Andrew Yang, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, is not a fan of Gross Domestic Product.
“How many of you were excited about GDP when you woke up this morning? How many of you were like, ‘I’m going to make a big contribution today! I can feel it!’ ” he asked the crowd at a campaign stop in Seattle last week, explaining why the traditional measure of finished goods and services doesn’t fully capture the economic health of the United States and its citizens. “So GDP is going up and up. Meanwhile, more and more Americans are getting left behind.’ ”
OK, so what numbers should we be watching? What are the key performance indicators for the country, and the most important numbers for the future of the world?
Those are our central questions on this final episode of Numbers Geek, the podcast that GeekWire has produced in partnership with Steve Ballmer and USAFacts, the former Microsoft CEO’s non-partisan, not-for-profit civic data initiative.
We’ll hear answers to those questions from a variety of perspectives, starting with the data-driven presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Plus, we’ll hear from Bill Gates, conservative author and CNN commentator Amanda Carpenter, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and many more, including Numbers Geek listeners.
Listen to the episode above, and continue reading for highlights.
Todd Bishop: If you were to pick KPIs for the country, key performance indicators, the numbers that you would track long term to gauge the effectiveness of the country, the fate of the country, what would those numbers be?
Andrew Yang: “My top five would go: quality adjusted life expectancy, childhood success rates, mental health and freedom from substance abuse, average income and affordability, and clean air and water. Our life expectancy has declined for the last three years, which is almost unheard of in a developed country because of surges in suicides and drug overdoses, both of which have overtaken vehicle deaths for the first time. Our life expectancy is going the opposite direction of GDP, which is painting a very rosy picture.”
Andrew Yang: “Childhood success rates have stalled at a certain level. Our mental health has declined, where we have record levels of not just suicide, but also anxiety, depression, stress levels. By what I would consider our key performance indicators, we are not doing very well at all. It’s one reason why we need to move in a different direction. Income and affordability, 78 percent of Americans report living paycheck to paycheck, 57 percent can’t afford an unexpected $500 bill. In places like Seattle, I mean if you’re a techie, you could probably afford living here but the cost of housing is go up and up. People have a hard time affording housing. We started paying attention to those variables, then we would see that we are not faring nearly as well as the rosy GDP numbers, or the stock market prices, or the headline unemployment rate would suggest.”
See our recent story for more on Andrew Yang’s campaign and platform.
We also put the same question to another candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
Jay Inslee: “I think the number that is most important and most challenging is 350, because if we had a world that had 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide, my grandchildren would have a chance to have Washington the way I grew up with. I grew up with a Washington where the forests weren’t catching fire and putting ash on the hoods of our cars like happened this summer. I grew up in a Washington where there were salmon in the rivers to fish for and Orca to survive. I grew up in a Washington where we could ski in the winter. If we maintained about 350 parts per million in our atmosphere, my grandchildren would have a shot of having those things during their life. Unfortunately, we’re going over 400 parts per million. That means my grandchildren will fundamentally have a degraded Washington state. That number is striking a lot more than concern, but absolute terror, in all of us, parents and grandparents, that we have to do something about climate change.”
Checking the numbers on usafacts.org, there were 408.52 carbon dioxide parts per million in the atmosphere as of 2018. The last time we were below 350 parts per million was 1987.
The environment was also on the mind of filmmaker and podcast producer R.J. Cutler when we spoke with him last fall. We were talking at the Politicon Festival in Los Angeles about his podcast, the Oval Office Tapes, which was a scripted comedy show that imagined what was really going on inside the White House.
Todd Bishop: “When you think about the future of the world, I don’t know how much of a numbers geek you are personally, but are there any big picture numbers that you think of any metrics, key performance indicators, as they would call them in the business world, that you pay attention to?”
R.J. Cutler: “Yeah, I pay a lot of attention to 20 years from now the temperature is going to rise seven degrees. I don’t know what the f— people are planning on doing about that, but they best get to work.”
Todd Bishop: Anything else?
R.J. Cutler: “What more do you need? Seriously, what else is there? What else is there?”
Todd Bishop: “I’m not normally immersed in the world of politics day to day. Walking around Politicon the past two days here in Los Angeles, it’s struck me the blurring of the line between not only reality and fiction, but organic behavior and theater. What happens if people are more interested in causing a scene than getting at the truth? Is there a risk that this could be a slippery slope that we’re headed toward?”
