09 January 2012

First Baptist Church of Out-of-Context Numbers

So, for a while, before I moved out of my parents' house, I used to attend the First Baptist Church at the Mall, in Lakeland, Florida.

That's not a joke in my description. They bought an old shopping mall and turned it into a church.

Anyways. The preacher at this church is named Jay Dennis. Other than a little bit of a Marcus Bachmann thing that he has going on, he's a pretty effective rhetorician.

One habit that he has, though, that I used to pick on: he tends to begin his sermons with a little story, an anecdote, a joke, a list, some kind of icebreaker that makes his audience sit up and pay attention.

You might think that this tendency is a good thing! Well... it would be, except that (as I repeatedly complained about while I was a part of the church) these icebreakers are often frustratingly incoherent: either irrelevant to his point, urban legends, or facts that, upon further examination, offer little support for the point he's using them to make.

Case in point: Pastor Jay's sermon from January 1st. This was a sermon called "Generosity Goals that Slay the Giant of Debt."

Let's go to the video, shall we?

Generosity Goals that Slay the Giant of Debt from First Baptist Church at the Mall on Vimeo.

There's a lot that we could analyze here, but I just want to pick on the list that Dr. Dennis offers starting at 3:05.

American consumers spend enormous amounts of money on things that don't matter, on non-essentials! Listen to the following, which were gathered from various websites that represent annual spending on things. Annually [note the finger in the air], 604 billion dollars is spent on going out to eat. 20.2 billion for video and computer games. 18.8 billion on home entertainment products. 10.5 billion on self-help products and services, 7 billion on virtual goods, which is defined as nonphysical objects purchased for use in online communications or online games, they have no intrinsic value and by definition are intangible! 5.9 billion on weight-loss products and programs. 1 billion dollars spent on fees paid to the top 5 thousand U.S. motivational speakers, and 315 million on stress management programs.

Those numbers are outrageous, right? Look at how crazy Americans are with the spending and the stress and the oy!

Sorry, Jerry Lewis. I really am.

Putting aside the irony of a pastor chastising us for purchasing things which "have no intrinsic value and by definition are intangible," there's a point I'd like to make. He's talking about what Americans spend every year.

Key point: Americans. There's more than one of us. There are, in fact, according to the most recent census, slightly more than 307 million of us. So what would Pastor Jay's list look like if it took this into account? Well... it wouldn't completely undercut the case he's trying to make, but it would be somewhat less stunning. I've rewritten it to be less of a distortion:

The average American consumer spends enormous amounts of money on things that don't matter, on non-essentials! Listen to the following, which were gathered from various websites that represent annual spending on things. Annually, an average of $1967 is spent on going out to eat - that's about 325 Big Mac extra value meals (size medium), or about 90 trips to Olive Garden (if you don't drink alcohol). A little over $65 per person per year on video and computer games (or about one new game per year). The average person spends $61 per year on home entertainment products - that's about three DVDs, or half of a DVD player. $34.20 on self-help products and services. $2.28 on virtual goods - about 1/2 of a single small DLC pack per person per year. The average person spends $19.22 on weight-loss programs in a year - which is to say, a little under a half-month's membership at the YMCA. The top tier of motivational speakers average about $200,000 in income per year (just think how many jobs they're creating with that), and the average U.S. citizen spends just over $1 a year on stress-management programs.

The point is: when you aggregate numbers, especially from a large population, they get really big, really quickly - and if you don't talk about the size of the population you're aggregating from, it's easy to compile numbers that seem ridiculous or stunning.

Let's talk about the one number here that still seems significant: that $1967 on "going out to eat." That's a lot of money.

Question, though: do you buy a coffee when you go to work in the morning? How much does that cost? Say you're a little fancy, you buy a latte. $3. Times how many days a week? 5? Times how many weeks a year? We'll say you've got a decent job, you get 6 weeks a year off, and you never once buy coffee when you're not going to the office... 46 weeks. That's... $690.

Say you go out to eat once a week. That's 52 times in a year. You spend $15 each time - because, while you're going to decent places, and you tip well, you don't drink (add minimum $5 to each trip if you do). Say you're good-looking, a little bit of a romantic, so 10 of those times you take someone with you and pay for their meal. Well, shoot... that's $930. If you're buying one drink at each meal, that's $1240 - which puts you right at the average for the year, even assuming you don't go out to a bar a single time all year. Does that seem ridiculous?

It's funny how quick numbers add up - and it's a little sad how effective they can be at making an impression if they're just handed out without context.

None of this invalidates Dr. Dennis' points - I actually agree with some of what he has to say, and, if I were operating from the same assumptions he is, I'd probably agree with a lot more of it. I just find bad logic and the abuse of statistics to be painful and illuminating, and, in the context of a sermon about debt, worth talking about.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not to mention all of the very tangible jobs that produce all of those "non-essentials" and the economic benefits of consumer spending