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Thursday, October 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large

Numbers astound, confound, numb

Seattle Times staff columnist

Sometimes numbers say something. Sometimes they're silent, and we play ventriloquist because numbers are fun to fool around with.

This week's milestone is of the kind we attach meaning to because it's nice and round and convenient. Why not? The population of the United States reached 300 million Tuesday, a good excuse for looking at some other numbers.

Earlier this month we wrote about the Census Bureau's comparison with the year we hit 100 million, 1915, and the year we hit 200 million, 1967. We were a different country in each of those years.

War was in the news in all three periods. World War I was raging in Europe in 1915, but we hadn't joined in yet. Vietnam was part of life in 1967, and of course, now we are in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Numbers are a big part of war; the latest comes from the British medical journal Lancet, which gave a more accurate count of casualties. It reported 655,000 as the number of Iraqi deaths attributable to the war since it began in 2003.

Wars are terribly common, but fortunately they aren't all we've been up to.

Because of a number of advances, contemporary Americans can expect to live longer than previous generations. We don't have to worry about tuberculosis, for instance.

In 1915 tuberculosis killed 140.1 people per 100,000. Today the number is 0.2.

Life expectancy is 77.8 for a 2006 baby compared with 54.5 years for a child born in 1915.

The good old days weren't always so good. They weren't even that cheap.

Milk is cheaper now. In 1915 it cost an inflation-adjusted $7.22 a gallon.

We have a more complex relationship with food now. It's all nutrients and calories rather than meat and bread. And soon we may be getting our milk and meat from cloned animals, which a new study says are just fine. Our food comes from one third the number of farms we had in 1915, so we can expect more pressure to increase productivity.

Of course, other animals aren't just food to us. They're cute and cuddly, too. A different kind of census says Americans have 65 million pet dogs and 77.6 million pet cats.

Actually, we don't call them pets now; they are companion animals.

We Americans love our cars about as much as our companions. We own 237.2 million registered motor vehicles. There were just under 100 million in 1967.

But even with all those cars, we're safer on the road. Today there are fewer than two deaths for every 100 million miles driven, versus five in 1967.

And you can buy a car because you make more money today than you would have made in either of the previous eras. That's especially true since you can't make any money at all if you haven't been born yet.

Assuming you were alive and working then and making an average wage, that pay would have been $687 a year in 1915 or $5,974 in 1967. The 2005 average was $34,926.

Those numbers were for men. Women made and still make less, but the gap is smaller than it used to be.

A lot of things were starting to change in the mid-1960s. We were in a struggle for equal citizenship for black people. All manner of inequalities and injustices were on the table.

The country changed immigration policies that had discriminated against people who came from anywhere but Europe. Those changes opened the doors to millions of immigrants from Latin America and Asia, whose presence sped up our arrival at this current milestone and changed the complexion of the country.

And sometime in the 2040s, when the population reaches 400 million, we'll have yet another set of statistics, problems and advances.

Young folks will look back and marvel at the numbers. Wow, gasoline was $2.50 a gallon. What's gasoline anyway?

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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