Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Gresham's Geocache

In geocaching, you have the opportunity to trade little objects with the caches. You may for instance take a key ring out of the box and leave a marble. Kids love it. But you rarely find anything really nice in a geocache that's been in place for more than a few months. There's a lot of stuff in the box, all right, but it's mostly just cheap junk. This is because of Gresham's Law.

Gresham's Law is an observation made in national economy regarding the quality of coinage: "Bad money drives good money out of circulation". It only operates when coinage has intrinsic value, most commonly because it consists at least partly of silver or gold. This is called commodity money, whereas today's coins and bills are called fiat ("let there be") money and has hardly any intrinsic value at all. For the law to work, money must also be governed by legal tender legislation, as it is today. Such legislation states for instance that merchants must accept pennies with the current king's portrait regardless of the individual pennies' quality.

Back when European states had commodity money, people hung on to coins with a lot of precious metal in them, preferring to use bad coins (recognisable because they were lighter or had the green tint of copper) for transactions. This meant that the bad coins circulated far more than the good ones.

The trade items in geocaching fulfil the prerequisites of Gresham's Law. They are commodity money, and different items have different values. But there is a "legal tender law" in the game, stating that if you take one item out of the box, then you have to replace it with another item. Even if you take a tamagotchi and replace it with a wood screw. So the reason that there are so few really good items in geocaches is not simply that people loot them. They generally follow the rules and put something in the box, but it's rarely as valuable as the item taken.

Frands Herschend has demonstrated that Gresham's Law operated in Viking Period Scandinavia. Coins found in large hoards of the time are heavier on average than coins found in small hoards. This means that Scandinavians were at least sometimes using the coins under a legal tender system, at home or abroad, and that in such situations they preferred to use as poor coins as possible for payments. The richest people had the most opportunities to acquire and accumulate heavy coins. This tendency was accentuated by the fact that in most of Scandinavia, there was no recognised legal tender. Instead, silver bullion was weighed on little balances. And in such a case, the face value of a coin struck in some far-off English city was irrelevant. But both participants in a transaction were keenly aware of its weight.

Herschend, F. 1989. Vikings following Gresham's Law. Larsson, T.B. (ed.). New approaches in Swedish archaeology. B.A.R. 500. Oxford.
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Blogger Hans Persson said...

Jag brukar ofta försöka bättra på prylarna i cachear jag tar, speciellt om jag är ute utan barn. Precis som du säger hittar man allt för ofta småsten och andra tråkiga saker istället för roliga saker.

Fast inte alltid. I den 200:e cachen jag hittade (i Stockholm nu i helgen) hittade jag en snygg flätad snodd som passade utmärkt som "handtag" på blixtlåset på ryggsäcken jag hade på mig, och som till och med gick i färg med ryggsäcken.

16 August, 2006 19:55  
Blogger Martin said...

Yeah, I've also seen a few of those braided strap thingies and was surprised at how nice they are. I guess there are a few philanthropists in the system too. But the net effect of the cache transactions is sadly greshamesque.

16 August, 2006 20:07  

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