Numbers, Narratives, and God

Radio Lab recently produced a short about people’s favorite numbers, For the Love of Numbers. It’s interesting because it had never occurred to me to have a favorite number. In fact, it seems like one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard of. It’s kind of like astrology or something. And indeed, the reasons people gave for having their favorite numbers were generally stupid. For example, one said, “Four is my favorite number because I won a swim meet while racing in lane four.” Actually, that’s one of the more rational choices. Other people liked the way numbers looked. It’s quite a fascinating show and well worth listening to.

I want to tell you about my relationship with numbers—or rather whole numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3… Because my mind is a little crazy about them. If any of this leaked out in my regular life, I would probably be in an institution somewhere, or at least on powerful drugs. All the numbers to me are like characters in a play. This actually goes far beyond numbers. My entire understanding of the highest levels of math is littered with stories about this or that function and how it gets along with other functions. But let’s just stick with numbers.

Zero is like God. When combined with other numbers it doesn’t do a thing: 0 + you = you. But it has the power, if you embrace it, to consume you: 0 × you = 0. And since it is infinite, it does not grow or shrink. This goes along with the reciprocal of 0 being infinity. Of course, contrary to what many people think, infinity is not a number, so 0 is the only infinite number. So like God it is infinite, generally irrelevant, and infinitely powerful.

One is like air. You don’t even know its there, but it is always there. I don’t like it. It seems smug to me. One is what makes a couple a crowd. It can do some interesting things. Most especially, it can fix prime numbers—I’ll get to them in a moment. But if you interact with it, nothing happens. One can be invited to a party, but you can’t love it because it disappears. It’s almost not a number at all, although conceptually it has amazing powers. Still, standing there along on the page, I want to slap it.

Two is a very troublesome number. I want to like 2. I have a fondness for even numbers for the same reason I hate prime numbers. Even numbers are communal. They are a marriage of two or more numbers. The number 256 is a polygamous same-sex marriage of 2s! But what are these 2s anyway? I find it highly upsetting that 2 is both an even number and a prime number. (If you think this article is a bit tongue-in-cheek, you are right; but I’m dead serious about this one.) This is an issue that has bothered me since I was about six-years-old. It is the one thing in the universe that I find most out of balance. And thus, I feel very much like the paradox of the universe is hiding in this contradiction. As a result, I don’t like the number 2. It taunts me.

The rest of the numbers have their own narratives. Three is the first uncomplicated prime number. And as I said, I don’t like prime numbers because they aren’t bound together with other numbers. I’m more forgiving of 3 and 5 and 7 than I am, say, 11, 13, and especially 17. Good lord, if 117 isn’t a prime (3×3×13), why is 17?! And it only gets worse. The number 611,953 is a prime number. Doesn’t that seem like the Howard Hughes of numbers: having so much to share and yet sharing nothing? No. Well it does to me!

I could go on. There are numbers I rather like. I’m fond of numbers that reduce to a diverse set of prime numbers. The number 2,310 is 2×3×5×7×11. What a wonderful family that is! Or double it, because they had twins: 4,620. Six is also an interesting number, because it combines three troublesome small numbers: 3×2×1. You know they have problems, though. They probably run a meth lab out of trailer in the backyard. But still, an interesting family.

The most common favorite number is 7. One mathematician on the show posits that this is because it is the only number in the first 10 that doesn’t multiply or divide within that group. You can divide 10 by 5 and get 2. You can multiply 3 by 2 and get 6. But you can’t divide 7 by anything and multiplying it by even 2 puts it outside the 1-10 range. I doubt there is anything to that. But regardless, this just makes me think that 7, as I’ve long believed, is a troublesome number. It doesn’t get along with the other numbers. Why would anyone like such a number?

Of course, for most people, numbers represent things. One is the loneliest number (although I’d argue that 0 is the loneliest number—think about that the next time you pray to God) and 2 is not, as long as you’ve picked the right mate. I see it all about how the numbers interact. For me, it is a question of arrested development. When I was in grammar school, I enjoyed reducing numbers to their primes. It annoyed me when I came face to face with a bunch of primes. It seemed like I ought to have been able to go further. The teachers didn’t care. They didn’t even understand. But I think Euclid would have.

