Drowning in the Numbers

News & Politics

My drive from office to home is set to the soundtrack of my local public radio station, either All Things Considered or Marketplace. Today, because a looming project put me into overtime, it was the latter, but only briefly. As numbers, statistics and lawsuits suffocated the airwaves, all churned out about a company that only four weeks ago I knew nothing about, I realized once again just how much I despise quantification, commodification, and the marketplace in general. I'm sorry Mr. Brancaccio, but I just can't take it anymore.

Not today.

It may be apparent that I am not particularly interested in the intricacies of the stock market or the fluctuating value of the amorphous, vaguely defined, intangible entities that are the major corporations of today. Indeed at this point I have no vested financial interest in the stock market. But that's not to say that I don't find the whole thing ceaselessly intriguing. This is why I tune in to programs like Marketplace, aside from satiating my neurotic yearning to be constantly connected to some source of information, these programs frame for me the reality of the modern world in perhaps the starkest and most honest of angles: the financial.

A professor of mine in college once said that the only things that we do not have the freedom not to be in America are consumers. This I have taken as an insurmountable reality, but I don't wallow it its dismal certainty. I try my damnedest to use that certainty as a tool in the analysis of everything from the dominant Judeo-Christian ideology in American culture to the banalities of Britney Spears and the WWF. I try, like Marketplace, to take the frame for what it is, and to turn it in a sophisticated critique against itself.

But sometimes the frame becomes too detached from the picture inside, too glazed over with integers to retain any relevance whatsoever to what we're doing here, which is (at the risk of a bit of oversimplification) just living our lives, for chrissake. I have to admit that when Brancaccio "does the numbers," when he briefly tabulates the advancing and declining issues on Wall Street for the day, I have no idea as to the objects of his analyses. I'm not sure what exactly a portion of stock in Enron is. I understand what it is supposed to represent, value as determined by various assets and equities. I understand that these assets and equities themselves somehow, ultimately, represent the products of the marketplace and -- more importantly -- the hands and hours it takes to produce these products. What I cannot understand is how much bedlam these figures bring about even though they are so far removed from the tangible things that matter most to our well-being. So far removed, I would argue, that it is impossible for them to adequately represent, or to signify, their material counterparts.

This may be a naïve and even hackneyed point of view and it is certainly where my argument hits the wall. It is not as if these things are going to go away (not that they are even there in the first place). I do not propose we do away with the grand and abstract system of economic quantification. It just seems instinctually ludicrous that the essential nonexistence of these figures doesn't stop them from inflating or ruining human lives. Numbers, not even numbers on paper, more often than not, but mere digital configurations, are invested with so much phantom value that, when improperly manipulated, they become the topic of Lehrer, Leno, and Letterman -- laughed at and sobbed over, something to live and die for. Maybe it's because things don't actually exist that they become so easy to fudge and swap and pocket. Perhaps it's the fact that they purportedly represent so significant a portion of human livelihood that makes them so dangerously influential stolen goods.

As the stock market becomes more and more an integral part of our individual livelihoods as American citizens, and as retirement becomes increasingly impossible sans the benefit of compounded interest investments and 401(k)s, it seems as though we run the risk of giving up greater portions of our lives to "the numbers," to be valued strictly as commodities. But here's the rub: numbers are signifiers, they are not inherently valuable, nor are they good or bad in themselves. Numbers are supposed to serve as symbols of those things, sometimes material, sometimes a bit more vague, that we hold dear. They were never meant to be the things themselves. What becomes increasingly apparent as the largest bankruptcy in history makes its way through the courts and the papers is that we have essentially forgotten to keep this all-important caveat close at hand when giving up our lives to the market. The numbers have taken on a life of their own and become the only things of any relevant worth in the marketplace of the modern world.

Implicit in the Enron disaster is a predicament born from inconsistencies inherent to American capitalist culture, a predicament that has for a century or more muddied up any system of values we as a nation allege to espouse. It is a predicament now exposed like a nude, flushed emperor (with a capital E) by a front-page debacle. The scandal unclothes our unprecedented reliance on numbers of unfathomable scope and complexity. These days the marketplace is undeniably the most salient of forums for discourse, but when all that are left for sale are numbers that not even the CEOs understand, how are we to determine the value of the commodities on the table? When the numbers have taken the place of the things they were initially designed only to represent -- when the signifiers have finally become the signified -- where are we to look for substance, meaning, sustenance? The more we invest in the market, the more we invest of ourselves (and the effects that define us) in "the numbers," to be quantified, indexed, bartered, liquidized, pocketed, fudged, the more it all spins entirely out of our control.

The critical threat here is not just that so many will lose their life savings to the underhanded manipulations of duplicitous CEOs and auditors but rather that we will collectively lose any sense of the worth of our lives aside from their quantified value in the marketplace. Now, more than ever, we are in need of a reassessment of value and the equivocality that too often characterizes it. Value is ultimately not in "the numbers" and as such it ought not take on a life of its own independent of the collective consciousness that births it. If it does, it loses the very utility that defines it in first place.

On the ride home today in the attempt to escape Marketplace and Enronmania, I switched instead to the CD player where I hoped to find some sort of musical respite from the digits that are my distress. What I found was Radiohead's "Kid A," fluid, sonic indulgence of just the sort I was seeking. But as the album's first five notes, round and muted, replaced Brancaccio's quipped assessment of Enronworld, I was reminded almost immediately that the initial track also plays behind the opening scene of Vanilla Sky, a movie that I recently paid $8.50 to see. Instead of sinking into ineffable harmonies, I was struck by visages of Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz. Opening box office figures of $25 million came to mind, along with the total recent revenues of Paramount Pictures (over $1 billion) and the current price of stock in its parent company Viacom on the NASDAQ.

Which is $44.17. Just in case you were wondering.

The numbers apparently do not give up that easily.

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