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Numbers can tell many stories: interesting, informative, important and sometimes inconsequential or misleading.

Numbers can point to significant trends locally and around the world. For example, India will within the next few years become the world's most populous nation, exceeding China, which currently has 1.4 billion inhabitants. Because of those numbers, India will become an increasing factor in international relations and economic affairs, where China has already been setting a fast pace.

Numbers document, for instance, that the internet has become an integral part of life for most of the world's population. China has about 772 million Internet users, 55 percent of China's population. India's numbers are climbing, with about 482 million Internet users, 34 percent of that nation's population. U.S. numbers are 312 million Internet users, 85 percent of the population. Highest internet penetration numbers are in smaller countries and Scandinavia. Numbers on more of a micro level inform us about trends in the United States and various regions, including Arkansas and its sections and locales.

Numbers of unemployed in the U.S. have received major attention lately with the lowest number in 18 years. Interestingly, the validity of the unemployment numbers was questioned by critics of the previous presidential administration. As a candidate, Donald Trump called the official numbers "totally fiction." Recently, President Trump drew criticism for touting jobs report numbers before their official release. That can have impact on markets and risks undermining confidence in the integrity of economic numbers.

Numbers from the financial markets have been dizzying, often driven up or down by remarks or actions from the Trump administration.

Numbers of inhabitants in Arkansas were reported in a recent census update and they convey the dramatic shifts occurring in the state. Census numbers can illustrate population, demographic and migration trends as well as economic or political impact and factors contributing to them.

Numbers, in the case of Arkansas, reflect the widening disparities within the state and the relationship between population growth and economic activity. The disparities among various regions are striking. The booming growth in Northwest Arkansas is widely noted. And there are pockets of dramatic growth elsewhere in the state, particularly in suburban/exurban areas. Washington and Benton counties continue to be pace-setters. Also growing rapidly is the Jonesboro area in northeast Arkansas and the Conway region and Saline County (Benton and Bryant) in central Arkansas near the state's largest city, Little Rock. But significant areas of the state are experiencing declines in numbers of residents and in economic well-being. Numbers show that although the state's overall population (roughly 3 million) continues to grow, 49 of the 75 counties are losing population.

Numbers demonstrate the contrasts. The stories they tell can be both bleak and booming. This is especially evident when you look at the shifts that have occurred over decades. Look back to 1950, for example: Fayetteville, Jonesboro, and Blytheville (in northeast Arkansas) had comparable populations (16,000-17,000). Currently, Fayetteville's population is 85,000-plus (with several rapidly growing cities nearby), Jonesboro is 76,000 and Blytheville 14,000. In the early 1950's the first numbers on Arkansas auto license plates showed the issuing county's population rank. Vehicles from Pulaski County (Little Rock) had number 1, and Mississippi County (Blytheville), the second-largest county, had number 2. That county's population today is barely half what it was then.

Numbers, of course, are at the center of politics and elections. And, in addition to the actual voting, we have numerous opinion polls, which provide numbers that project outcomes of political races, among other things. Polls by reputable polling organizations can be very instructive and valuable if scientifically conducted. In today's volatile political atmosphere, however, numbers can change quickly, and technological advances have brought us into a hyper-polling era.

Numbers from elections are certainly among the most important of all. However, what much of the election-related data tell us is that the numbers of actual voters is pitifully low. In the recent primaries in Arkansas although there were a limited number of competitive races, less than 18,000, or about 14 percent of Washington County's registered voters, cast ballots in the primary, nonpartisan judicial and school board elections.

Numbers statewide did underline the Republican ascendance in Arkansas, with 100,000 more voters in the GOP governor's race than in the Democratic contest.

Numbers are at times the object of heated dispute. Consider the controversy over the number of fatalities in Puerto Rico, where reports on the death toll vary widely.

Numbers tell many stories, but they don't always tell the whole or the real story.

Commentary on 06/06/2018

Print Headline: By the numbers

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