Math Lesson

Let me say, right from the outset, that everything in this column is true. And allow me to also acknowledge that while you are reading this – at least through the first two thirds – you will believe that I have way too much time on my hands and that I desperately need to find some worthwhile activity to provide meaning to my life. I unequivocally deny that I have too much free time, I simply seek some unusual diversions in the little free time my life provides. As to whether I need to “find some worthwhile activity to provide meaning to my life,” let me just say that many people far more qualified than any of you have made this same assertion – and I didn’t listen to any of them either.

So my true story begins with loose change and an empty gallon milk jug. Two seemingly unrelated items until I struck upon the idea of filling the jug with just pennies, then taking it to the bank to see how many pennies a gallon milk jug will hold. I know that many of you  – in the safety and solace of your own home – are nodding your heads at this moment because you, too, have wondered about this, even if never aloud and almost certainly never in public. Indeed, as I dutifully poured the pennies from my pocket into the milk jug each night (for roughly 4 years or more), I became convinced that this small experiment would provide the final answer to one of mankind’s greatest mysteries (a flair for the dramatic runs in my family through my mother’s side).

Well, folks, last week, with a final deposit of six pennies, the milk jug was full and ready to be taken to the bank. Of course, at 7:30 pm there weren’t any banks available so, I did what anyone would do…I weighed the jug on my bathroom scale.

Alright, I acknowledge that my bathroom scale is not the most accurate device, but I was still impressed to see my jug of pennies move the needle to 34 pounds. Wow! Thirty-four pounds of pennies! And that should have been that until the following morning…for most people. I, on the other hand, wanted to know how much money those pennies in that jug might amount to (and no, I didn’t sit down to count them; that really would have been symptomatic of some sort of character deficiency), so I decided to have Fun with Math!

The first thing I needed to discover was how much a single penny weighs – and, right from the outset, things became complicated. You see, every penny minted from 1864 to mid-1982 weighs 3.11 grams (the only exception is the steel pennies that were produced in 1943 weighing 2.67 grams). But from mid-1982 to the present, all pennies weigh 2.5 grams. This presented a problem.

One Web site I ran across suggested putting all the 1982 pennies aside, then separating pre-1982 pennies from post-1982 pennies, then calculating how many pennies it took from each group to equal a pound. Yeah, right. I may as well count the whole jug.

My solution was to take the conservative approach. I decided to use the 3.11 gram figure exclusively and not worry about the lightweight modern day figure. Now I was ready to do some math.

There are 453.6 grams in one pound, so 34 pounds equals 15, 422.40 grams. Now we divide 15,422.40 grams by 3.11 grams (the weight I used for one penny, remember) and we get 4,959 pennies or $49.59.

Feeling self-satisfied, I went to bed.

The next morning I took my jug to North Shore Bank in Sister Bay, and – dare I say – they were just as excited as I was to see the final answer to the question that has troubled so many of us on sleepless nights. Suzanne Crager and I enter the vault and, while she readied the coin counter I tore a hole in the side of the jug to facilitate the release of the pennies (I grant this was an ignominious end to a jug that had graced my life for more than four years, but sacrifices need to be made at the momentous events).

As we began I ventured that the total would be around $49, Suzanne opined that the total would be closer to $54.

Well, we were both wrong. The grand total…the number of pennies a plastic gallon milk jug actually held…was…6,172 pennies or…$61.72.

Wow! Was my math bad!

Remember my warning at the outset of this column? If you read carefully you should have noticed that I may just have some point to make after all this triviality. Well, now we get to that point.

First, take note of where my math went wrong. I used a scale that, while serviceable for many needs, isn’t particularly accurate for an exercise like this one. And then there was the matter of the weight of the pennies. For simplicity sake I took a very conservative approach and just used the higher weight – even though logic says that the majority of the pennies in the jug could be post-1982 and therefore be the lower weight. In other words, my math never had a chance, and that is why my estimate was off by a whopping 24 percent!

So folks, I’m not sure whether it will provide you any solace, but maybe it will make you smile, that this global recession is not too terribly different than my 6,172 pennies in a plastic milk jug.

Think of it this way:  AIG, Citibank, Merrill Lynch, any hedge fund, etc. had a whole bunch of pennies in milk jugs. The first problem was that every one involved in this fiasco was using a different type of scale and none of the scales were particularly accurate. And then, when they calculated what the pennies in these jugs were worth, they (unlike my valuation) only used the lower weight of the post-1982 pennies. They never even considered the higher weight because [fill in any lame excuse you have heard in the Congressional Hearings or other interviews]. Of course the real reason was that they always wanted to report the best possible results. Thus, they were always reporting higher penny counts and dollar amounts then they actually possessed.

My bad math resulted in 24 percent more pennies than I expected to have; their bad math led them to have a 24 percent (actually a far greater percentage) less pennies. And, of course, I only had one milk jug (darn!) they had millions upon millions of milk jugs.

So there you have it, folks. The world’s economic woes simplified down to pennies and milk jugs. Which leaves me with just one final thought:  couldn’t all this bad math and the trauma it has created been avoided if a penny was a penny and it always weighed the same amount?