Gresham’s Law states that, when all money is legally required to have the same extrinsic value, money with greater intrinsic value will be hoarded, while money with less intrinsic value will be exchanged. So, for example, if legal tender laws force minted coins made of pure silver to be worth the same as minted coins made of 40% silver, people will keep the pure coins (the “good” money) and trade away the debased coins (the “bad” money).
I wrote a few weeks ago about La La, a music trading service. La La lets its users create a “Have List” and a “Want List”; for every CD a user ships from her “Have List,” she receives a CD on her “Want List” after paying La La a small ($1.79) fee. The CDs are (basically) all shipped by other members. Thus, La La effectively enforces a legal tender law on CDs; no CD can be worth more than any other CD.
But some CDs are worth more than other CDs. The new Dresden Dolls CD is simply worth more dollars than a copy of The Sign by Ace of Base. (Older readers, think Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band versus Frampton Comes Alive!.) Like legal tender laws in Gresham’s era of debased coinage, La La forces all CDs to have the same extrinsic value when they, in fact, have different intrinsic values.
So, one would expect La La users to put only intrinsically valulable CDs on their Want Lists and trade away only less intrinsically valuable CDs. The system grinds to a halt, right?
Well, no. There are, as far as I’ve thought it through, two mechanisms lubricating the exchanges, each of which manifests itself in more than one way.
The first mechanism is taste. There actually are people who would trade a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for a copy of Frampton Comes Alive!. An economist who was also a record snob might call this information asymmetry, but the rest of us can just rehearse bromides about “one man’s trash”. I don’t have any data about what the variance of intrinsic value is for CDs, but I suspect there’s enough taste variance in the population of La La users that only few consensus gems will tend to be hoarded, and only few consensus dross will be offered at an unusually high rate. Users will tend to queue to receive consensus gems, and will tend to queue to get rid of consensus dross. The queues move when users with unusual tastes come along. My informal observation in my La La trades has been consistent with this model; my new releases are always requested for shipping, and the CDs I receive tend to be the least consensus-desirable titles on the list. This effect is ameliorated by La La’s strong encouragement of very large Want Lists; I suppose, as a user’s Want List grows, the chances he’ll name something that someone else thinks is dross increases.
The second mechanism is the rip-and-trade. While the service officially discourages it, many users probably make copies of the CDs they receive for personal use, then swap the CDs away again. In this situation, the analogy to debased coin becomes pretty stretched; we’d have to model a CD as a magical coin, most of whose value can be retained after it’s traded away. This difference between money and CDs may be what’s really keeping La La lubricated. Except for the liner notes — which many people don’t pay attention to anyway — a lossless copy of a CD in a user’s iTunes library is just about as good as a CD on the shelf. So a user might be willing to trade a CD with a higher intrinsic value for one with a lower intrinsic value, if that user already had a personal copy of the high-value CD (and really wanted to listen to “Don’t Turn Around” for old time’s sake).
There are some other pretty cool issues raised by the La La economy which I’d like to explore more. First, there’s a whole maelstrom surrounding liner notes. Initially, sending them was entirely optional and in fact cost the sender extra postage, but the system’s been changed, and it’ll be interesting to see whether I get more or fewer CDs with notes now that the system’s changed. And second, there are some factors involved in La La that bring out things that certainly look like altruism. It’s just fun to make someone’s day by including the liner notes, or by shipping them a CD they’ve been awaiting for weeks, or by writing little notes on the shipping envelopes.
Adding up the effects of taste, non-rivalrousness, and the pleasure of sharing art with others, maybe CD trading isn’t much like the exchange of legal tender after all.