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Yesterday New York City held its annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, a day that some New Yorkers dread and others — chiefly those who can afford to go on vacation — look forward to. On this day it often seems like the entire borough of Manhattan is filled with Puerto Ricans loudly celebrating their homeland. But how many people actually watch the parade?

The generally accepted figure is two million. That’s what city officials say, and every year, articles before and after the event repeat the figure. This time around, Fox predicted “close to three million revelers lining the parade route,” while after the fact, the precision-minded UPI reported that there had been “nearly 2 million,” perhaps because the parade route was shorter than in previous years and it had rained briefly.

Now, let’s do a little arithmetic. The parade route stretches along Fifth Avenue from 44th Street to 79th Street (in years past, it went to 86th Street). Let’s call it 40 blocks. In that part of Manhattan, blocks are 20 to the mile, so that works out to two miles, or about 10,000 feet. Suppose each person in the crowd takes up two feet side to side, and that they were lined up 20 deep on each side of the street. That works out to 5,000 people times 40, for a crowd of around 200,000.

To account for any possible inaccuracies in this calculation, and to include people looking out windows or watching from side streets, kids on their parents’ shoulders, and anything else I may have missed, let’s make the heroic — nay, congressional — assumption that I’m off by a factor of 2.5. That would still be only half a million.

Alternatively, look at it this way. The borough of Manhattan takes up 23 square miles, much of it covered with very tall residential buildings filled with tiny apartments. The numbered streets stretch from 1 into the 200s, with a dozen avenues intersecting them in a grid, not to mention a considerable part of the borough that has a different street system. Is it really conceivable that the entire population of Manhattan (about 1.7 million) could pour out of their apartments and squeeze into 40 blocks of Fifth Avenue?

Yet every year, a government agency issues an official figure that is wildly implausible — make that impossible — and everyone in the media repeats it unquestioningly, when a few moments’ thought would reveal that it makes absolutely no sense.

No wonder we have a massive budget deficit.

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