Big numbers should trigger hard questions


The reason no picture (other than that of my mug) accompanies these commentaries is simple: If a picture is worth one thousand words — or about 300 more words than are printed here — I’d be out of business faster than you could say “digital photography.” As such, we journalists paint “word” pictures and, given our very limited skills, we usually paint by numbers.

Real numbers, hard numbers, irrefutable numbers that, by themselves, tell a story or add to a conversation.

For example, “Our population trajectory means that from now to 2030, the world will need to build the equivalent of a city of 1 million people in developing countries every five days.”

That’s the opening sentence to the United Nation’s recently released report Food and Agriculture: The future of sustainability.

More numbers

Here are more of its numbers:

— “We now face astonishing levels of waste, 30-40 percent of all food… never makes it to market and consumers in rich countries waste as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.” and

— “For the first time in history we have as many overweight people as under-nourished people…”

(Link to the report and other supporting documents at

Takes new thinking

Building a new city of 1 million people every five days for the next 18 years will require new strategies on how to find more and better use life-sustaining essentials such as food, water, soil and energy. And since these essentials deeply interlock — agriculture, for example, uses nearly 80 percent of all water today — any new strategy for one will have a huge impact on all.

Other mind-boggling numbers

Other numbers are equally illustrative.

Will the latest banking mess, this one by the banking biggie J.P. Morgan, push Congress and the White House to double efforts to regulate how banks use their own funds, the so-called Volker Rule?

It’s hard to know, but one thing we do know is that when banks, led by J.P. Morgan, learned they couldn’t kill the Volker Rule in banking reform they worked to make it ineffectual.

This past February, reports Jesse Eisinger for ProPublica, an independent, non-profit news service, they succeeded.

“Bank lobbyists with complicit regulators and legislators took a simple concept and bloated it into a 530-page monstrosity of hopeless complexity and vagueness. They couldn’t kill the rule. Instead, they are getting Congress and regulators to render it morbidly obese and bedridden.”

And now J.P. Morgan is again rattling global markets because of fat, complex bets the bank made with “Volker” money that even it can’t explain.

Ag not immune

We do the same in agriculture. How else can you explain the monstrosity of hopeless complexity and vagueness that is the beef checkoff where 660 directors in 45 different state beef councils hope to impact the 106-member checkoff board that is accountable to 535 members of the same Congress that gave you the 530-page Volker Rule?

A similar situation exists in the soon-to-be-expanded federal crop insurance program. From 2000 to 2010, “taxpayers contributed more than $42 billion” to the “15 private companies” that administer the program,” according to a December 2011 story in the Atlantic magazine.

That tab will go higher under 2012 farm bill ideas because a bigger share of crop revenue, not crop yields, will be insurable. That means revenue shortfalls, not just production losses, will trigger more and bigger payments.

Last year, a good production year, taxpayer subsidies for crop insurance totaled $7.3 billion.

According to the Government Accountability Office, premium subsidies are expected to average $7.8 billion per year from 2012 to 2016 for a five-year total of $39 billion.

But that’s less than direct program payments received mostly by grain and cotton farmers from 1995 through 2010. Those payments totaled $167.3 billion, or about $11.2 billion per year.

Is that the picture farmers want taxpayers to view: $7.8 billion of subsidies, not $11.2 billion? And how does that policy approach supply food and drink to one million new global citizens every five days?

Hard numbers, hard questions and even harder answers. Maybe that’s why I’m not smiling in that picture.<

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