Have we become a nation of number crunchers, bean counters and market demographers? If so, I say we can blame baby boomers' self-indulgence and run-amok consumerism.
As scary as it sounds, my generation (and, according to CEE News demographics, probably yours) calls the shots now. And every seven seconds, according to one statistic, another one of us turns 50. The scariest part is that our generation refuses to grow old gracefully.
And we've become obsessed with statistics. Sports pages today read like business pages, with player salary deals and detailed data that explain away all the poetry. And, if you really want to play by the numbers, there's fantasy football. Politicians cite statistics left and right, spinning numbers every which way but lucid, to further their own causes. Politicos from opposite sides of the aisle will sometimes spin stats from the same source to sling mud at each other. Drug companies manufacturer “three out of four dentists prefer” stats to increase sales.
Statistics can be objectively calculated to reveal truth or subjectively spun to suit a statistician's agenda. Winston Churchill said, “Never believe any statistic as long as you didn't forge it yourself.” A century earlier, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (quoted by Mark Twain) said, “There are three kind of lies: Lies, damn lies and statistics.”
Sometimes it seems like we're all trying to reduce our lives to easy numbers. Just count the way numbers rule our lives: our pulse rates, our blood pressure rates, our cholesterol counts, our money market and CD account rates. We watch the stock market sink, hoping it will finally hit bottom, so it can start to rise again. We check our retirement plans to make sure we're diversified. We calculate our life savings, trying to decide when and if we can retire. (Let's just hope there's enough left in Social Security.) We look for the lowest possible mortgage rate to buy or refinance homes. We even monitor our odometers, trying to get more bang for the buck. (I still get better than 30 mpg on my 1988 Toyota Corolla station wagon.)
Don't worry about investment numbers, say financial experts. Long-term mutual funds are only Monopoly money until you finally cash them in. The economy has to rebound eventually, doesn't it? Hasn't it always? Hasn't it? Will it? (Actually, yes, it probably will.) Or should we all be playing lottery numbers?
The year I was born, 1958, marked the very peak of the baby boom. Statistics reveal that more people were born that year than in any other year in the history of the United States. Our generation sometimes felt like numbers, coming of age in overcrowded classrooms and neighborhoods. We hoped to somehow be singled out for glory. We became enamored with numbers early, trading baseball cards and calculating batting averages.
As we got older, numbers continued to rule our lives: class rank, SAT scores, basketball scoring percentages, track meet times and so on. The Guinness World Records book, TV Nielsen ratings and USA Today's Top 10 lists, which were parodied by David Letterman and copied by every magazine in the world, reflect our continuing obsession with rank numbers. TV Guide's and Entertainment Weekly's Top 50 and Top 100 issues are always best sellers; Time and Esquire do well with “Numbers” columns. (Not to mention CEE News' Top 50 Electrical Contractors list).
The electrical contracting profession demands more attention to numbers than most, but a majority of the numbers contractors deal with are real, tangible numbers critical for estimating, specifying, engineering and project management.
During these hard times, contractors look hard at numbing bottom-line numbers every day: poring over spreadsheets, payrolls and project estimates; looking for magic numbers to make their firms profitable. If the volume of work is as fat as ever, the profit margins might seem slimmer.
Fearful of the economy and desperate for profits, some contractors could be spending too much time worrying about larger market numbers. A psychologist friend (not Oprah's Dr. Phil) once told me that residential contractors never finish projects on time because — psychologically — they're wary of business booms, so they overbook jobs to compensate for seasonal ebb and flow. Sounds more like simple supply and demand, like what airlines — and probably even some psychologists — practice every day to gain market share. But who am I to argue with psychology?
These days, depressing market stats and up-and-down economic indicators overwhelm business people. The only real comforts are knowing that nobody really knows what will happen and that business conditions generally improve over time.
Most corporations have become so obsessed with short-term bottom-line numbers that they've completely lost sight of the long-term big picture possibilities. Crunching numbers used to be mostly a bookkeeper's domain; now it seems like everybody is focusing on producing “revenue-producing” properties.
Suddenly, using expressions like “let's cook the books” to find money to fund pet projects isn't so funny anymore — not after the Enron and WorldCom fiascos helped make “fuzzy” (read fraudulent) accounting a national disgrace. Meanwhile, corporate fat cats continue to get richer. Thirty years ago, corporate CEOs made 42 times more than their firm's lowest paid employee. Now they make up to 420 times as much.
One more stat — I can't help myself: 20 years ago the United States ranked number one, far and away, in the export of automobiles. Now, we're number one in electrical equipment exports. U.S. electrical equipment is acknowledged as the best in the world and feeds developing nations' hunger for American-style consumption.
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