Super Bowl than those who voted in the presidential election that year. And one other startling stat: the number of hours that [former] L.A. Laker Shaq O’Neal spent snowed in at a Pennsylvania hotel in 1996, along with the entire cast of Sesame Street on Ice, was 45.

We can make a game of some other numbers from the Index, namely the prices. As in the TV show, the closest estimate without going over is the winner. Get a group of 2-6 together and have bidding rounds for each of the following items. Take turns going first and then keep bidding in sequence until no one wants to raise their bid. The answers appear below. You are bidding on the following items separately:

  1. A Truth Phone lie detector made for the telephone, sold at a spy shop in DC.
  2. A velvet and silk Chairman Mao jacket sold at a Manhattan boutique.
  3. A hand-carved African “fantasy coffin” from Nieman Marcus’s 1995 catalog.
  4. The cost of the third golf course installed at Andrews AF Base (in 1996).
  5. The amount spent per U.S. child in 1998 on advertising.

Oh, I almost forgot a couple of Index couplets of my own juxtaposing. A Denver 4th grade class in 1998 raised $60,000 to help Christian Solidarity International free 480 Sudanese slaves. Bravo to those kids! Compare that with the 45,000 slaves the Empress Catherine the Great gave as gifts during her reign. If the numbers are beginning to drive you nuts, I have a couple of resources for you. Check into a San Francisco hotel and pay two bucks per minute for a session with the staff psychologist, OR let your cyberfingers check into the L.A. website which charges only $1.08 per minute, and specializes in treating web addiction. In either case, be sure to get a prescription and join the rest of the nation in spending $2600.00 per second (you read it right, per second) on legal drugs.

The Right Prices are:
1. $3900.00 2. $670. 3. $3000 4. $7 million 5. $36.60 [from The Harper’s Index Book, 2000]

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