Well it’s back to school time and one of the big sticker shock items in the eyes of many students is just how much textbooks cost. There was a nice little article on the WaPo recently on this, but I didn’t need to be reminded of it. Unfortunately, I believe some of my colleagues might.

The textbook market is, of course, several different markets, and much of what really angers students is the big intro course textbook, which frequently costs a small fortune. If you’re taking five intro courses as a new frosh, be prepared to be spending $1000 a semester on textbooks. Factoring in inflation, I don’t think textbooks are really all that much more expensive than they were when I was an undergraduate, but then one could buy used books, which cut the bill by about 30% after you factored in the lower cost. The ability to sell the books back at the end of the semester got you a little more. It was something, and an efficient way to recycle, too. However, publishers in this kind of area have been fighting off the used market more and more by churning editions, making custom editions for a given university, adding electronic resources of dubious nature, etc. This is all to let them keep collecting rents on textbooks by undercutting the used market. Students have, of course, replied by downloading scanned versions from torrent sites, sharing books, and so on.

Let me give you an example of edition churn. As a graduate student I taught a junior/senior level mathematics course that I had taken as an undergrad just under a decade before. (It was junior/senior level because Calculus III was a pre-requisite.) When I took the course, the book was in its third edition with a copy date of about 1980 (not exactly sure and my copy is elsewhere). It was showing its age. When I started teaching the class, the book was, sensibly enough, in its fourth edition. During the three years I taught the course it went through two version changes, fourth to fifth, fifth to sixth. It is now in its seventh edition. Even though I believe one of the authors has subsequently died, it is still being updated. Yes, it’s true the material has changed a bit, but most of the alterations were just large enough to justify a new copyright. For instance, material in the third edition was altered in the fourth but put back in fifth. Or was it the sixth? Like Dirty Harry, I can’t remember! The point is, it was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic because the substance didn’t really change… nor should it, because it was the introduction to a topic that really wasn’t all that different. Sure the authors would add snippets of newer developments but I’m fairly convinced no one ever actually used much of the newer material—remember, this was an intro class and there’s only so much one can do in a semester. Rearranging an existing book is, of course, much easier than writing one de novo. It could probably be done as work for hire, which means the “author” provides limited input at best. Maybe one of the authors had a love child to put through college (ironic, n’est pas?) or, more likely, wanted to put a down payment on that retirement condo in Taos….

Now the reality is that faculty members—with the notable exceptions of the authors of intro books who grind through editions—are not getting rich on textbook publication. Believe me, I’ve written one. It took my co-author and I hundreds of hours and between the two of us, we’ve made a few thousand dollars on it all told. Now admittedly it helped get a good job so I’m getting paid that way, but still, I’m not exactly sipping rum punch on Bermuda after playing the back nine with Sean Connery off the proceeds. And this is to be expected. Last I checked our book has sold a few thousand copies, mostly to libraries. Here’s another example: I had a fantastic professor in grad school who taught a very technical mathematical theory class. He had amazing notes he’d put a lot of time into, all very nicely typeset in LaTeX. He just gave them away. I asked him why he didn’t publish them as a book (most textbooks in this area are dismal) and he said “I’m a full professor and won’t be promoted any higher. It simply doesn’t do me any good and would be too much work, so I just give them away for free. I’ll probably put them on Lulu eventually.” The problem, of course, is that nobody will know about his work except by word of mouth because it will not be promoted by a publisher, which is too bad. His course notes are simply that good. So there is a reason for publishers to exist. I do not begrudge them making money. They’re not in it for free, after all, but I could at least expect books that would last a references, but I believe quality has been going downhill, too, at many publishers…. especially the ones churning editions.