R.J. Cutler: “Sure. This is why George Washington pleaded for there not to be political parties. Then when Jefferson and Adams went at it in the second presidential campaign over Young Nation and the newspapers took over, and the political cartoonists took over. Everybody asked the same questions you’re asking right now. And in 1960 when television took over and those who listened to the Nixon-Kennedy debates on radio thought that Nixon had won, and those who watched it on TV were certain that the far younger, far more handsome, far less sweaty JFK had won the debates. People asked the same question. Now, I think the real question is what happens when those in power cripple the institutions whose role it is to distinguish the truth, and to speak the truth?”
Another person we spoke with at Politicon was Amanda Carpenter, a former staffer for Sen. Ted Cruz and a CNN commentator and author of the book Gaslighting America. Her most important numbers: government spending, and the national debt.
Amanda Carpenter: “The reason I got involved in politics is because I had no one helping me through college. I went to college on my own, had to navigate the student loan process. And very early on, I wanted to know, ‘Why does tuition cost so much? Where’s it going?’ It’s fine if you want to pay the professors, but they’re paying these huge speaking fees to people who come in for $25,000 on campus. And that was really what lit a fire within me. There was an author coming to campus, fine. He’s coming to speak for an hour, and that’s $25,000. I went to school at a state school in Indiana. That’s pretty much my four years.
“I wanted to track the spending at my college to find out why tuition cost so much. And I can never get an answer, because everybody was being charged different prices, and there was no transparency in the system. And people just keep coming back to me and saying, ‘Well, there’s all this financial aid available.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but that’s lending if you have someone to cosign for you, but what happens if you don’t?’ And I just kept running into brick walls.
“And so at that point, I started a website to start documenting ways that our college was spending money that I disagreed with. And so that very quickly led me to meeting conservative people, because they said, ‘Are you conservative?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ They said, ‘Listen, if you care about spending, you’re conservative.’ And that’s ultimately what led my path to Washington is that covering government spending was very similar to tracking tuition spending on campus.”
Todd Bishop: “What did that teach you about the importance of numbers and about paying attention to the way government spends money?”
Amanda Carpenter: “Well, it all comes down to transparency, which is also a single tenet of the press. And so that’s kind of where these paths converge for me is that a lot of people hide the numbers when it comes to spending and what you pay. Tuition is such a mess. I haven’t even come close to figuring it out, but the fact that no one will give you a single sticker price for every student, and it’s different for everybody, and they hide it in student loans that the government subsidizes, and everyone graduates with $30,000 plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, and wonders why young people aren’t buying a house and starting a family earlier. Well, duh. This isn’t hard to figure out.
“The healthcare system, it’s the same thing. It comes down to, what are you paying for healthcare? What’s a fair price? Are you going to charge different people different prices, or are we going to hide the ball between government subsidies and insurance companies? It’s very similar to me, and it gets down to essentially how we live.”
The debt and the deficit are also key numbers for Ballmer, the founder of USAFacts and our Resident Numbers Geek, as we like to call him on the podcast. He told us about his most important numbers at an event last fall.
Steve Ballmer: “Deficit. That represents the burden we’re leaving our children to pay. I think that’s an important number one. Number two, it’s a set of numbers, but there is a survey which we call out, the American Community Survey, where the data is actually collected to show you what people in various income brackets spend as part of their daily life. What do they spend on housing? What do they spend on medicine? What do they spend on education? I think that set of numbers will help people understand how people live at various income levels. That would the second thing I would recommend government understand in these debates. What does quality of life look like for people? That would be number two. And then number three, probably for me, would be where are the proficiency numbers in math and reading. So I got more than three numbers in there for you.
“At the end of the day, education numbers have two important things. Number one, they do tell us what the future of our population looks like, and how good our schools are. But number two, it tells us how good a job we’re doing in putting kids in environments where they can learn. A lot of the reason kids don’t learn have to do with dysfunction at home, addiction, mental health problems, public safety issues, crime, getting to school, family structure. So the education number describes a lot of things. How people live will give us a sense of kind of between all things government does, how are we helping people? And obviously, I think the deficit is important because the more we run it up, the harder it’s going to be for our kids to earn enough money to pay back the debt we’ve incurred.”
See Episode 19 for more of Steve’s analysis of the country’s key numbers.
This episode also features comments and questions from Numbers Geek listeners.
Numbers Geek listener Kim Johnson: “I’d love for you all to explore the numbers related to African Americans broken down by gender and by age group to see whether or not any of the discriminatory language and rhetoric from people in power within the country and the policies that they’ve pushed forwards, particularly over the last couple of years, if that has discouraged people from achieving high school diplomas, from pursuing and achieving college degrees, and from achieving success within the corporate world, and even home ownership? Thanks a lot.”
