The financial crisis and its aftermath, a rising deficit and cuts to public spending, has led to a lot more discussion about numbers in the press and among politicians. Until a couple of years ago, most of us rarely thought about the public debt or government deficit, then suddenly we were being hit with incomprehensible numbers; tens of millions in borrowing each month.
But figures are meaningless on their own. £500,000 is a hell of a lot of money to most people but, in certain parts of London, if you can get a house for that it is a bargain. What counts as a ’big number’ depends entirely on context.
I was taught many years ago to respond to people quoting ’big numbers’ by asking ‘compared to what?’ For example, by comparing the UK’s debt to that of other countries, or to that of previous decades, the ‘big number’ is placed in its context. We’ve seen worse than this and most other large advanced economies are in the same state.
So when I hear politicians throwing ’big numbers’ around I reach for my bullshit detector. A recent clash in the commons between David Cameron and Harriet Harman saw the Prime Minister expressing disbelief at the sheer size of a public sector organisation’s back-office functions. ‘Compared to what?’ I thought to myself.