Beyond that, too many faculty members are insufficiently price sensitive. They simply don’t bother to look and fall for the blandishments of publishers, which include nice wine and cheese spreads at academic conferences, constant spam and direct mail, free quasi-worthless course material posted on book web sites, etc. Here’s another personal example. I teach a graduate level theory class where there are a few different textbooks. I like the one I used but it’s too advanced for most students. (I had the benefit, or curse depending how you look at it, of having the author as the instructor.) There are some other choices, most of which don’t provide enough details to be workable for my class, or else provide too many details that are really nice for me but not for students. I was left to choose between a $150 hardback and a $30 paperback reprint of an older book. I didn’t know the cheaper book well but decided it would be worth looking at it to see if it would be good for the students… the answer was yes, in fact it was better than the other more well-known text, covered most of the relevant theory well without any glaring “here’s how we do it in the days of mainframes” computational details that is always a risk for older books. That’s the one I picked. In fact, it is possible to get a copy of it for less than $10, used. The other course book can be had for $40 in paperback and I post my course notes and the extra journal articles on the class web page. Total cost: < $100, counting printing (believe me, grad students always find a way to print for cheap or free so even a few hundred pages of printing won’t cost them that much).

I urge any of my colleagues reading this to consider how many extra hours flipping burgers McDonald’s or peddling clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch, or, worse yet, how many extra dollars their students have to go in debt, before piling on all the extra books.

HRC doubled down again and again from her own funds and is now around $30 million in the red (of that $110 million she and Bill accumulated over the last several years). So does anyone else find it ridiculous that large numbers of people of modest means—“working, hard-working Americans, white Americans”—have been essentially asked to donate to retire her campaign’s debt… much of it to herself? Usually candidates who self-finance doesn’t expect to get the money back.

Sounds like it’s time for Bill to go give more speeches in Kazakhstan and Dubai! If he’s really lucky he’ll run into you know who, who should be able to hook him up with “the cleanest prostitutes in Central Asia.” I’m sure Bill would appreciate that.

Readers might be asking “Where are the Angry Men?” Well, the answer is “busy” with various things. But dead air sux, so here’s a little thing I just noticed on a $1 I was about to spend on my daily coffee.

It’s been said many times that the web has added all sorts of things to our lives that nobody would ever have guessed, be it good or bad. Where’s George? is a web page that lets you track where the money you have has been. You enter your ZIP code and the serial # of the bill. If someone else has already entered it, you can see where it’s been. “Small used bills” might not be quite so safe for criminals anymore… scratch that, along with phone booths, as a plot device.

  • Got any other cool things the web lets you do you wouldn’t have thought of before? (Discussion boards don’t count, that’s just globalizing the office water cooler.)
  • Got anything the web does that really yanks your chain?


It turns out that The Atlantic—a magazine to which I have subscribed for the last ten years, though I really doubt I’ll ever make enough money to be in their demographic (at least based on the market research surveys I saw and the ads in the magazine)—recently decided to open its web page to everyone. This is really nice from my perspective because I can send people links to articles without wondering if they’ll be able to read them. Whether they will read them is, of course, a separate question, but I’m not kidding myself. It’s not like I read everything people send me either.

Not too long back, as Angry New Mexican noted, the New York Times dumped TimesSelect and opened up things to everyone. After NYT went to TimesSelect, I confess I stopped reading them and ended up moving to the Washington Post, which I prefer (with the exception of Science Times). I wonder how many other people went in similar directions and simply stopped reading the Times?

Salon.com also dropped most of its pay-to-enter (I recall the days before pay-to-enter) and allows viewers in if they watch ads. You can pay not to watch ads.

Rupert Murdoch—ever the conformist contrarian—seems like he wants to keep his newly acquired Wall Street Journal as subscription-only. Murdoch seems to make piles of money riding herd over contradictions such as Fox News, purveyor of culture-warriors like Bill O’Reilly and sleaze-shows to offend more schoolmarm-ish viewers on Fox Network so maybe he can make this work.

Seems like advertising is paying more than the subscription fees these days and that many popular writers chafe under firewalls.

  • Are the days of pay web sites disappearing?
  • What are the upsides?
  • What are the downsides? I can think of a few, most notably the fact that advertiser influence may grow and make many media sites self-censor.
  • What fee sites, besides WSJ (and the huge number that are NSFW which we will leave to Angry Biologist to examine), aren’t likely to switch?
  • And the real question I want to know the answer to: Is Obama, the second political candidate to which I’ve ever given money, going to vanquish the Billary? 🙂 Having given money to McCain in the 2000 primary, I can be like all the fat cats who cover their basses by donating to both sides, only in slow motion and with a lot less $$$.