We had the researchers at USAFacts dig into this, and it’s probably worth a master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation based on the amount of numbers and trends that they found. Just as one example, after adjusting for inflation, median weekly earnings have increased 11 percent from 1980 to 2018 for the population as a whole. However, earnings increased 7 percent over that time frame for Black Americans, and they actually decreased by 1 percent for Black men over that time frame.
Numbers Geek listener Patrick Ehrman: “A number that can surface a variety of stakeholder viewpoints is 20.8 percent. This is the number of 25-year-olds that have attained a bachelor’s degree. Why do only one in five students persist? Questions from those multiple stakeholders can lead to other data sets and deepen understanding for parents, educators, and policy makers. Reference NCES Table 104.30.”
Patrick even included a citation, a real Numbers Geek. We checked his calculation, and he’s correct. For more detail, here’s a chart showing educational attainment by state.
College education was also on the mind of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, when we asked him about his most important numbers during a public appearance last fall.
Chris Christie: “To me, one of the most important numbers to look at is the percentage of our population that’s being educated. And by being educated, I mean either vocational education or college education. We no longer have an economic system that’s going to allow us to have high school graduates be able to make a middle class living. They’re going to need some other type of training. And whether that’s four year college, or whether that’s vocational doesn’t matter to me, but it’s got to be one of them. And so continuing to see that opportunity for people to get that education rise, I think is the single most important indicator for the future of your country, because if we don’t have people who can strive towards and achieve a middle class existence, then you become politically unstable.”
Todd Bishop: “How can we do that? How can we improve?”
Chris Christie: “Listen, I think that one of the ways to do that is to start investing more in vocational education. And I think we’re in a society now where people consider if you don’t go to a four year college, you’re a failure. And I think that’s wrong. The four year college isn’t for everybody. And the fact is that, I know in my state for instance, we’ve got really high paying jobs in the building trades that are going unfilled because we don’t have enough trained people to do it. And those are jobs where you can make, in a place like New Jersey, $100,000-$175,000 a year as a building trades person. That’s a really good living. Even in a state like New Jersey, it’s a really good living, right?
“So I think what we need to do is political leaders need to start giving permission to parents and to children to do something other than four year college, if that’s where their heart draws them to, and their skills draw them to. But we keep talking about the only way that success is defined is by going to Harvard. And that’s not it. And I sure as hell didn’t go to Harvard, so …”
See Episode 18, “What Happened to the Middle Class?“
According to the USAFacts 2019 Annual Report, 13.8 million people were enrolled in four year colleges and universities in the U.S. as of 2017. By comparison, 6.1 million people were enrolled in two year colleges, and that was down from 7.6 million people as of 2011.
Next up, Bill Gates. When I interviewed the Microsoft co-founder earlier this year for a GeekWire story about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation annual letter, I had to ask him about his most important numbers as well.
Todd Bishop: “When you think about the future of the world, what are the numbers that you think about most and care about most? Think about it almost like the KPIs of the globe, the key performance indicators of the globe. What are the things you think about? What are they, and what would you want them to be to signal success in the future?”
Bill Gates: “Well, we have the so-called Sustainable Development Goals, which are the UN-adopted set of measures that everybody got to weigh in on. It’s actually the second round. We had the MDGs, Millennium Development Goals. Those were, in some ways, simpler, but they really broke through and were helpful for people prioritizing things. So, then every cause said, ‘OK , you can’t keep it so simple because you didn’t have environmental goals in there or your education goal was just about attendance. It wasn’t about quality of education. And what about handicapped people?’ So now, the SDGs, there’s 17 broad groups, but 119 indicators. That is kind of this effort to have a report card.
“The exemplar in terms of really doing measurement well, is the health field, which is SDG-3, and part of the reason is here at the University of Washington, in the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), the group that Chris Murray runs. It’s pulling in all the studies, all the surveys, and when people disagree about the statistics, they have a whole process they go through about ‘OK, what should the error bars be? Did we do this thing right?’ So the world has now a actually very high-quality, and it’s not just the poor countries. If you go to this … type in global burden of disease, and the interaction where you can try, OK, look at this age group. Look at over time compared to countries … Anyway, it’s phenomenal. Their software is very good. So, that is an exemplar. We’re hoping to get areas like education or social services to be at that same thing because in health, we can see pretty quickly what’s going wrong, and actually then, have some reaction to that.
