Government spending should be explained by the cost of schoolbooks

Published December 12, 2009

I’ve said this before, but with the revamped site I’ll say it again: If you want the American people to really understand the cost of something, rather than put it in dollars, but it in schoolbooks — or, I suppose, $choolbooks.

In other words, tell us how many schoolbooks we could have bought with the money we’re spending on something. I don’t know about you, but every year I get lots of kids coming to my door trying to raise money to buy supplies for their schools. It’s incredible that in the richest country in the world, our kids have to resort to begging door to door for money for education.

So tell us.

According to the National Association of College Stores, the average college textbook cost $57 in 2008. Schools buy in bulk, of course, so the price is lower. (Although in 2005, the North Carolina State Board of Education reported the average price of a high-school textbook was about $52.)

So just for the sake of simplicity and argument, let’s say $50 each.

And let’s talk about costs in terms of $choolbooks.

So the $54 million the federal government is giving to California for a “wine train”? That could have bought 1,080,000 textbooks.

That “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska? It’s still alive — to the tune of $680 million. For that price, Alaska could have bought 13,600,000 textbooks for its students.

But let’s not think small.

In 2008, the Iraq War cost $12 billion per month. That’s the equivalent of 240 million high-school textbooks, every month. With about 35 million kids in elementary school in the U.S., that means that for what we spend in Iraq in one month, we could just about buy every grade-school student in America almost seven new textbooks.

And still, those kids will come knocking, hoping their schools have enough money to buy art supplies, or pay for an extra teacher, or replace broken desks….


  1. Dave says:

    What the heck is the use of purchasing them when they are inaccurate and unread? Nobody cares about education anyway, its a scam like everything else. How about that Hip Hop school? They might not even need books. I don’t know what is worse. Wanna get their attention? Use gasoline. Pretty soon people are going to be knocking on your door for a whole lot more than book money. Maybe some day they will quit asking as well… the rights of the few continue to supercede the rights of the many.

  2. another Dave says:

    I just love straw man arguments! Each time the government buys a schoolbook, they could have had about ten six packs of V8.

    The argument is put forth to proffer the notion that the purchase of school books is reasonable and all the items compared are unreasonable. Yet cost of the items has absolutely nothing to do with their advisability.

    For the price of a new car, one could buy a year’s worth of groceries (more or less). Does this infer that one should not buy a car, or that one should not buy groceries?

    BTW: The price of schoolbooks is RIDICULOUS! It is a total rip-off.

  3. Andrew says:

    I disagree — it’s not a straw man. I’m not saying (necessarily) that we should always buy the schoolbooks instead of buying whatever it is we’re buying. I’m saying that we should think about it in those terms. It gives a much better perspective on how we’re spending our money.

    I chose schoolbooks because they’re something everyone is familiar with, and because there’s clearly not enough money going to education. But it could just as easily been “highway miles repaired” or “vaccinations provided” or “police on the street” or something else.

    The point being: Is XYZ the best use of our money?

    But I agree completely: The price is outrageous. As is the idea that they need to be ‘updated’ every year or two. Advanced biology books, maybe. But math? English?

  4. gnomic says:

    Economics texts present this as “Milk or Missiles.” Which is a better concept as everyone drinks milk and its pricing is set as a commodity. Textbook pricing varies and many (dumb arsed) people are unfamiliar with textbooks.

    However, as your own piece alludes to, textbooks are likely to be obsolete soon as they switch to something more like Amazon’s Kindle.

    Yes, at issue is the concept of portfolio management, that is, testing the value of a number of alternatives to maximize return on investment.

    That’s the last thing our government wants, although the CBO at least quantifies the cost side of the equation. But our government isn’t about the best use of money, its about self-reinforcing allocation of power and money.

    Maybe that’s the issue.

  5. another dave says:

    “there’s clearly not enough money going to education”

    A side issue, but I don’t buy that. It is very clear to me that throwing money at education has never worked thus far and isn’t likely to work in the future. IMO, we are spending WAY too much on education and getting little in return. If what is being spent per student today were allowed to be spent at the specific direction of the individual taxpayers from whom the money was stolen, education would be markedly improved in most cases.

  6. Andrew says:

    @another_dave: Funny, as I wrote that line I thought, “Well, that’s not necessarily true,” although the cutting of all sorts of programs does make me think it is.

    You’re 100% right: Throwing money at education (or much of anything) doesn’t work. But the key word is “throwing.” Right now, IMO, there’s not enough money being used for education — not when you have sites like Donors Choose where teachers can ask for donations for basic classroom supplies.

    In fact, ask a teacher in all but the richest districts: How much of your own money do you spend on things for your classes? The fact that it’s anything over zero tells me something.

  7. another dave says:

    The money seems to all go into stadiums, scoreboards, lights and big fancy buildings.

    Our local school built a huge sports complex a few years ago with a set of outdoor lights that probably cost over $100/hour just to light.

    We have very little sports activity. It is a small school in a small town that doesn’t even HAVE a football team.

    This perhaps links well back to the original topic… perhaps if people really understood the magnitude of the money the government is spending on things that we really DON’T need (and perhaps are unconstitutional to boot) they would cry out and it might be reined in.

    OTOH, this bunch in there now dosen’t seem to give a damn what the people want. Their arrogance in deliberately ignoring the will of the people is unbelievable.

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