France has more moustaches than Norway!

I just made that up.

But the great thing about numbers is that you don’t even need to make them up to make them say anything you want them to say.

A recent meme is the revelation that India has more cell phones than toilets. For some reason, this was met with consternation. This op-ed by the New York Times’ Roger Cohen (h/t the wonderful Dayo Olopade) uses this figure as a hook for a broad rumination of the comparative merits of markets and governments in providing utilities and a ringing endorsement of a rebalancing of our resources away from markets and toward government. Which makes sense: if markets are better at providing infrastructure than government, then we should rely on government for more of our infrastructure. Or something.

I’m being uncharitably sarcastic; Cohen’s op-ed is a strong and intelligent argument for what might be termed social democracy in European terms, one I disagree with but which is nonetheless highly legitimate and worth paying attention to, and even learning from. Anyone who says the US can’t learn a thing or two from Sweden (and conversely) is either misinformed or dishonest.

This op-ed was nevertheless deeply unsettling to me because it reveals two pet peeves of mine, particularly prevalent among establishment journalists: an incomprehension of figures, and technophobia.

Let’s start with the figures.

India has more cell phones than toilets! So? I’m serious: so? In all the discussions I’ve seen of this fact, I haven’t seen anyone point out that, normally, toilets are shared and cell phones are not. My wife and I each have one cell phone (1 + 1 = 2), and yet we only have one (1) toilet. That’s almost twice as many! What is wrong with us? In my workplace, there are maybe around 30 people, maybe 40 cell phones (it’s a high tech sort of place), and two toilets. Perhaps we’re at the dawn of a great idiomatic innovation where the expression “comparing apples to oranges” will transform into “comparing cell phones to toilets”.

As far as I’m aware, the only places where cell phones are commonly shared are the places where most people can’t afford cell phones. Therefore it stands to logic that any country where people can afford cell phones would have more cell phones than toilets. The fact that India has more cell phones than toilets would therefore, at first glance, signify not an imbalance between public and private sector funding, or whatever, but simply that India has reached a state of development where a lot of people can afford cell phones. (India also happens to have disastrous infrastructure but the cell phones > toilets figure by itself doesn’t tell you that.)

Perhaps comparing India’s cell phone per 100 person ratio and its toilets per 100 person ratios to the same ratios in other countries with similar per capita GDP (at purchasing power parity?) might yield useful insights, but even that is highly doubtful given the incredible multiplicity and disparity of living conditions in what is probably the most complex, awesomely multifaceted country on Earth. What is certain is that, by itself, the toilets > cell phones figure tells us absolutely nothing about anything.

Maybe I’m missing something here but it seems fantastic to me that none of these forehead-slappingly common-sensical observations seem to have even occurred to any commentator I’ve seen.

“China has more TVs than high-rise buildings! Therefore! We must, uh… pass financial reform! Yeah!”

But of course, such figures are not to be used as the starting point of a serious, rigorous and open-ended examination of, uh, facts, but as a hook — nay, a proof — that my overarching Weltanschauung really is truthier than yours. Thus Mr Cohen segues from the toilets/cell phones observation to (somehow) the observation that the financial sector really is too big to the contention that we need government to run more things. It’s a glib summary but really not all that much. I could go the other way and use that same fact as proof, proof, dammit that markets really are better at providing stuff to the masses and that if India would just privatize all its utilities every Indian village would have a gold-plated TOTO loo within 5 years. And never you mind the poor historical record of such privatizations and the game-theoretical calculations that seem to indicate that things are slightly more complex than that.

The second reason why I’m dismayed by the dismay that greeted the cell phones > toilets figure is that I’m pretty much convinced that cell phones are the best thing that happened to developing countries since the Green Revolution 50 years ago. No doubt to most people in rich countries, Mr Cohen included, cell phones are a frivolous luxury item chiefly used by teenagers to while the days away texting (and sexting) with prodigious abandon. I don’t think that’s true but even if it were, this narrow, ethnocentric observation bears no relation to how cell phones are actually used in the developing world.

In the developing world, cell phones are not just communication devices — though even that would be crucial in regions where none other exist. They are used by farmers, fishermen and traders to get the best market prices for their goods, significantly improving their standards of living. Cell phone minutes have emerged as something close to an alternate currency system that helps people store and move money safely in an environment where personal security is not a given. Telecoms operators in developing countries are at the forefront of mobile banking, and anyone who follows development has some idea of how important and transformational getting the “unbanked” into the formal financial system, and cell phones seem to be the best hope of that.

Even if India were a strange zero-sum bizarro universe where more cell phones meant less toilets and vice versa, the cell phones > toilets figure would still make sense. While hygiene and sanitation are obviously terribly important, cell phones are also an incredibly powerful force for development. I would wager that for the average family living in your average subsistence-farming Indian village, buying a cell phone would be stunningly more useful than buying a toilet.

I may be wrong about this, but again, I see no commentator even grappling with, or even showing glimpsing awareness, of these issues. Much better to pontificate about how this means that consumerism has run amok, or something.

I don’t mean to pick on Mr Cohen, whose op-ed is otherwise intelligent and well thought-out, but the cell phones > toilets meme and the way it’s been interpreted has just so many hallmarks of intellectual laziness and ignorance that I just had to write about it.

EDIT: My wife has asked me, rightfully, to credit her with the thought that toilets are normally shared, while cell phones are not.