Reading and ‘Rithmetic “Abilities”?

In some ways, the current definitions or interpretation of literacy in the United States, and, for all I know, elsewhere can be misleading.  Literacy is currently assessed by: first, whether an individual can look at a section of printed language and decode the symbols in order to recognize and identify the words; second, understand the mean of those words; and third, respond appropriately to the words, whether by describing what has been read or answering the question posed by those words.

Various measures of U.S. literacy range from 65% to 97% of the population being “literate.”   Effectively, the 97% figure refers to the basic ability to decode letters and form words, while the sixty-five percent figure comes from an assessment from the U.S. Department of Education which measures the ability to locate information in a text, make low-level inferences using printed materials, and to integrate easily identifiable pieces of information.  Other studies have shown that less than 40% of those recently granted post-graduate degrees possess the ability to accurately analyze moderately sophisticated essays written at the level of newspaper editorials, and for those with “mere” four year college degrees, the level of success is below 30%.

A similar range of figures appears to apply with regard to the mathematical and computational skills of Americans as well, although there have been far fewer studies of “innumeracy.”  Department of Education studies do indicate that American innumeracy rates show that about 40% of American adults have severe deficiencies in handling day to day computational skills, and for calculations more complex, the lack of ability is even higher.

All of this may help to explain at least some of the reasons for the current political debacle over the debt crisis… and why I periodically find myself asking why various readers and reviewers who claim to have read my books clearly seemed not to have understood even the basics of what was on the page.

Functional reading and numeracy require the ability not only to read the words and add or subtract the numbers, but to understand the implications of what the information conveyed by the words and numbers happens to mean.  Too many Americans don’t understand those meanings, with the result that, among other things, over half of all Americans pay no federal income taxes, yet feel that they are overtaxed, while those with incomes over a million dollars pay less in percentage terms than do the majority of middle class and upper middle class professionals – and also claim to be overtaxed – while the federal deficit is roughly 40% of the budget. Oh… and they don’t understand that the solutions proposed by neither the Tea Partiers nor the far left are workable.

All too many political pundits have decried the growing polarization of the U.S. electorate, and many have blamed the media, the politicians, but what about the fact that 70% of the population just doesn’t really understand?  They know what they want, but they don’t understand the numbers and the logic that show why what the body politic, i.e., the United States, demands from government can’t be funded by what people are willing and able to pay, and so one side insists that the solution is simply cutting spending, without considering the economic death spiral created by the abrupt cessation of federal programs, and the other side insists that taxes have to be raised, almost entirely on the people who are already paying all the taxes that support federal spending, without understanding the difference between wealth and income or the economic implications of what tax impacts what.

Most people talk about the future of federal spending being a choice between alternatives, and it is, but the real alternatives aren’t those presented by the left and the right, but between a rational discussion based on understanding and an irrational decision based on emotion supported by ignorance created by lack of understanding.


18 thoughts on “Reading and ‘Rithmetic “Abilities”?”

  1. G.Thomas says:

    When you refer to readers and reviewers not understanding the basics of what was written on the pages of your works are you talking about the “literacy” problem (inability to make connections between the actions of the story/characters to understand the plot) or an inability to understand the economic underpinnings of many of your novels and how they affect the actions of the story/characters? Or both?

    As far as our current situation goes, do you see anyone having the “rational” high hand in all this mess? One of the problems I see as part of the overall issue is an increasing sense of inequality in wealth/income and also a sense that everyone wants something but no one wants to pay the price for those “somethings”. We seem to have fewer of the poor lifting themselves into the middle class, the middle class seem to be losing ground on many fronts (that would be me) and the truly wealthy really can’t help but get wealthier. Is it truly so hard to come up with reasonable solutions?

  2. Everyone has a “reasonable” solution, in his or her view, and the majority want someone else to pay for that solution. The sum total of “needs” is greater than the sum total of what people want to pay. The poor want the rich to pay; the rich point out that they’re paying far more on an individual basis than anyone else. And both have points. Why exactly should 52% of the population pay essentially only sales taxes and social security taxes and contribute nothing else? Why should those who are in the top ten percent pay the vast majority of the funding for non-entitlement programs, when the demand for expanding such programs seems endless? Yet, on the other hand, why should 20% of the population be denied good education for their children and why should those children be denied adequate nutrition because their parents are poor and/or uneducated?

    A large part of the problem lies in the fact that “need” and poverty are perceived as relative by people. Today’s U.S. middle class enjoys luxuries not even dreamed of by Louis XIV, and most of those below the U.S. poverty line live in better conditions than many of those who might be considered middle class in the third world — or than did those of the U.S. middle class two centuries ago.

    Thus… as the standard of possible living — as exemplified by the rich and depicted in the media — rises, so do the expectations of those who are not rich.