Prime numbers are like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, but much more fundamental. Beyond them you would find God, but you can’t go beyond them. They are the most basic residue of God. Yet most religious people look for God in ancient poetry. It seems odd. The closest you can get to God is through math. And if that leads to any kind of theology, it leads to pantheism: you plus God is God; you times God is God. My take away: you don’t matter but also: God doesn’t matter.

But if you like the number 8 because it is looks nice, you are probably happier than I am.

Reagan’s Legacy: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest

When people think of Ronald Reagan, they normally think of him as a big tax cutter. And there’s a good reason for that: when he came into office, he cut federal income taxes across the board by 25% over three years. As I’ve discussed many times elsewhere, this is not as evenhanded a thing to do as it sounds. The truth is that the only kind of tax in the United States that is truly progressive is the federal income tax. This is the reason that conservatives focus on it. It is what was behind Romney’s 47% comment, “These are people who pay no income tax…” Note that what he said wasn’t even accurate: state income taxes are far more regressive. But Reagan did cut everyone’s federal income taxes, so I’ll give him that.

But a funny thing happened. Since he was also determined to greatly increase military spending, the federal debt, which had been decreasing for decades suddenly increased at an alarming rate. So after those initial tax cuts, and without nearly as much fanfare, Reagan raised taxes again and again. But he kept those federal income tax rates low and and made them even lower. He started with a top tax rate of 70% in 1981, dropped it to 50% in 1982, and dropped it again to 28% in 1988. He also lowered effective capital gains taxes (before being forced to raise them later) and effective inheritance taxes—two forms of taxes that don’t much affect the poorer classes.

So what was the result of all this? You might think that it was to lower the federal taxes that Americans pay, but that’s not so much true. The total federal income taxes that came in his first year in office were 19.1% of GDP and they were 17.8% the year he left. But at the same time, the other major federal tax—payroll tax, that hits the poorer classes hardest—went up from 5.8% of GDP in 1981 to 6.5% in 1989. That is an overall decrease in taxes, but it was not equitably shared.

Will Bunch explains what this means to individuals in his book, Tear Down This Myth:

When Reagan took office in 1980, middle-income Americans with children paid 8.2 percent of their pay in [federal] income taxes and 9.5 percent in payroll taxes, while in 1988, when Reagan left office, it was down to 6.6 percent in [federal] income taxes but up to 11.5 percent in payroll taxes.

Let’s be clear here: when Reagan came into office, middle-income Americans were paying 17.7% of their income in federal taxes; when Reagan left office, middle-income Americans were paying 18.1% of their income in federal taxes. That’s a 0.4 percentage point increase in taxes. Assuming a median income of \$30,000 per year, they were paying an extra \$1,200 \$120 in taxes.

I don’t have the exact numbers for the rich, but let’s just do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Let’s forget the capital gains (which went up slightly) and estate taxes (which stayed constant but the deduction went way up). Let’s take a typical rich person who made \$500,000 in all earned income. Further, let’s look only at the taxes paid that was in the top tax bracket. In 1981, it was income over \$212,000, but in 1989, it was income over \$29,750. Note just how regressive that top marginal level is there at the end: for a lot of middle class people, there was a flat tax, and probably a regressive tax because the rich are better able to take advantages of deductions and hide income. Anyway, based on this, our rich person’s federal taxes went from \$201,600 in 1981 to \$131,670 in 1989. That’s a decrease in taxes of 35%.

For some reason, I have not been able to find the data for the the payroll tax cap over time. I know I’ve seen it in the past. Right now it is just over \$100,000. That means that people don’t pay any payroll tax on the money they make over that amount. It also means that the payroll tax is the most regressive tax we have. Now this number goes up a bit each year to keep up with inflation. So I figure it was about \$75,000 in the 1980s, but I’m going to be cautious and just assume it was \$100,000, which we know it wasn’t. That means that the rich person’s payroll taxes went up from \$9,500 to \$11,500. An increase of 21%, given that the rich person never paid much in payroll taxes, it doesn’t mean much.

