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Is The National Book Festival "Waste"?

20 Sep 2010
Posted by Stan Collender

The National Book festival, the annual one-day celebration of books, authors, and reading hosted by the Library of Congress, will be held next Saturday on the National Mall in Washington. This will be the festival's 10th anniversary.

As might be expected from an event that promotes reading and book-buying, the festival gets a good deal of private support, but it still relies on federal dollars. So I want to do ask again this year what I asked last year when the festival occurred: From a budget perspective when the deficit is a concern, does this qualify as waste, fraud, and abuse?

Here's what I said in last year's post:

...if it could be calculated, the program is probably very expensive on the basis of the cost per additional book sold or per the increase in the number of people reading....it might be possible to achieve better results at a lower cost if the government distributed vouchers all over the country and let people get books from local stores. Some might consider the program to be a waste because it directly benefits only a relatively small number of people and is held in only one city. Others might believe it’s a waste because they don’t think it’s the federal government’s job to promote reading over, say, movie watching. Some might think it is waste because they don’t like the authors whose books are featured or because the language in their books offends them.

This is definitely the kind of feel-good, non-partisan event that, like state and county fairs and pep rallies the night before a game, makes you feel a little better about life.  But is it something the federal government should be spending money on?

Can't answer your question

Can't answer your question about the worthiness of this Festival without quantitative data. What's the proportion of private and public support? What's the incremental cost per book sold?

It's also uncertain what the reciprocal effects might be, not only in terms of direct additional readers, but those they also influence. Or do these events tend to attract primarily introverted bookworms, who probably already spend their lives reading anyway?

Of course, we can't know these things without expending some effort (i.e., $$) to find them out. In lieu of that, we could do a common-sense, informal survey: just go and look, ask some questions, and report.

My seat-of-the-pants guess is that it's better to do something than to make excuses for doing nothing, and that in an age of declining erudition and competitiveness, promoting reading is superior to encouraging watching movies or playing video games.

As far as worrying about whose books we promote or their specific content, we should take our best shot and then "don't sweat the small stuff."


Maybe, but that's beside the point.

Even if this National Book Festival is only in one city, and that city is already the capital of our nation, there are still lots of people who need to read more books there, so this seems outwardly worth doing in one form or another.

John has it right on - without the quantitative data, there's no way to start talking about what is "worth the money" or not.

My thinking is: how many cities could we run a National Book Festival in for the cost of running it in DC? If the number is greater than 2, it seems that it might be worth ditching the DC NBF for wider-spread versions based on potential impact in other cities, depending on the primary goals, whether that is moving new books to existing readers, or getting people reading that haven't in some time.


Fraud Waste and Abuse Isn't The Problem

The deficit is not sky high because the Library of Congress is holding too many book fairs. The big factors are:

(1) Defense budget growth, driven mostly by strategic assumptions, some questionable,

(2) increasing rates paid to health care providers under Medicare and Medicaid,

(3) federal bailouts which may or may not end up proving to be expensive to taxpayers when the final numbers are in (something that depends on factors like public offering prices for U.S. held shares in AIG and GM and Chrysler, and on default losses in purchases of "toxic assets"), and

(4) Bush tax cuts that have reduced federal revenue below our expenses.

There is very little evidence to support the argument that fraud, waste and abuse are material parts of the problem. If it is, there are very specific forms of these problems that are at fault:

* Regulatory capture of officials who monitor defense contract compliance (ineptitude is the bigger issue here, however);
* Medicare and Medicaid fraud by selected subsets of healthcare providers;
* Fraud in representations made to federal government officials negotiating bailout deals;
* Tax fraud, via unreasonable tax law positions by big business and via outright non-reporting of income and overreporting of expenses by small businesses in industries with weak information reporting.

Earmarks and pork and fluff are ugly, but they aren't a very material part of the problem.


National Book Festival

Let the authors, publishers, bookstores and ebook distributors pay for it. If at all.


some answers

Authors do pay for it. Most pay their own way to the festival.
Other states have similar festivals. The one in Texas raises thousands of dollars to support libraries. The National Book Festival, supported this year by a donation of $5 million for an individual, is the flagship that has inspire the creation of similar festivals in states and cities.
Getting folks to read, including kids, through a public-private partnership isn't a waste of money.
If you want talk about a waste, a hour or two of military spending would easily cover a decade or so of these book festivals.




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