    Yet… in an absolutist viewpoint,especially in a land like the United States, where opportunity is perceived as present to all, those who have worked hard and achieved ask why they should pay so much. Those who have worked hard and not achieved, for whatever reason, point out that “opportunity” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that those with more have a duty to contribute more.

    The plain fact is that life isn’t always fair, and government can’t make it fair for everyone… and to smooth things out so that there aren’t gross inequalities means those with more need to pay more. The real sticking point is defining “more,” because, after all, “my” definition is infinitely better than “yours,” isn’t it?

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    As for the math, it’s scarcely needed. Heinlein said enough to address the situation with the expression “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

    If anyone you haven’t known well for years offers you something, look for the strings attached.

    If the government “offers” you something, they’re taking it from someone else; and every expansion of the government’s power to reduce someone else’s liberty or property leaves yours at risk too.

    That should be enough reason for anyone to try and get off the dole as fast as they can. Even if opportunity (and the preparation from prior experience) aren’t all they should be or have been, at least when one does for oneself, one has some control. When one depends on the illusory benevolence of others, one gives up control, dignity, and the possibility of doing better tomorrow for guaranteed mediocrity today.

    Except now we really can’t even afford that anymore.

    Look at the rioters in England. No apparent agenda, except to get away with what they can, because they can. Most apparently lifelong unemployed young people, with no other purpose than to please themselves at the expense of others.

    Parasites…and that their parents and others abandoned them to be little more than that, sooner or later is no longer an excuse.

  4. Hob says:

    Can a small group of people govern a large group of people without imposing an education gap in key areas?

    1. Probably not, but the gap should be based on ability and not upon parental resources.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        Public education – the parents don’t have to spend money for that (well, supplies, but not that much more than they’d have to spend just to have kids in the first place: forms of entertainment with the risk of an 18+ year obligation are _not_ free).

        What even poor (financially) parents need to do is _get_involved_. Hold their kids accountable for doing their part, and for who they hang out with. Hold the schools accountable, not for being baby sitters, but simply for providing an environment where it’s possible for those willing to learn to do so, with some measure of competent assistance and encouragement. At least _try_ to set an example.

        Or put them up for adoption, if they’re not willing to accept the responsibilities of being parents (that have nothing to do with the price of the toys they can afford or the prestigious name of the school they send them to).

  5. Derek says:

    Reading this, it makes me wonder if I would be able to analyze one of those moderately sophisticated essays successfully. I hope I am literate, but I don’t have any proof.

    I think every one of your posts touching on education, especially in regards to my generation (1985 onward), scares the living hell out of me. Not just that my peers are less than exemplary, but that there is a possibility that I am deceiving myself in assuming I’m not in the same boat.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      @Derek: if you are willing to ask the question, it’s likely that you’re not part of the problem – or at least if in some way you still are, you’ll discover that for yourself and do something about it.

      _All_ assumptions should be subject to questioning and testing, particularly the ones we’re most uncomfortable testing – which means we should be asking ourselves _why_ we’re uncomfortable testing them.

      Do that, and your life is yours. Fail to do that, and you’ll never even know who is pulling your strings.

      That doesn’t preclude faith or trust. But the former should be with full knowledge that by definition it’s a choice to set aside the usual standard of proof; and the latter should typically be _earned_, and only granted in small quantities as initial benefit-of-the-doubt.

  6. Joe says:

    The problem with people is that they are less bright than you think, but are also less stupid.

    They know enough to know something is wrong. All data that fits this emotion is then believed (confirmation bias), but no deep understanding results.

    Consider the riots in the UK:
    “It’s the government / conservative / rich people’s fault and it’s about showing we can do want we want”.

    On the one hand they understand that they’re not treated the same as “the rich people”, have far fewer options, and are ignored. On the other hand they do not understand that the “rich people” in their neighborhood simply have a different role in the goods-trading system that feeds and clothes them. If they understood this they might target banks in the City of London which has served as the vacuum cleaner sucking wealth out of the “real” economy.

    Now consider the funding of education. I have no children. Why should I pay for some other person’s snotty little offspring’s education? “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”, people should pay their way, etc. Well that child will grow up and influence the system in which I live and my options. She may impose a 90% tax on me, or even burn down my house one day.

    Why don’t people understand their own societies? Perhaps because real information is hard to come by and requires reading. Illiterate people find reading much harder than watching TV. TV shapes opinions by choosing “select” data for the masses. Confirmation bias kicks in and people’s thoughts are shaped.

    Since real information is hard to come by, one needs strong critical thinking to gain deep understanding. But critical thinking takes effort, and is so radical that it is rarely taught.

    This century really calls for a new enlightenment. Peak oil, peak agriculture, climate change, etc will all require a massive realigning of our civilisation. After its shameful performance over the debt ceiling, I have no doubt that the US government will be unable to help. Our realignment may well be a mass die-off.

