Explain those big numbers

This post first  appeared at BusinessJournalism.org. See all the Testy Business Copy Editor posts here.

I last wrote about big numbers in December 2011. It’s time for a refresher.

The New York Times Magazine ran a praiseworthy piece this month headlined “The Half-Trillion-Dollar Depression” and written by the Times economics reporter Catherine Rampell, whom I respect and admire. The story describes the enormous costs to the nation of mental illness and its treatment. It concludes: “If we want to realize the long-term economic and social benefits that come from helping people burdened by mental illness, we may have to endure some short-term economic pain.”

The headline gets your attention and tells you what the story is about, sort of (there is a lot of mental illness out there that isn’t depression).

Half a trillion dollars is nothing to sneeze at. Even by the otherworldly standards of the federal budget, it’s a lot of money. It’s also a seemingly precise number. How did Rampell come up with it?

The story says upfront that the U.S. spends “about $150 billion a year on the “direct medical costs” of treating the mentally ill. No source is given for that figure.

$350 billion to go.

Next, there’s the $193 billion in earnings lost to people with “serious mental illness,” because they “earn on average, $16,000 (a year, presumably) less than their “mentally well” counterparts. (We might argue that not being mentally ill doesn’t necessarily make you “mentally well,” but we won’t.) This figure is attributed to a “2008 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, which for the purposes of the article is probably sufficient. (A link to the journal article, or at least an abstract, would have been nice.)

$157 billion to go.

“Because the mentally ill are at higher risk of poverty than their peers,” they get things like “food stamps” and “subsidized housing.”** That’s worth $140 billion to $160 billion in public money, “according to one recent estimate.” By whom? Who knows?

None of this is really Rampell’s fault. I’m sure she could have provided the sources if an editor had thought to ask.

The lesson, of course, is to continue to be wary of big numbers, especially nice round ones like half a trillion.

I’ve asked Rampell where she got the unsourced numbers, and if she ever gets back to me, I’ll report it.

*Half a trillion dollars, in packets of 100 $100-bills each, would cover 1.1 acre, stacked like this person describes. He or she does mention football fields, which is the sort of thing we want to avoid, but includes a nice drawing of what lots of $100 bills might look like. I couldn’t find an estimate of how many times 500 billion $100  bills, end to end, would circumnavigate Mars, and I don’t feel like making such a ridiculous calculation.

** Who are their peers if not other mentally ill people? Is this an attempt to avoid using “counterparts” twice in the story?



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