Can a Teen's Idea to Switch Fonts Save the Government $400 Million?

Probably not—despite breathless claims from reporters. The good news: Uncle Sam is already finding ways to save taxpayer money.
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The Government Printing Office in the days before laser printers or online publishing, some time between 1905 and 1945 (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)

The toast of Washington this week? A 14-year-old from Pittsburgh. Suvir Mirchandani calculated that with a simple change of fonts, the federal government could save as much as $136 million per year. Following up on a middle-school science project, Mirchandani calculated that changing government documents from Times New Roman to Garamond—a narrower, lighter font—would slash the amount of ink required by a vast amount. And as he pointed out, laser-printer ink is far dearer than, say Chanel No. 5. Savings at the federal level could be as high as $136 million, he calculated. Extrapolating his findings to state and local governments, Mirchandani found that the total savings for all governments in the U.S. could be as much as $394 million, an astounding figure even by Washington standards (though still barely 1 percent of federal expenditures in 2013).

Mirchandani published his findings in a student-run outlet at Harvard, the Journal of Emerging Investigators—admittedly, prospects for peer review are tough, given that most 14-year-olds aren't doing this kind of analysis—and the study was picked up by CNN, which interviewed him. The graphic they used to illustrate the story pretty much says it all:

Screenshot

And here's a chart of how much less space Garamond takes up than other options:

Journal of Emerging Investigators

The basic principle here is pretty simple ... perhaps a bit too simple. But before we get to the possible flaws in Mirchandani's case, let's step back for a minute. As Eric Schnurer has written at The Atlantic, politicians and citizens alike often insist that the trick to saving money and making the government work better is to slay the hated three-headed beast of "waste, fraud, and abuse." But the problem is there really isn't all that much waste, fraud, or abuse in the system. Even if it were possible to slash the amount to zero—a standard that would necessarily be subjective, and is unattainable even in the best-run private-sector businesses—you'd still be talking about relatively small amounts of money. The trick, instead, is to find cross-system economies of scale that can save cash. It's won't eliminate a projected $514 billion deficit, but it's definitely money saved.

That's exactly the sort of project Mirchandani has proposed, and it's worth celebrating his industry. When I spoke with the Government Printing Office, it was very careful to avoid criticizing a well-intentioned teen. But journalistic accuracy demands some skeptical questioning of Mirchandani's analysis.

The first problem isn't his fault, but be wary of any headlines that herald  $400 million in savings for Uncle Sam. That figure is the most optimistic end of the projections, and it would require a uniform standard across state, local, and federal governments, a move that no one in D.C. has the means to effect.

Second, Mirchandani's estimates of what the federal government spends on ink are on the high end:

A Government Services Administration study (6) had estimated the cost of ink (toner) to be 25.86% of the total cost of ownership of a printer (Footnote 2). Assuming this percentage, the estimated 2014 ink cost by the federal government is $467 million. A savings of 29.24% by switching to Garamond translates into an equivalent dollar amount of more than $136 million at the federal government level.

Mirchandani notes that feds are projected to spend about $1.8 billion on printing in 2014. The GPO accounts for a little more than a third of that ($680 million), but in 2013 it spent only $750,000 on ink. Even if that number could be zeroed out, a logical impossibility, the savings north of $100 million look pretty unlikely.

The other big problem here is legibility. Typographer Thomas Phinney has a very helpful post on Mirchandani's study. He points out that many printing jobs are done using contracts that charge per page, rather than by toner; and many government jobs are done using printing presses rather than printers. Moreover, Phinney notes:

you could just as easily save ink by setting the same font at a smaller point size. But either of those changes, swapping to a font that sets smaller at the same nominal point size, or actually reducing the point size, will result in slightly less legible text. Printing everything smaller is likely a bad idea, as the % of Americans with poor eyesight is skyrocketing as our baby boomers (and even their children, like me) age.

If a new process saves ink but doesn't do the essential work of producing a readable document, what's the point?

Now the good news: Not only is it great that enterprising citizens like Mirchandani are looking for innovative ways to save money, the federal government is already moving in the right direction. Take the annual federal budget. In the 1980s, GPO says it was printing around 130,000 copies every year. This year, that number was down to 25,000 copies. At 250-plus pages apiece, that adds up quickly. Meanwhile, getting access to the document is easier than ever. The budget gets about 500,000 views online every year, and there's a mobile version, too. Officials have made similar reductions in the print run for other documents, such as the Congressional Record and Federal Register, and they have started using more recycled paper. Unfortunately, GPO didn't have readily available numbers on the overall number of pages it has printed over the last few years.

The result is a system that's able to reach more citizens more quickly, but takes up less in the way of resources (both paper and ink) and also costs less. In January, Senators Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, and Saxby Chambliss, a Republican, introduced legislation that would recognize the shifting business of government documents by changing the GPO's name from Government Printing Office to Government Publishing Office. (The bill has been referred to committee.) The progress may be incremental, and it may not be sexy, but these are the sorts of measures that actually add up to serious savings for taxpayers.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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