I wonder if someone could have pulled this off…

June 1, 2022, 7:12 PM

Referring back to how being on the train is like being in the shower at times, I started thinking about an event from third grade that happened towards the end of the year, and wondered how the purpose of certain elements about it might have been defeated.  The event was a bazaar, and kids could buy and sell items to each other during the event.  Some kids made arts and crafts specifically to sell at the event, while some kids sold items brought from home.  I was one of the kids who sold items from home, as I used it as an opportunity to get rid of some toys that I didn’t play with anymore.  I don’t remember doing much beyond selling during the event, other than taking a quick look around at what the other kids were doing in all three classrooms before going back to my station.  I don’t remember my buying anything of note from the bazaar.  I think that I may have bought some candy, but that would have been about it.  I just remember unloading some of my junk on the other kids.  All in all, it was a fun event.

The event used its own special currency, issued by the teachers, and was distributed based on student behavior for a few weeks leading up to the bazaar.  They came in three versions: Johnson dollars, Jordan dollars, and Swanson dollars.  Good behavior earned you dollars, either individually, or collectively as a class (i.e. everyone in the class got the same amount of money at once) and the teachers would fine students for bad behavior (fines were only levied individually).  All three types were named for the issuing teacher, and they all were valued at par with each other (i.e. one Jordan dollar was equal to one Swanson dollar, etc.), and were otherwise considered equal in every way, i.e. despite different designs, it was one accounting system.  After all, it was a program to reward good behavior, and not a macroeconomics lesson, though it could have been a fun math activity as well if, say, one Jordan dollar was worth three Swanson dollars, and one Johnson dollar was worth two Jordan dollars.  After all, we did learn multiplication and division that year, and it could have been some good real-world practice in navigating currency exchange rates, though it would probably be too complicated for third-graders – especially when there were no cents in this currency to make things more granular.

Whether or not this concept worked as an incentive for good behavior, I don’t know, because in elementary school, I tended to stay in trouble for one reason or another, but I did my best fo play nice in order to maximize my “wealth”, even though I ultimately didn’t buy much (I was Mr. Krabs before he was a thing, I suppose).  I imagine that people could discuss the merits or drawbacks of a plan like this to incentivize good behavior among students, which essentially paid them in company scrip to be spent at an event as a reward for good behavior.  I imagine that some people would swear by it, while others would call it bribery.

The different dollars were pretty basic in their design.  They were all hand-drawn, and vaguely resembled US dollars in their appearance, with Jordan and Johnson dollars’ being a little bit more ornate than the very minimalistically-designed Swanson dollar.  In any event, it was clear that each teacher drew up their dollars with eight bills on a sheet of paper, and then photocopied and cut them up for distribution (I mean, it’s elementary school, so what do you want?).  There was no central accounting system for all of the money.  Each teacher was their own issuing authority, and the total amount of Johnsons, Jordans, and Swansons in circulation was not tracked.

While I was on the train, I started to think about it: what if a kid, or a group of kids, manipulated the system in order to defeat the intended purpose of the activity, i.e. a reward for good behavior?  Imagine if a few plucky individuals had made a run of counterfeit Jordans or Swansons and managed to flood the market.  Suddenly, with an excess of cash in students’ hands and the value of the currency’s being depressed by the excess of counterfeit cash, fines would become meaningless, because it wouldn’t make a dent in things based on the total supply of money.  Consider it license to be a brat, I suppose – but don’t be so much of a brat that you get sent to the principal’s office.  But to do your counterfeiting, all you really had to do was tape together a sheet of Jordans and Johnsons, and a sheet of Swansons (Swanson dollars were a different aspect ratio than the other two because they were drawn in a different direction on the paper), hit up a photocopier, and counterfeit away.

The thing to remember, though, is that there is no perfect crime.  Thus in playing out this scenario, I wasn’t thinking so much about how to pull it off, but rather, about what the fallout would be when the kid(s) involved inevitably got caught.  After all, I was never clever enough to get away with something like this.  Not a lot of kids liked me in elementary school, and they would snitch on me for dumb stuff.  And the teachers would enable the snitching by responding to it accordingly and nailing me for stuff based on these kids’ accounts alone.  So if I had started counterfeiting third-grade dollars, I would get caught quickly, because some kid would snitch on me just because it was me.  I couldn’t get away with anything.  But imagine if it was a popular kid, or a kid that the teachers would otherwise have never suspected, that was doing the counterfeiting.  No one would see that coming until it got well into it – enough to wreak some havoc.