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ObFascism Tag: Well, much like other political groups out there, fascist ones, don’t usually charge… in coin. But you will pay with your soul…. (I won’t give them the satisfaction of the click-through, though not much shows up under the Google search for “fascism”.)

The holiday season is always an interesting one for me. In addition to visiting family, in-laws, food, and fun, it’s one of the few times I am exposed to modern television. I’m not normally exposed to television at all (except football on Saturday’s at the bar), as I simply don’t watch it. I also don’t miss it. I find reading articles on the internet, or reading books far more entertaining. The holidays usually serve to remind me why I don’t watch TV, as I am bombarded by the mindless shows, ridiculous commercials, and 24/7 celebrity infotainment. This time around, however, I was exposed to a particularly disgusting modern show, which is so revolting it deserves its own rant.

I’m talking about TLC’s “What Not To Wear“.

I’m not quite sure how a show this awful and vapid managed to work its way onto a network known as “The Learning Channel”, but then again looking at the rest of the lineup, with many “interestingly” named “gems” like:

  • A Makeover Story
  • American Hotrod
  • Little People, Big World

I have to question what people are learning. Just in those three shows, the channel is selling shallow judgmental culture, NASCAR, and “Let’s laugh at the midgets”. Bravo, way to teach people good values and interesting lessons. I can only imagine the depths of tacky tasteless crap that these shows manage to plumb, as “What Not To Wear” dredges up some Grade A Sewage, and masquerades it as entertainment. Not having experienced the other shows on The Loser Channel, I’ll have to focus on “What Not To Wear”, and why shows like this are an affront to America, Freedom, and just plain old good taste and tact.

The premise of “What Not To Wear” is simple, since Rich Northeasterners are Vapid, Shallow and Soulless, they assume this to be the condition of Americans everywhere, and thus appearance is the sole quality by which people should be judged. As such, the show implores its viewers to send in their friends and family to be ridiculed on national television for having tastes which are independent of what Paris Hilton or Tom Cruise are currently wearing. The hosts (both of which are poster children for Coastie Callous Consumerism) then make the participants an offer, they can waste $5,000 on clothes from stores which are paying the show for massive product placement, if they throw all of their current clothes into the trash (and of course buy clothes that the celebrity zombies agree are “in fashion”). This of course leads me to two large questions:

  1. Who needs to spend $5,000 on clothes, especially when we live in a world full of hunger and illiteracy?
  2. If you’re going to toss out someone’s wardrobe, would it kill you to have a heart and donate it to the Salvation Army or Goodwill?

The rest of the show is simply an exercise is tearing down someone’s individuality and rebuilding them as a celebrity zombie, decked out in the latest brands that are paying the show for promotion (with long panning shots over store names), repeat ad nauseum, which doesn’t take long at all. I’m sure with our modern infotainment, celebrity, consumerism obsessed culture that this is but one in a long list of disgusting shallow shows on TV. What bothers me is that this trash is on television in the first place, and what’s more, that a lot of people seem to be watching it.

Personally, if I had $5,000 to give away every episode of a TV show, I can think of millions of better ways to spend it that actually contribute to the world. Like perhaps finding a needy elementary classroom, introducing people to the town and children, and then donating 25 Laptops from the One Laptop per Child project to the class. Or maybe they could have people write in with charities to donate the money too, and spend the episode show casing needy causes. Another great idea would be to find soup kitchens around the country, and visit them, using the $5,000 to outfit them with better equipment to help feed the homeless.

Note that these sort of uses of the money don’t mean that the show can’t make income from product placement. If a company wants to donate something to a charitable cause, by all means give them some screen time! That sort of generosity deserves to be rewarded, and if a company really wants my business, that is the way to convince me to give it to them, not by supporting shallow behavior and wasteful spending. Unfortunately I have little hope that anything will change. Shows like “What Not To Wear” embody a disturbing and sick slice of modern American culture, a slice that is nothing more than a gussied up version of the blue collar obsession with Wal-mart style consumerism. It’s a sickness we need to face as a culture and cure before we let it destroy the values we, as Americans, are supposed to treasure and strive for.