So let’s put all of it together. In 1981, the rich person was paying \$201,600 + \$9,500 = \$211,100 in total federal taxes. In 1989, the rich person was paying \$131,670 + \$11,500 = \$143,170 in total federal taxes. That’s a decrease of 32% in their total federal tax bill.

That’s the Reagan tax legacy. He raised taxes on the poorer classes by a small amount. And he greatly lowered them on the rich. Now the idea (Supply Side Economics) was that this would make the economy boom because it would encourage people to produce. But what it actually did was encourage the already wealthy to pay themselves as much as they possibly could. So while in the past, workers got a cut of productivity gains, they didn’t anymore. All those productivity gains went to the rich because they had an incentive: they could keep more of it. That’s how “supply side economics” really worked. Democrats are only starting to realize this (both Clinton and Obama have been effusive in their praise of Reagan) and the Republicans are completely ignorant of it. Reagan was the most elitist president in modern times. He was the anti-Robin Hood. We should be toppling statues of him all over the nation.

The Real Mr Bojangles, Bill Robinson

Forgive me for repeating myself to some extent, I’m having an anxiety attack. But last year on this day, I celebrated the birthday of Igor Sikorsky, inventor of the modern helicopter. And as a man who spent years professionally riding in airplanes and helicopters (to test remote sensing equipment I designed), I can tell you that helicopters are totally cool. It’s like riding on the back of a hummingbird. It is a thousand times cooler than riding in a plane.

But today, we celebrate the famed acting dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson who was born on this day in 1878. He is best know for his work with Shirley Temple. Those films are sweet, but I don’t much like them. But he lived a fascinating life. Both his parents died by the time he was seven. But even before that, at the age of five, he was busking in bars for pennies. Eventually, he made it to Vaudeville, although not before a stint in the Spanish–American War where he was accidentally shot when an officer was cleaning his gun.

At first, he paired up with fellow dancer George Cooper for a tap dancing act. They broke up in 1914, when Robinson went solo. That’s when his career really took off. At that time, under new management, he was making over \$3,000 per week—in 1914! But it was also a big deal because there was a sort of rule that blacks didn’t do solo acts. Now, it’s so easy to think, “Black solo performer: no big deal.” But it was a big deal. A very big deal.

And to show you the kind of guy he was, during World War I, he gave free performances to the troops. This was at a time when the Vaudeville industry was giving reduced cost performances. He was known throughout his career and life to be a generous man with money as well as credit to those who had helped and inspired him.

Next up was Broadway where again he was not only successful but a trailblazer. He starred as the first black man in an otherwise all white production, All in Fun (which was a flop, but Robinson got rave reviews). But as demand for black reviews waned, Robinson went into the films. He started with a minor role in Dixiana and then a starring role in the all-black Harlem is Heaven. And that led (thought a surprising assist by D W Griffith) to his work with Shirley Temple. The two of them hit it off immediately. She later recounted their first meeting. She asked him, “Can I call you Uncle Billy?” And he replied, “Why sure you can, but then I get to call you darlin’.”

He went on to make films with Fredi Washington, Will Rogers (the two were good friends), and Cab Calloway. Then he moved into radio and television. The man certainly understood the flow of entertainment—a talent even the most successful people usually lack. Here he is doing the “Sand Dance” in his last film, Stormy Weather:

He died at the age of 71, long past the peak of his fame. Still, over 30,000 people came to pay their respects to the great man.

My initial interest in Robinson was Jerry Jeff Walker’s song “Mr. Bojangles.” It appears that it was based upon a true story. But the dancer he describes was not Bill Robinson. It couldn’t have been him since Robinson had died in 1949, when Walker was just 7 years old. It is just that Robinson (like Robert Johnson) was so popular that people made entire careers out of impersonating him. So the song tells the story of one of these men, probably at the end of a downhill slide. Here is my favorite version of it by David Bromberg:

Happy birthday to the real Bill Robinson!