I suppose that when the teachers found out, they could go a few different ways.  The most likely thing, I suspect, would be the cancellation of the entire bazaar.  No more event.  Just sit at your desk with your head down (always with the head down, it seemed, because that’s not degrading or anything) during the time when the bazaar would have occurred.  Classic collective punishment right there.  A few students fouled it up, so nobody gets to have it, and when the innocent victims question the punishment when they didn’t do anything, the teachers will tell them that they should use social pressure to keep the other kids in line, despite that it’s not the kids’ responsibility to police their fellow students (but that is the job of the staff).  This seems the most likely because it’s a decision that is easily made in anger, which is often how discipline was done in my elementary school, and it ensures that the kids responsible get punished, despite there would be a lot of collateral damage.

A somewhat more equitable way would be to do a reset on the money system, i.e. declare all of the previous currency to be invalid and issue new currency that is easily distinguished from the old currency.  However, that would not address the root cause of any counterfeiting, but just require another run with a photocopier.  My elementary school only had a black and white copier at that time (and that was an upgrade from the old ditto machine), so there was no way to use colors or something that would be harder to reproduce accurately.  But it would invalidate existing counterfeits and require that they start over as well, and who knows if it would be worth the effort by the counterfeiters to try their scheme again, especially when the teachers would be onto them.  Then there’s the collateral damage again.  Like with cancelling the entire thing, there would be a lot of collateral damage, as you’re wiping out a lot of kids’ wealth for a situation that they had nothing to do with.  Though that’s fiat money for you, I suppose.  It’s money only because the powers that be say that it’s money.

Obviously, if you can figure out who the counterfeiters are, you deal with them directly, and knowing kids, they are all too eager to snitch on someone for a perceived wrong, even if they’re well outside of their lane.  In any case, give the kids who were responsible a lesson about macroeconomics that they will keep with them for life, as they go through life with the memory of the time that they turned a monetary system on its head.  I figure, that memory could go two ways: remembering themselves as doing something really badass, even though they got nailed for it in the end, or it becomes an old shame that they would rather not bring up.  They may have fouled up the bazaar, but they learned an important lesson from it.  Though remembering the way that Mrs. Carmical operated, any discussion of the matter and lessons being given would likely be framed in the context of how terrible of a person they are for inconveniencing the staff rather than about economic repercussions.  After all, Mrs. Carmical was a disciplinarian, and not an economist.  Her job was to punish children, not teach them about money systems.

But I would argue that there are more clever ways to address such a situation that would teach a better lesson.  I realize that the intent of the bazaar was to incentivize good behavior, but if someone turns it into a lesson on economics, whether they intended to do that or not (more likely not, since cheating would be the most likely motivation), it might be beneficial to go there with them and give them a taste of their own medicine.  In other words, don’t punish, at least not directly.  Be the market, and make it work.  Treat the counterfeits as a given, especially if they’re indistinguishable from legitimate Johnsons, Jordans, and Swansons, and raise the prices of everything to reflect the decrease in value caused by the increased supply.  You might not have intended to teach economics to third-graders, but if you have to, then so be it.  In other words, turn the Jordan dollar into something worth even less than the Zimbabwe dollar.  All of a sudden, the fines for bad behavior become much bigger in order to account for the inflation caused by the oversupply of money.  Caught talking out of order?  That will be one billion dollars, so pay up – now.  And a lot of the prices in the bazaar would go up for the same reason.  A piece of candy?  That will be 100 billion bucks.  And then after the bazaar is over, and all of the money becomes valueless by design (since it was only good for the bazaar), explain what happened with an aim towards teaching economics to small children.  No vengeance, no accusations, just a nice teachable moment.

Of course, this is ultimately all just a thought exercise.  As far as I know, no one in the third grade at Grimes Elementary in the spring of 1990 attempted to manipulate the currency of a class bazaar in order to cheat or otherwise gain an unfair edge in their wealth for avoidance of fines or otherwise.  In other words, the incentive program went exactly as planned.  And the bazaar was a pretty fun event overall.  I was able to get rid of a bunch of junk that I had knocking around my room, and I ended up with a decent amount of money in the end.  I’m pretty sure that I had around $100 in some combination of Johnson, Jordan, and Swanson dollars at the end of the event.  Once the event was over, and the currency was therefore valueless, I took my leftover bills and taped them up to the wall in my room in rows, where they stayed for maybe a month or so before I took them down.  But in any event, thinking about how the lead-up to this bazaar might have gone horribly wrong was fun.

Categories: Elementary school