-Angry Midwesterner

The late Sam Kinison had a routine during the Ethiopian famine of the early to mid ’80s, with the famous punch line:


While I recall the skit being quite funny at the time, Kinison was wrong in two ways:

First of all, and most unjustly, while the Ethiopians he was talking about did live in the desert, for the most part they did not do so willingly. They’d been transported there by the dictatorial government of Ethiopia, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who now lives it up in Zimbabwe under the protection of another fine African despot, Robert Mugabe, after being tossed out of Ethiopia in 1991 when his Soviet backers’ support withered and died. Mengistu was attempting to relieve overcrowding in the traditionally populated highland areas that were free of malaria and sleeping sickness by relocating people to the lowlands. Like many other such Third World Marxist schemes based on a combination of bribery and guns—think the low-budget version of the Great Leap Forward—it didn’t work. And of course, Mengistu’s government took the opportunity to transport people they didn’t like to places they were unlikely to return from… ever.

Second of all, a heck of a lot of Americans do live in deserts, among others big areas of Southern California, Arizona, Nevada, Eastern Washington and Oregon, etc. Unlike Ethiopians, who aren’t stupid enough to do so willingly, we choose to live in deserts, and we’re dealing with the consequences of that right now:

  • Regular wildfires in the west, such as what’s going on in Los Angeles right now, as desert foliage—evolved to burn regularly but allowed to overgrow by the intervention of man—burns off. In fact, the Native Americans who lived in the Los Angeles basin before the Spanish referred to it as “Valley of the Smokes” so the problem is far from new;
  • Regular mudslides in the same areas, because the soils cannot handle the drainage when rain does occur;
  • A nearly dry Colorado River, Rio Grande and southeast;
  • Crazy water rights regimes in California and other areas that price agricultural water so low that many farmers let it evaporate in their antiquated irrigation technology
  • Salinated soils

The list goes on. As the planet warms (for whatever reason you wish to ascribe) and fresh water gets more dear, this is only going to become a bigger and costlier problem, unless some big technological breakthroughs, like cheap, i.e., energy-efficient, desalinization, happen.


The New York Times announced today that it will be discontinuing its Times Select service as of this evening. For those of you who don’t read America’s best newspaper (which, unlike the Wall Street Journal, isn’t run by a neoconservative cabal), the NYT started Times Select a few years back to try to capitalize on some of their most exclusive content. In addition to restricting the archives, the NYT also restricted some of the best columnists you can find online or off. The likes of economics professor Paul Krugman, author Thomas Friedman, law school professor Stanley Fish or socialite Maureen Dowd were for paying customers only.

No doubt Times Select was worth it (or at least 227,000 paid subscribers thought so). However, the $10 million they made off the service annually obviously wasn’t worth the effort. Not only would advertising pay more, but making their Times Select content available for free (again) would better serve the New York Times brand. As an avid reader of the NYT (who started reading America’s second-best paper, The Washington Post for opinions and editorials when Times Select first came out), I am quite excited at the development. I won’t knock the Post — unlike USA Today it has a readership beyond America’s hotel rooms, but it’s still not the NYT. And no matter what people say about the democratization of social media as they participate in the great blogosphere (how I loathe that word) circle jerk, the facts are hard to avoid: Good news and commentary are becoming harder and harder to find in the blogging-driven Age of the Gibbering Yard Ape. I for one am glad that the New York Times is once again making their best and brightest available to us all.

This article is the second in an ongoing series about the currency of the USA. For the first article please see Penny Lover, by Mildly Piqued Academician.

