Gresham’s Law


We were working with another consulting group at a client, recently, and to resolve a dispute one of the consultants at the rival firm pulled out his trump card – he had authored a book.  Of the various things that might impress a software developer – certifications, technical blogging, Microsoft ranking, article writing – book authorship is well at the top of the list.  Writing a technical book carries so much metal in part because everyone knows what an extraordinary accomplishment this is.  One not only must demonstrate mastery and facility with one topic, but must be able to maintain this level of loquacity over a dozen or so chapter topics and in the end pull it all together in a fluent manner.  This can be so difficult a feat that for each major Microsoft technology one may find only four or five books each year, each of which, unless it fails completely, becomes a sort of master reference for the topic at hand.

Upon returning to the office, we naturally looked up our friend the author on the Internet.  In researching his bona fides we discovered that he was in fact the thirteenth author on an obsolete Microsoft technology for a technical publisher that, trading on its good reputation, had almost thoroughly trashed its name a few years ago by flipping poorly edited tomes written by laundry lists of authors on hot topics in order to be the first to press.  This publisher at a certain point became notorious for awkwardly photoshopping portraits of the myriad authors of each of their books onto the book covers to give the impression that some of them had ever actually been in the same room together.

This is a shame because many of the early authors with this particular press have gone on to be thought-leaders in the Microsoft programming world and continue to publish important books through other publishers, among them Rocky Lhotka, Dino Esposito, Joe Mayo, Scott Guthrie and Scott Hanselman, to name a few.

This may be a prime example of Gresham’s Law.  Gresham’s Law is a 16th century economic theory concerning currency which states “Bad money drives out the good.”  The general idea is that if a certain currency is in circulation, for instance gold coins, and another is introduced with a lower real value but an equivalent exchange value, for instance copper coins, those with gold coins will end up hording their currency rather than using them to make purchases and consequently the gold coins will be removed from circulation.  For a fuller explanation you might consult the wiki.

I first came across the theory in a book by Albert Jay Nock called The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1942) in which the author uses it as the basis for a Rousseauvian theory of cultural decline and progress.  I found out about the book, in turn, from a list Louis Lapham published in Harper’s in the early nineties of his alternatives to the Great Books – Alan Bloom’s pop philosophy book on cultural malaise was a bestseller at the time –  a list which also included Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.  It took me another two years before I was able to track the book down to a small shop in Cambridge, MA where I was visiting my brother (in those times before and the Kindle when tracking down an obscure book was a true labor of love) and read it voraciously as a mimeograph produced for a small class at one of the local universities.

The book is a series of contrarian ruminations on the author’s life and his failure to accomplish anything of general value.  Rather than pursue the sorts of endeavors in public life by which he could have made a name for himself, Nock recounts a dilettantish private life guided by a desire to amuse himself rather than impress others – yet it was a career which left in its wake both a book on Thomas Jefferson as well as one on Rabelais, in addition to various books and essays on politics and pedagogy. 

I have owned two copies of Nock’s memoirs in my life and have managed to give them both away.  Besides the general tone of the book, I remember only two things with any clarity.  The first was Nock’s dismay when he was offered the chair of the newly founded English department of a distinguished university.  Nock regretted turning the position down but he simply found it a bit of a put on to try to teach a subject that anyone could learn by showing up at the public library. 

The second was his attitude towards his alma mater.  He lauded it as possibly the best sort of education any undergraduate could avail himself of – the sort that prepared him for everything and nothing at the same time.  As a sign of his respect for those who taught him, he never returned to his college.  He felt that his teachers would be insulted if, after preparing him to go out into world, he at some point returned to the nest.  Their job, after all, was to push their students forward, not welcome them back.  He consequently found odd the growing trend among his peers and on the part of universities to host sundry homecoming events year after year.

Nock felt himself to be a man out of his own time and, like many people in these circumstances, felt that it was the world that was out of kilter rather than himself.  Because the things valued by the world — specifically America in the 20’s and 30’s — were not the things he valued, he tended to see “progress” as a sort of fool’s errand.  The improvements people tried to make in education and government seemed, through his particular lens, to be merely making things worse and – if those things were the things deemed to be most valuable – then he was a superfluous man.

I lack the skill to evoke Gresham’s Law quite as artfully as Albert Jay Nock does.  I can only apply it in this small case of a particular technical press.  A publisher with a strong reputation, thanks to concerted efforts to cultivate the best young talent available, eventually squandered its capital by going after easy money.   Determining that they could be more successful if they only increased the volume of their output, they lowered the value of their currency by publishing low quality books written in a couple of months by a legion of authors.  In the process they discovered that quality holds its value better than quantity does.

Yet all is not lost.  There is a scene in Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! in which Marlon Brando tries to save the Mexican economy by printing his own currency.  While the execution was not the best, the theory appears to be sound, and said publisher can revive its relevance by doing the same.  For instance, there is currently a growing industry of self-publishing on the Internet.  The publisher of the yellow and red technology books can lend its reputation to this trend by publishing the best efforts of would-be authors on Silverlight, Oslo, Azure or any of the other trendy new technologies.  Not only will this help the careers of these authors but, on the evolutionary principle that great things can be achieved given enough time and enough monkeys, something valuable may come of it.  To offset the cost of this effort, the publisher should charge its authors for the right to be published, thus producing a Covey-esque win-win situation.

Even better, said press could do away with the tedium of actually writing a book altogether and offer would-be authors the opportunity, for the right price, to simply have their names appended to the list of authors for one of the books in the back catalog.  After all, in that long list of superfluous authors, what harm would there be in adding just one more?

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