Randall Bolten Blog

November 05, 2013
This week I attended an alumni function at my old high school, St. Albans in Washington, DC, where one of the events was a presentation by Michael Hansen, a St. Albans math teacher, on “metaknowledge,” the awareness of what we know and what we don’t know.



October 27, 2013
Much has been said about how tight-lipped the Obama administration has been about the enrollment numbers since October 1 for the private exchanges mandated by Obamacare. There is a lesson here about communicating, that applies just as powerfully to quantation (the act of presenting numbers) as it applies to all other types of communication.



October 18, 2013
I recently downloaded a Wall Street Journal article about the congressional food fight over spending and the debt ceiling. I learned that “on Oct. 17 [the Treasury] would be left with only about $30 billion.” I went on to learn that this amount was approximately equal to the Harvard University endowment in 2011, and the cost of Hurricane Ike in 2008.



January 14, 2013
Big news! The formerly humble percentage sign has received the coveted “Symbol of the Year Award” from the Stanford University Symbolic Systems Program. Well, OK, the percentage sign received the first such award. The announcement came on last Saturday’s Weekend Edition, in a visit from Keith Devlin, NPR’s “Math Guy” and himself a math professor at Stanford.



January 02, 2013
The words we wrap our numbers in can play a key role in how well those numbers are understood. A great example of this is the question of “payroll taxes” – the payments employees and employers make toward Social Security and Medicare. They are a major topic in the raging debate about the “fiscal cliff,” but I have to ask: Are “payroll taxes” really taxes? The answer to this question has important public policy implications; it’s not just a question of semantics.



June 12, 2012
PBS NewsHour ran a story today, about a triennial Federal Reserve Board report on household income and net worth in the United States. Median household income fell 7.7% in the three years from 2007 to 2010, while median net worth fell over the same period by a deeply sobering 38.8%.



June 04, 2012
Last post, we talked about the miracle of compound interest, and how that “miracle” gives you such a strong incentive to start contributing early to 401Ks, IRAs, or any other pension or savings plan. In this post, we’ll talk about another powerful incentive driven by the “miracle” – the fact that in a pension plan your money compounds at pre-tax rather than after-tax rates. For most of you, this will make an even bigger difference.



May 29, 2012
On Tuesday’s “On Point” on NPR, we heard a spirited debate about the right direction for reforming pension plans in the U.S. One guest asserted that the combination currently in place, of 401Ks, IRAs, defined benefit plans, and social Security, just hadn’t done the job and major reform was needed to ensure an acceptable standard of living for tomorrow’s retirees.



May 27, 2012
The law firm of Fenwick & West publishes an excellent quarterly report on venture capital financing activity. Their most recent report provides an opportunity to ponder how even modest changes in how information is presented graphically can make a big difference in how meaningful the information is to the audience.



May 09, 2012
In last week’s post, we discussed using metrics to help understand past and forecast spending on Social Security (SS). These metrics are important because it’s hard for anyone to grasp raw numbers this large — annual SS benefits are expected to top $1 trillion (yes, trillion!) around 2018, for example. So metrics like spending as a percentage of GDP help to put raw numbers in some context.


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