“The penny is falling, the nickel is falling!” comes the cry of Chicken Little. Chicken Little is not alone in his fear that disaster is looming for the Penny and Nickel, the long time base of US currency. In addition to inflation causing the value of pennies to decrease as discussed by my fellow writer, the rising costs of copper, zinc and nickel have worked in tandem to bring about a situation where the metal in a penny or nickel is now worth more than the face value of the coin itself (though it isn’t clear the prices will remain high). The real kicker came this year when the US Treasury announced that it would be placing limits on the number of these coins that travelers could remove from the nation, and that it was making it illegal to melt the coins down to extract their base metals.

The concern stems from the fact that the metal contained in a penny is now worth around $0.0173, and the metal in a nickel is worth around $0.0834[1]. While it is still possible that the US government is making money from minting pennies and nickels (due to the long life span of a coin amortizing the cost of minting and materials), it has created a damaging black market for the coins themselves. Obviously something must be done to fix this problem beyond toothless legislation. While some call for the elimination of the penny and the nickel, I see a far better answer. Currency debasement.

Debasement of currency occurs when the metal content of a coin is altered such that the total cost of the materials is below the value of the coin itself. As an example, the US penny was debased in 1982 when the Mint switched from pure copper to copper plated zinc. The result was higher profits for the mint per coin struck, and an extended life span for the penny. The penny was debased by an even more dramatic level in 1943 when the US mint struck steel pennies due to the large wartime copper needs. Given that we haven’t been on a gold or silver standard in a long time, but rather a system of fiat currency where value is determined by the faith and credit of our government and not the value of materials, this change is an easy one. Simply begin minting the pennies and nickels out of another compound which is less valuable and our problem is solved.

So why keep the penny around? Some have posited that nuking the penny wouldn’t result in appreciable financial loss for Americans, though it is hard to see why. Even if we take such arguments at face value, they begin to look shakey when one realizes the sheer number of transactions which would be affected by eliminating the penny. Many stores would end up rounding the familiar prices which end in 99 cents to the next highest dollar, resulting in a price bump for consumers. Given the sheer number of consumer transactions each year (7-11 alone reports 2.19 billion transactions at its US stores each year) even a small increase means a big hit to the American consumer as a whole. The total cost of this “rounding tax” to consumers has been estimated at $2 billion in just five years. Given that these figures only take into account the elimination of the penny, and not the nickel, it quickly becomes obvious that we can’t just do away with the coins altogether without paying a steep price (a fact Canada, the EU, and Japan have also realized).

The haters will of course argue long and hard against this scheme, especially the internet crack pots who try and equate fiat currency with theft, but in the long run this sort of plan will be good for our economy, and help to preserve the finer level of resolution the penny and nickel provide to us, saving American consumers quite a bit of money, and helping the Mint continue to profit off of pennies and nickels.

-Angry Midwesterner

[1]Arbitrage, the Washington way…. CNN Money, 2007.

The first time I saw you
Oh, you looked so fine
And I had a feeling
One day you’d be mine
Penny lover, don’t you walk on by
Penny lover, don’t you make me cry

–Lionel Richie, “Penny Lover

Back in 1976, my five year old self—doubtless dressed in a velour shirt with a big zipper ring and a collar, Toughskin jeans and tennis shoes, all from the Sears catalog—was given a giant cookie tin of pennies by some relative (about $3 worth) and it was love at first sight, just like the song. It seemed like a fortune to me and I concocted grandiose “kid mind” plans for what I planned to do with it, which of course went nowhere. I have no idea what I spent it on, but it was probably Legos (this was pre-Star Wars). In today’s dollars it is about $11. Roughly speaking every fifteen years, inflation makes a dollar worth about half as much in terms of buying power. 1976 was thirty-one years ago so now my cookie tin of pennies would buy about 25% of what it did back then.

Penny and I have long since fallen out of love. It’s really very simple: Due to inflation, pennies really don’t buy anything anymore and are more of a nuisance than anything else. The last thing I recall them buying was Tootsie Rolls and other “penny candy”, an item many small grocery stores used to have on their counters by the register to tempt Junior into whinging until Mom gave in and Junior got a Tootsie Roll. At least the horribly sticky things kept Junior’s mouth shut until the groceries were stowed in the station wagon, though they did make for higher dental bills down the line. Still, the tradeoff was worth it. These seemed to have disappeared sometime in the mid ’80s, but I admit to having ceased looking around then. I’m sure it’s nickel candy now.

