Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?

Wavebreakmedia/iStock via Getty Images
Wavebreakmedia/iStock via Getty Images

The beginning of a freshman’s college experience is an exciting time. Dining halls! No bedtime! Taunting your RA! Exorbitantly expensive textbooks!

Wait, that last one is no fun at all. It’s hard to make that first trip to the college bookstore for required texts without leaving with a bit of sticker shock. Why are textbooks so astonishingly expensive? Let’s take a look.

Publishers would explain that textbooks are really expensive to make. Dropping over a hundred bucks for a textbook seems like an outrage when you’re used to shelling out $10 or $25 for a novel, but textbooks aren’t made on the same budget. Those hundreds of glossy colorful pages, complete with charts, graphs, and illustrations, cost more than putting black words on regular old white paper. The National Association of College Stores has said that roughly 33 cents of every textbook dollar goes to this sort of production cost, with another 11.8 cents of every dollar going to author royalties. Making a textbook isn’t cheap.

There’s certainly some validity to this explanation. Yes, those charts and diagrams are expensive to produce, and the relatively small print runs of textbooks keep publishers from enjoying the kind of economies of scale they get on a bestselling popular novel. Any economist who has a pulse (and probably some who don’t) could poke holes in this argument pretty quickly, though.

In the simplest economic terms, the high price of textbooks is symptomatic of misaligned incentives, not exorbitant production costs. Students hold the reasonable stance that they’d like to spend as little money as possible on their books. Students don’t really have the latitude to pick which texts they need, though.

Professors pick the course materials, and faculty members don’t have any strong incentive to be price sensitive when it comes to selecting textbooks. Their out-of-pocket expense is zero whether the required texts cost $100 or $300, so there’s no real barrier to heaping on more reading material. If a student needs Class X to graduate, they’ll likely need to procure the required texts. This lack of cost-control incentives for professors is a major reason that at some point in college, everyone meets the expensive textbook’s even more maddening cousin, the Expensive Textbook You Never Even Use.

Moreover, many students aren’t all that price sensitive themselves. While the broke college kid is a beloved caricature, many students’ parents may still be footing the bill for school materials like books. Unless their parents raise a stink over a semester’s book bill, it’s easy to see how the textbook market could be one where none of the players actually have any strong incentive to be sensitive to prices.

Publishers also counter that widespread sales of used books cut into their bottom line. As eBay and Amazon have made the market for textbooks much bigger and more flexible, publishers lament that they’re losing out on sales, which necessitates higher retail prices for the new books they do sell.

Is there any truth to this argument? Maybe, but the effect may not be as great as the publishers claim. As economist Hal R. Varian wrote in The New York Times in 2005, it’s not totally clear that used textbooks are perfect substitutes for new ones. (Finding this piece absolved me of any residual guilt I may have had over selling Varian’s own excellent graduate microeconomics text on eBay last year.) As Varian puts it, used book sales probably cannibalizes less of the new book market than one might imagine.

Luckily for students, some external forces are placing downward pressure on textbook prices. Last year a new federal law went into effect that requires publishers to notify professors of textbook prices and schools to inform students of necessary course texts during registration. Online textbook rental companies could help replace outright ownership, as could electronic reserve programs. It may take a while, but in the future college students may be able to do the required reading without emptying their wallets.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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Can the Electoral College Reverse the Results of an Election?

Tumisu, Pixabay // Public Domain
Tumisu, Pixabay // Public Domain

Every four years, people talk about the oddness of the Electoral College. And just like 2000's popular vote/Electoral College mismatch, after the 2016 election, some citizens attempted to flip electors from Donald Trump to either Hillary Clinton or a third candidate (if enough electors go to the third candidate, the House would then have to choose from among the top three).

Which leads to the question: Can the Electoral College actually change the results of the election? It’s an awkwardly worded question for a very specific reason, and the answer is no. But for the question people think that they’re asking—could the Electoral College reverse the results of the election?—the answer is yes, although it’s profoundly unlikely.

The reason it’s an oddly worded question is that the November election is not a vote for president. The vote is for a set of electors who will then go and vote for the president in December. Therefore, the electors cannot change the results of the election since they’re the ones being elected. In one of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton explained the reasoning for forgoing direct democracy, as well as why they avoided letting politicians make the decision. Largely, the problem was that neither the public nor the politicians could be trusted. Hamilton wrote:

“The Executive should be independent for his continuance in office on all but the people themselves. He might otherwise be tempted to sacrifice his duty to his complaisance for those whose favor was necessary to the duration of his official consequence. This advantage will also be secured, by making his re-election to depend on a special body of representatives, deputed by the society for the single purpose of making the important choice.”

There were other issues the Founding Fathers were trying to avoid as well, such as the risk of a smorgasbord of regional candidates. As historian Jack Rakove told Stanford News in 2012, “it would become truly difficult to produce a popular majority with a field of favorite sons.”

More controversially, the Founding Fathers faced the issue of slavery. Because enslaved people couldn’t vote, a direct popular vote would weaken the power of the South. Thanks to the three-fifths compromise, however, the slave states had greater power under an electoral system than under a direct voting system, because enslaved people couldn’t vote but did count for the number of representatives. And more representatives meant more electors (the number of electors equals the state’s number of representatives plus the number of senators). As James Madison said in 1787:

“There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.”

But objections to the elector’s powers appeared as soon as races got competitive. In 1796, Pennsylvanian Samuel Miles became the first known faithless elector when, despite being chosen as a Federalist, he voted for opposition candidate Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to the Gazette of the United States, a disgruntled Pennsylvania voter asked, “What, do I choose Samuel Miles to determine for me whether John Adams or Thomas Jefferson shall be President? No! I choose him to act, not to think.”

SO WOULD IT WORK?

As we have written about before, in about half the states plus Washington, D.C., electors are required to vote for their state’s popular vote winner—some states to the point that any attempt to defy this would forfeit the elector’s position. They’re extreme, but in the controversial 1952 Ray v. Blair case, the Supreme Court ruled that requiring pledges from electors to vote for a particular candidate was constitutional. But the question that remains unanswered is whether any punishment for breaking those pledges is constitutional. It’s never mattered, but would quickly become a critical issue if electors defected en masse.

Regarding the 2016 election, others say that because Hillary Clinton had already conceded, this strategy wouldn’t have worked. But there’s no requirement that an elector vote for a viable candidate. In 1976, one of the electors voted for Ronald Reagan, who hadn’t even won his party’s primary. In 1956, another elector voted for a local circuit court judge rather than Adlai Stevenson.

A stronger issue standing in the way is how electors are chosen. Generally, in spring and summer, each state’s political parties nominate a slate of electors from a list of party faithful. Any attempt to get defections would require electors to go against a party that chose them specifically for their loyalty.

The Ray v. Blair decision gave one of the most famous dissents in Supreme Court history, where Justice Jackson wrote, “No one faithful to our history can deny that the plan originally contemplated, what is implicit in its text, that electors would be free agents, to exercise an independent and nonpartisan judgment as to the men best qualified for the Nation's highest offices.” While it would be considered highly irregular and is highly unlikely, the possibility is there. And will remain there until January 6, 2021, when the votes are officially counted before a joint session of Congress.

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