“The childhood death number, if you have to pick a single number, the percentage of kids who die under the age of 5 or the life expectancy number. There’s some numbers that capture quite a bit that most people don’t realize. Those numbers are improving a lot. Still some room to go. Five percent globally, five percent of kids die before the age of 5. Less than 1 percent in rich countries, and in some countries like Nigeria, still over 15 percent, so quite a contrast.”
Todd Bishop: “Why is that such a strong indicator for you of a variety of other things?”
Bill Gates: “Well, it’s a pretty universal value that you want your children to survive. It also turns out, as you help children to survive, people choose to have less children, and so feeding the world, having stability, educating everybody, dealing with environmental challenges, that health thing is a very plain thing. And, there are some extremely effective interventions, where for less than $1,000 a year, you can save those lives, and as we get more and more vaccines, we will get to the point where a child born in Africa doesn’t have a significantly greater chance of dying than the U.S. In my lifetime, that is not an idealistic goal. That is a concrete, ‘Hey, here’s what remains in terms of causes and scientific work that needs to be done to make that a reality.'”
And finally, here is the take from the West Wing, both real and imagined. I asked our question about the most important numbers to track in the country and the world during a panel with Ben Rhodes, a former Obama staffer in the real West Wing, Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff, who played Josh and Toby in the television version of the West Wing.
This was before the mid-term elections.
Ben Rhodes: “I look at how does the aging of a population in a Western country counteract the progressive nature of young people because essentially, to put it in numbers basis, more people are living longer, so actually, that is overwhelming the younger vote. For every single U.S. president after Donald Trump, climate change is going to be the most pressing issue for them. It is going to make the Cold War look like it was barely an organizing principle for American politics when you think of the scale of the threat. And yet, old people on voting on that, they don’t care about it.
“So, I think one of the challenges numerically is looking at what is the aging population of advanced democracies, and how does that balance against younger voters. And what that means is that younger voters have to turn out in even greater numbers if they don’t want people who aren’t going to be around when the consequences of their decisions are made to be making those decisions for them because there’s something very immoral about the fact that young people are going to get screwed on everything, on the budget, on tax policies, on whether or not they can count on health care, on climate change. They’re getting screwed by people who are not going to be around for those decisions. And that, to me, says that we have to mobilize young people or else we’re all going to be screwed.”
Bradley Whitford: “Obama has a great thing where he says to his daughters, ‘You wouldn’t let your grandmother dress you or make your playlist. Why are you letting us decide your future?’ And what kids need to … It is so easy to be cynical obviously at any time looking at politics, but what kids need to understand, which is what these Parkland kids understand, is that their future is an act of creation, and that, and an active imagination. And, if they’re building, they are not at the mercy of it. That’s where cynicism lives. And we need to get them engaged in the political process that way.”
Richard Schiff: “Another number that’s interesting is, and I think it’s the very core of why the Trump thing has been successful and that is that Hispanics were projected to be a majority in this country at some point in the near future. And what’s confusing to me is that as I hear the recent polls as to how much the Hispanic vote is likely to vote, it’s very low.
“And talking about determining your own future, here we’re talking about immigration and building up a wall and kids being separated from their families at the border, and this particular demographic has something that can make a difference. In three weeks, make a difference. End it in three weeks, and yet there’s a possibility that they’re not going to show up to the polls in overwhelming numbers, and there’s a possibility that they’re not going to vote the way you would think they would vote in overwhelming numbers.”
According to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau, voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds rose from 20 percent in 2014 to 36 percent in 2018, and it was the largest percentage point increase for any age group.
And that is a wrap for Numbers Geek. This is the final episode of the podcast, but before we say goodbye, we’ve got some thanks to give.
Thanks to Kevin Lisota, GeekWire’s technical guru, for his help throughout the season, and to the GeekWire team for their support as we worked on this project. Thanks to Killer Infographics for their work on Numbers Geek graphics and visuals, and to Daniel L.K. Caldwell for composing the Numbers Geek theme song.
Thanks to the L.A. Clippers organization for all of their help with our basketball episodes. And a huge thanks to the team at USAFacts for all of their work and support over the past year. Check out the annual report, and subscribe for email alerts to keep up with all of the latest numbers about the state of the country.
Thanks to all of you for listening, reading, and watching. If you missed anything, you can find past episodes and videos at geekwire.com/numbersgeek. And be sure to subscribe to our long-running GeekWire Podcast, where we host weekly discussions, roundups, and interviews.
And finally, thanks to Steve Ballmer. We had a ton of fun working with him behind the scenes, as you can imagine, and it’s inspiring to see his commitment to the cause of grounding our national conversation in numbers and facts.