Now pennies are almost completely worthless. One of my favorite op-ed writers, Sebastian Mallaby, currently of the Washington Post and formerly of The Economist, in The Penny Stops Here provides a nice analysis of why pennies aren’t worth it and that, in fact, getting rid of nickels makes good economic sense too. Dimes are on the edge. Let me go down the reasons:

  • They cost the government more to produce then they are worth. Pennies ceased being made of copper in the early 80s when copper ended up being worth markedly more becoming wire rather than being pocket change. Copper-coated zinc was substituted and all the copper pennies were melted down. While this leads to a cool DIY chemistry experiment, it also lead to much less pennies-on-railroad-tracks copper jewelry. Now the zinc in a penny has become more expensive. This means that pennies cost us more money since we pay for the currency in circulation through taxes. To understand just what this means, here’s a story about the rampant smuggling of rupees from India to Bangladesh to turn them into razor blades, which sell for way more than the rupee coin’s face value. That’s right, you could be shaving with former rupees….
  • The main advantage of coins is the fact that they last a long time, something you can see easily by looking at the dates on the coins in your pocket. So even if a coin costs somewhat more than its face value (so long as it’s not too much more), it might be a net gain. Unfortunately pennies are frequently out of circulation sitting in garbage dumps, penny jars, on the floor of the car, in furniture, etc., so there’s little hope to recoup the cost via savings over the lifespan of the coin.
  • Transaction costs due to handling pennies are not huge but certainly not chump change. For instance, stores pay about $.60 for a roll of 50 pennies due to rolling costs and just guess who this cost gets passed on to? Due to inane managerial policies, many stores won’t allow the nearly ubiquitous penny jar. This leads to pointless fumbling during transactions, which takes up yet more time.
  • In addition to making small change, the big advantage of coins is the fact that they work in vending machines, parking meters, etc. These machines will happily take nickels, dimes and quarters… but no pennies. Why? Because pennies would take up too much room in the coin collection hopper. Vending machine operators would love to see the dollar coin gain acceptance and I bet would be happy with a two dollar coin like they have in Canada, too (which, by the way, are a fantastic idea, but that is for another day), because bill changers are notorious for breaking.
  • Removing the penny would also make room for a dollar coin, which would save the Treasury, well, a mint. Dollar bills get the absolute crap kicked out of them in circulation and are replaced constantly.
  • Pennies are even more worthless these days because so many transactions are electronic, in which case the rounding necessary in a system without them—which averages out to not cost us anything anyway—doesn’t matter at all. There are some worries, of course: I worry about prices and sales taxes getting futzed with, but honestly, so long as that doesn’t happen much, it should be fine.

There’s predictable opposition from the zinc industry, of course, but screw them deep and hard. They can find corporate welfare elsewhere or, better yet, not at all—the price of their commodity is going up after all. There’s opposition from the State of Illinois because Lincoln is on the penny and as we are constantly reminded, Illinois is… Land of Lincoln. Now I admire Abraham Lincoln probably way more than the next guy ever since I spent a lot of time reading about the Civil War several years back, but he’s safe on the five dollar bill. (Take the time to read American history as an adult. It’s worth it.) It would take some serious inflation indeed to nuke the five spot. I worry more about George Washington—someone I also admire a lot more than the next guy—on the quarter and dollar bill, but at historic rates of inflation which has a halving of current money value for every fifteen years, give or take, quarters won’t be worth essentially nothing for a few decades yet. The Mint has shown that they can strike coins of different types, for instance the “states” quarters and the “dead presidents” dollar coins, which will give luminaries like Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge their sole opportunity to be on money. So they can make sure to put plenty of dead politicians on our money, or maybe they could go back to the old days before politicians’—no matter how worthy—were on the money entirely. The first presidential head on coins was in 1909… Lincoln, on the penny. It was controversial.

Penny lover, walk on by….

Mildly Piqued Academician

(First in a series about the currency of the USA.)