Number Crunchers

December 20, 1991

Every newspaper's sports desk has one or more masters of extrapolation. Let's pretend The Sun's legendary example of the breed may be pseudonymed Cal, short for The Calculator. One season Lefty Ragarm lost his first four starts, and Cal wrote that after 16 games, a tenth of the season, Lefty was on his way to an 0-40 season, unprecedented in all human endeavor.

Of course, it didn't happen. The disgusted Orioles exiled Lefty to Rochester before he could reach 0-5. The unabashed Cal then discovered that Slug Thunderbat had 16 homers already, with three-quarters of the season to go. Not only would Slug eclipse Babe Ruth, but also the immortal Joe Hauser, who once racked up 63 dingers for the minor-league Orioles. Opposing pitchers noticed Slug's prowess about the time Cal did, and began throwing him curve balls. Slug ended the year with 19 homers and bench splinters in his backside.

Let's also pretend The Calculator left The Sun a while back, apparently to work for Newsweek. Who else but Cal could have worked out the statistic that by 2041, a hundred years after Pearl Harbor, average Japanese "will have incomes three and a half times larger" than average Americans? Per-capita GNP, the magazine reported, will rise to $122,658 in Japan, but only to $37,760 in the United States.

Cal is a sportswriter, not an economist, so we can forgive his confusing personal income with GNP, a measure of national output. The flaw in Cal's method, however, is common to both sportswriters and economists.

Pure extrapolation assumes there will be no history over the next 50 years: no outside shocks to the Japanese or American economy, no evolution (positive or negative) of national character, no shifts in comparative advantage or trade terms, no adjustments to adversity or greedy exploitation of prosperity -- just straight-line graphs impartially toting up Lefty's defeats and Slug's home runs on to infinity or the end of the season, whichever comes first.

We suspect that quite a lot will change in Japan over the next 50 years. And quite a lot will change in the United States during those five decades, too. Our only prediction for 2041 is that The Calculator will not change, and that his number-crunching grandchildren, undismayed by reality, still will be issuing misleading statistics.

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