  7. Jason says:


    I am wondering what your policy is on reader’s reposting or using the contents of your blog entries. If this is acceptable to you, how would you like to be credited?

    Many of your entries would be great starting points for discussions with my students as I teach high school English. Also, I would like to pass on some of your passages as entries on my Facebook to be appreciated by my friends.


    Jason Schultz
    Goodyear, AZ

    1. I have no problem with the reposting of my blogs provided credit is given [L. E. Modesitt, Jr., author, from].

  8. Joe says:

    Finland achieves better educational results:

    (15% of children are immigrants in Finland).

  9. Wayne Kernochan says:

    While I’m in agreement with most if not all of what you say, I think the example cited also shows something else.

    I can testify that I received what was a pretty good education back in the ’60s, and feel that I can handle functional reading and math reasonably well, although I will probably reach the point of losing some of it 15 years from now. I can also say that I have found that the economics training I got in college and B school (Sloan, MIT), and much of what I see out there still today, does not cover, say, an economic “death spiral” from government cutbacks in the unusual case of a “liquidity trap”, or the distinction between wealth and income as it relates to Federal tax policy. So I think that even if college-level education did manage to achieve acceptable functional reading and math for all, in this particular case most Americans (or, from what I can see, citizens of other nations) would still not grasp the key points of the debate — unless they had ongoing education after their schooling.

    Practically speaking, that means the media. Of all the benefits of computing, one of the biggest for me is the existence of Wikipedia, which at least allows me to chase down something I’ve heard about. But I have to say that almost all the commentary on all other media that I’ve heard, wittingly or not, has not even acknowledged that information on the two points I cited above is worth knowing. And that’s true for both old and young commentators, although I do sense that many young commentators have lost a “sense of history”, and assume either that a situation has never happened before or that someone else’s dishonest summary is correct. I saw a really strange example of that in Business Week earlier this year, in which an article writer claimed that “Gorbachev was ousted by hardliners”.

    I think, therefore, that this example suggests that unless we come up with some better way of fostering ongoing education and ensuring valid information pointing to it is available on other media besides the Internet,in many cases we will still not solve the problem — e.g., in climate change.

    1. Joe says:

      Der Spiegel claims new documents prove that Gorbachev was indeed ousted by hardliners… but that economics were the real cause.,1518,779277,00.html

  10. Nate Awrich says:

    I wrote about effective tax rates on my own blog (which is rarely used, but I sometimes write about the topics that have dominated the political debates I’ve had recently). See the first post here:

    Generally speaking I agree with you, but it’s worth pointing out that poor people pay more taxes than you think, and rich people pay fewer taxes as a proportion of total income than most people imagine.

    Only about 10% of Americans pay no taxes at all. The less money you earn, the more significant the FICA (Medicare and Social Security) taxes will be. Even those 10% of people who pay no federal taxes at all still pay on average around 14% of their total income in taxes.

    As to why the wealthy pay less in taxes than their tax brackets would seem to predict, a substantial piece of the answer is the differing tax treatments for wage income and investment income. The latter forms a larger part of total income for wealthier people, but is taxed at a considerably lower rate (15%). The rationale is that taxing investment income is basically taxing income twice, but I don’t find that to be particularly persuasive (the same is true of practically every tax not directly tied to a government service).

    Lastly, I don’t think reasonable solutions to taxing and spending problems are that hard to find. The government has to cut Medicare / Medicaid costs and reduce defense spending. Nothing else will constitute a “solution.” Means test Medicare and Social Security, eliminate an array of major weapons programs, withdraw the military from Afghanistan and Iraq… problem mostly solved.

  11. Joe says:

    @Nate : One option you don’t mention is single payer. Europeans pay $7500 less per person for better healthcare than we do. Cutting out the for-profit “insurance” industry would help.

  12. Shannon says:

    This brings to the mind the GRE which I took at the beginning of the year. I did relatively well, but most of the content I recalled from high school, not university, and the test is for entry to graduate school. The quantitative reasoning section didn’t go beyond algebra and geometry. I had more difficulty with the english/grammar section which consisted of quite a bit of vocabulary that is not in regular usage and reading comprehension. I did well only because my preferred recreation is reading. While I took it ‘cold turkey’ a number of my acquaintances felt the need to study for the exam, which really confused me, or take it again to improve scores. I guess that just illustrates the lack of literacy and reasoning ability of even college graduates.

  13. Nate Awrich says:

    Joe – I actually discussed single payer health care in depth on an earlier blog post, but I don’t think it’s an option for immediate deficit reduction because of the significant costs of massive structural change.

    Interestingly, in Vermont we’re moving towards a single payer health care law. It’d be the first of its kind in the U.S. I have my concerns (I work as an administrator in a hospital), but it will be neat to see it unfold.

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