Joe Biden’s Amazing Numerical Recall

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


Following Joe Biden on the campaign trail earlier today, I heard him address the issues of education and high-speed internet access at the Iowa Valley Continuing Education Conference Center in Marshalltown, Iowa. Biden drifted off and on prepared remarks, shifting from his written notes to paragraphs of memorized stump speech to long, off-the-cuff monologues. The result was a speech that fluctuated pretty wildly in volume and energy. In all, though, Biden had an excellent command of the facts and was able to draw on years of experience in the senate (the man was elected at 29 and is now 65) to illustrate his points. I’m going to write more about him, likely tomorrow, but for now, I want to point out something fun.

Joe Biden really loves facts and figures. I was stunned at the quantity of numbers he could pack into a paragraph. Here are two examples. Remember, these are verbatim quotes.

“By 2015, China is going to have twice the number of college graduates as the United States and Europe combined. In 2004, China graduated 350,000 engineers, computer scientists, and information technologists with four-year degrees, while we graduated 140,000. One out of five scientists and engineers in the United States are foreign born. We rank in the top five in the proportion of young people who attend college, but we rank 16th in the proportion of young people who graduate from college.”

I count ten numbers in that paragraph. In the next one, Biden gets even more intense by doing some quick mental mathematics.

“I have proposed what I call the Biden College Access Program. It’s families with incomes up to—big incomes—up to $150,000 a year, combined income, gives them a $3,000 refundable tax credit. So if a husband and wife is making a combined $80,000-$90,000 a year, and they have two kids in college, try paying for…. [for college in Iowa,] you’re talking about 10 grand a year, or probably more, I don’t know the exact number. In my state it’s about $9,600 to $10,500. Point is, that comes after taxes, folks. So two people, combined income, $90,000, they may have a $55,000 disposable income, and they’ve gotta come up with $22,000 to send two kids to school? Pretty tough. So this $3,000 refundable tax credit is just that, if you owe the federal government in your taxes 3,000 bucks, you owe them nothing. If you owe them 2,000, they send you back a check for a 1,000. If you’re in a family with an income under $50,000, you get a Pell Grant for $6,300 and you get a $3,000 refundable tax credit, giving you $9,600 dollars to send your kid to school.”

Twenty-one numbers. In a passage that is 190 words. That’s one number every 9.05 words. Now Biden’s got me doing it.

For more on the actual content of Biden’s comments, see the “Online Nation” portion of his website.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend