How come I was not shocked to learn that most eighth-graders in America cannot do simple math?
Could it be that anyone who has gone into a convenience store in the last 10 years and watched the cashier try to make change is incapable of such shock?
My morning soft drink (next media expose: "Soft Drinks for Breakfast -- An American Tragedy") costs me 71 cents.
So I used to hand over a dollar and a penny.
Now, a show of hands, please, how many of you can tell me why?
Hey, not bad. Of course, you are newspaper readers, who, by definition, are the smartest people in the world. So you know that I used to hand over a dollar and a penny so I could get a quarter and a nickel back, instead of a quarter and four pennies.
But some years ago, I stopped doing this. I stopped doing this because when I handed over the penny, I got weird stares from the cashiers.
"Hey, mister," they would say, "you already gave me a dollar. What's the penny for?"
OK, so go be appalled. And Newsweek's cover story on the recent national math test used words like "dismal," "miserable," "serious trouble," "emergency" and "alarm bells."
But, personally, I don't know what the alarm bells are all about. Because how much math do you really need to know to be able to say: "You want fries with that?"
As we all know, the cash registers do all the math these days. You punch in the amount the person has handed you, and the cash register tells you how much to give back.
The national math test asked 126,000 "representative" students in public and private schools across the country a bunch of simple questions like:
"If a man has six apples and you want half of them, how many apples should you ask for?"
Correct answer: Three.
Most common answer given by the students: "Gimme all your apples, dude, or I'll blow your freakin' head off."
As I said, appalling, but not shocking.
Why do our kids do so badly at math? There are many theories including outmoded classroom techniques, lack of motivation, lack of parental support, etc.
But I don't think that is the real reason. I think these kids are just imitating their elders.
And the elder that kids look up to most is the president of the United States. Less than a month before he was elected, George Bush was asked a basic math question. I was there.
On Oct. 15, 1988, George Bush was asked about the S&L crisis. Aboard Air Force II, Bush was asked if a $100 billion bailout would be needed to save the nation's thrifts.
"I don't believe we need to do that," Bush said. "[What we need to do is] reassure the depositors that they are in no jeopardy at all, and get the industry do what the president asked for the Congress to have this industry do. I have no plans for a $50 billion bailout."
Bush was then asked how much his bailout plan would cost.
"I don't have a figure," Bush said.
OK, so Bush's answer was that although he didn't have a figure, it would not be as high as $100 billion or even $50 billion.
Later that same day, Bush gave a number of campaign speeches in California. In none of them did he mention the S&L crisis or what it would cost Americans.
Instead, this is what he told the crowds:
"Let's move into more prosperity! Record growth! Record job creation! Certainly with hope and optimism. We are the change! We are the change for a better America.
"I have a difference with the liberal governor of Massachusetts! I believe in America! My opponent hates the L-word. But liberalism has failed America because it lost faith with the people.
"I do believe in voluntary prayer in the schools. You've seen the flak I've taken from the columnists but I do think teachers should lead children in the pledge to the flag. I don't agree with the ACLU. If, on your town square, you want a nativity scene or a menorah, you should have it! And I'm glad the blame-America-first crowd is no longer in office!"
And that is what the last election was about. It was not about hard times or hard numbers. It was about flags and the pledge and school prayer and "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
On Feb. 6, 1989, a few weeks after his inauguration, President Bush announced a $40 billion S&L rescue plan.
The next day, however, administration officials admitted the true figure might be closer to $126 billion.
Two weeks later, the administration revised the figure to $157 billion. Shortly thereafter, it climbed to $164 billion.
On May 30, 1990, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady told Congress the figure would be even higher when one considered the cost of the interest on the money Congress would need to borrow to bail out the thrifts.
"When that figure is included," the Associated Press reported, "the S&L bailout cost is expected to top $300 billion."
Last week, Comptroller General Charles A. Bowsher, the nation's senior auditor, testified before Congress as to the true cost of the S&L bailout. "Mr. Bowsher has said the total could be as high as $500 billion over 40 years," the New York Times reported.
So let's give the president another math quiz.
The true cost of the S&L bailout will be:
A. The $40 billion you said on Feb. 6, 1989.
B. The $157 billion announced two weeks later.
C. The $500 billion announced last week.
D. You have no idea, because nobody in government can really keep track and why should we depress the voters anyway?
See what I mean? Why should kids bother to learn math when they realize it's irrelevant. There will always be a cash register around to figure things out for us.
In this case, the cash register is the government, which just keeps punching up numbers that we and our children and our children's children will have to pay off some day.
But as for now, don't worry. There is no need to know the true cost of anything in a country in which every four years the politicians promise us prosperity without pain.
And, say, you want fries with that?