Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Use it or lose it

When I was in the Air Force, we had "use or lose" budgets--if we were economical this year and didn't spend our entire shop's budget, next year's budget would be cut by a similar amount.  The fourth quarter was interesting--week by week we would be told to spend more, or to defer spending, depending on how close we were to the target budget.  The last weeks we would often order something expensive, to use up the rest.   One year we replaced all the workbenches in our shop with many thousands of dollars in new benches.  The new ones looked newer, but were not as functional as the old ones.

Neil Gaiman is a successful SF/Fantasy author who gets asked to do appearances frequently.  As he puts it,
 I'm really busy, and I ought to be  writing, so pricing appearances somewhere between ridiculously high and obscenely high helps to discourage most of the people who want me to come and talk to them. Which I could make a full time profession, if I didn't say 'no' a lot."
He makes exceptions depending on who is hiring him, and apparently he donates much or all of this money to charity.

About a year ago, he was asked to speak at a Minnesota Library event, paid with funds from a special tax rather than out of the library's operating budget.   The money was 'use or lose', with a significant delay between the original schedule and when the money was actually released,  resulting in a very short time to find a way to spend it.  The people who hired him did not attempt to negotiate a lower fee--after all, it isn't their money, and there really wasn't time to spend any savings anyhow.

There was  a good bit of anger at this spending.  Some of the anger was justified--Although the venue was at capacity, the 'obscenely high' fee worked out to $90 per person.   I would agree that it wasn't a good use of taxes, but where to lay the blame is somewhat difficult here.  I don't think there is very much blame attached to the library--in theory they could have returned the funds, but it is likely that would have been considered poor job performance for the people involved.  Blame whoever wrote the law?  The voters?

However, some of the anger (from at least one politician, among others) was misdirected at Mr Gaiman.  From what I've read, Mr Gaiman made an agreement to perform for a fee and more than fulfilled his end, staying quite a bit longer than agreed on.  It shouldn't be up to him to determine if his temporary employers are wasting their money.

The problem here is getting government involved where it doesn't belong, on diluting accountability so far that nobody can be held accountable.

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