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The numbers game: How to tell when enough is enough

October 26, 2008

As a schoolboy, I was convinced that math would be the downfall of us all. I was close -- it's not necessarily math, but numbers themselves.

Chasing numbers isn't new; baseball has been doing it for a century and a half. Yet baseball proves the point. Fantasy leagues champion the offensive statistic above all else, never mind the player's heart, leadership or feel for the game. "He does all those little things that don't show up in the box scores" was once a compliment, but became an article of derision for boxscore-obsessed fantasy players.

And the home run was a statistician's granddaddy. Fans wanted numbers, and 61 homers in a season was no longer enough. Players happily complied, cheating their way around the bases on such a widespread scale that it now leaves all baseball statistics of the past quarter century meaningless.

Numbers make it easier not to think. Around the holidays, radio station producers could just slap on a playlist of the "100 greatest rock and roll songs of all time" and go back to the office party.

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The easiest way to get your electronic content elevated to community Web site status is to make a list -- a list of what does not appear to matter. "The 10 biggest political gaffes of all time." "The 15 nuttiest celebrity stalkers of all time."

Numerical lists are fun and easy to read -- no brain required. Certainly it's less taxing that making an honest effort to understand the current liquidity crunch.

A crunch, it should be noted that was brought to us courtesy of our numbers obsession. It began at the consumer level, where everything is measured by numbers.

Digital cameras were sold on the basis of megapixels -- a number that doesn't have all that much to do with picture quality. So maybe we could afford a 5 megapixel camera, but, boy, 7 sure would be better, wouldn't it? After all, seven is bigger than five. And that's really all we knew: that seven was bigger than five. We didn't understand what that meant, even though, as it turns out, it meant little at all. But the real number we should have been paying attention to was the extra $200 on the credit card.

Computer manufacturers have been playing the same game for years, selling us more and more RAM and speed and hard drive, even if all we use the computer for is e-mail and buying lava lamps on e-Bay. But in electronics, good enough has never been good enough -- we want that higher number on the ratings sheet, even if we have no use for it.

And speaking of no use for it, it's nice to know that Acura is coming out with "the most powerful TL ever." That would be the TL SH-AWD 305 hp 3.7 liter VTEC V6.

Well. Having a car with less that 300 hp anymore is going to seem so 2006. But even if your car churns out a meager 190 hp, when was the last time you had the occasion to put it to the floor?

Of course this isn't new either, although the number in question used to be "cubes," as in cubic inches. Chevy had a 350. But Ford has a 351. Or maybe I have that backward. All the car magazines fanned the flames. For years they have done lengthy, serious "comparison tests" of like vehicles -- and then always awarded the prize the car that had the best 0-60 time.

The new number de jour in automobiles will be gas mileage. Who gets better mileage than his neighbor? Curiously, four decades ago there were all manner of little, imported buzzmobiles that could crack 40 mpg. Today, the teacup of a vehicle known as the Smart Car only gets 36. Yes, those cars of old predated emissions equipment and were built of tin, but it shows that it could be done.

Similarly, in housing, smaller will likely be trendier. What the cubic inch was to engines, the square foot was to homes. Didn't matter if it had 18 architectural styles all slapped into one hideous package, if it topped 4,000 square feet, you were talking. What did people do with all that space? The same thing car owners did with a couple of hundred extra horsepower -- bragged about it, and not much else.

Pizza delivery guys would talk about seeing cavernous greatrooms with nothing in them, save for a TV and a couch.

And naturally, in a bigger is better world, finances followed suit. For decades, investors were fine with the 4 or 5 percent dividend they earned on their utility stock. But boring old utility companies were, well, boring. So executives shot for the stars and flamed out -- see Energy, Allegheny. Banks followed suit. Give them credit, today one can hardly call the banking business boring.

Day traders scoffed at the historic 9-11 percent return on the stock market. They would get 20 percent or die. Wall Street, seldom content with the income status quo, got even wilder. Now it's come crashing down -- all for ever-bigger numbers on a sheet of paper.

Wise old investor Jack Bogle said recently he heard of a conversation between two authors at a dinner party. One author nodded to a billionaire standing off to the side and said, "No matter how many books you have sold, you still haven't made as much money as he has made in the last 20 minutes."

"True," the other acknowledged. "But I have one thing that he will never have."

"And what's that?"

"Enough."

It's an important sentiment, important to the point that this is what Bogle has named his new book: "Enough."

Sometimes it's nice to know when you have it. Not just in money, but in everything.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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