Math Confusion in the News: percent


dollarLast week Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a temporary (3-year) sales tax increase in California to help close the budget deficit. Some newspapers, however, are mixing up the amount of the increase in an effort to get the news out.

Error #1: “Governor Proposes 1.5 Percent Sales Tax Hike” from MyFox Los Angeles

The proposed increase isn’t actually 1.5 percent (which wouldn’t be all that much). It’s 1.5 percentage points, which makes it about a 20% increase from the current 7.25% state sales tax. I suspect that most people understand what the headline intends, however, because using “percent” instead of “percentage point” is fairly common. (Kudos to the LA Times for being precise in their story!)

Error #2: “Schwarzenegger proposes 1.5-cent sales tax increase to close budget gap” from the San Jose Mercury News

This headline is just wrong. A 1.5¢ tax? And it’s not just in the title, but in the body of the story. Several other newspapers made the same mistake, either running the Mercury News story without correction or writing their own story about the 1.5-cent increase (I’m looking at you, Sacramento Bee). Indeed, these 1.5-cent increase stories were common enough that I actually double checked that it wasn’t some new terminology for “percentage points”.

Incidentally, the word “per cent” is only 440 years old, and “per centage” only 222 years old. Tidbits from the OED!

3 Responses to “Math Confusion in the News: percent”

  1. Barry Leiba Says:

    Actually, I think the second is more understandable than the first. I would (and I think most people would) translate “1.5 cents” to “1.5 cents on the dollar” quite readily (while acknowledging that it’s sloppy reporting), but I’d be likely to take them at their word on the “1.5 percent hike”, and assume that the 7.25% tax went up to 7.36%. I would then say, “No, wait, no one has a sales tax rate of 7.36%. They must have meant….”

  2. Ξ Says:

    Good point, although none of the articles said “1.5 cents” — it was “1.5 cent” (which to me suggests a fixed amount, like a 7 cent increase, rather than an on-the-dollar increase).

    There was also mention of the alcohol excise tax going up by 5 cents a drink, which I though was kind of interesting (that it’s per drink and not by cost). It means a bottle of wine will cost an additional 25 cents or so. (Apparently for wine it’s an additional $1.28 per gallon since there are 25.6 drinks in a gallon of wine.)

  3. Lorem Ipsum Says:

    Incidentally, “per cent” would be two words. While “percent” may only be 440 years old (show me a birth certificate), and that’s probably only in English given the source, the phrase “per cent” would be Latin, and has been in use far longer.

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