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Everything I know about printing, I learned in middle school. In the seventh grade, the boys were required to take a daily period of printing, where we learned to set individual leaden letters of type on a composing stick, and then print what we had composed. It started innocently enough with aphorisms such as “Knowledge is power,” and “The worst wheel of the cart makes the most noise.”

By the time my friends and I were in high school, we used our skills to print up fake elevator passes and announcements of class cancelations on days when certain exams were scheduled. To this day, I wonder how any of us ever managed to graduate.

Even after I became an economics professor, I never lost my fascination with printing. One evening, I met my nephew for dinner in a restaurant in lower Manhattan. He had recently graduated from law school, and was now a lowly associate with a major Wall Street law firm.

Always in a hurry, he announced that he had to go back to work in just an hour. I wondered if he was being paid so much money, his firm could not bear to be without him for more than an hour or two at a time.

But he surprised me by confiding that he wasn’t going back to his law firm. He had pulled an all-nighter with a printer who was making multiple copies of the legal papers for a corporate acquisition that would be announced the next day. His job was to ensure that no stray copies fell into the wrong hands.

I understood immediately that anyone getting wind of this deal could make a lot of money buying shares of the stock of the company being purchased. That would constitute insider trading, which could earn either millions of dollars, or else a long prison term.

So, you’re saying that a hot stock tip is entirely out of the question?”

My nephew didn’t even crack a smile. Then he shook his head, saying, “I knew I never should have told you!”

Well, thank you for not killing me!”


A few years later, I managed to snag a contract to write a textbook, which I had great hopes of making me rich. When my book was ready to go to press, I was surprised to learn that a representative of my publisher would spend the next week at the printer’s. Surely, the first edition of an introductory economics text could not possibly require a week to be printed.

My editor explained to me that that was the standard practice when major texts were being printed. While I was quite flattered that my book was already considered “major,” it was puzzling why keeping the printer under twenty-four-hour surveillance was necessary. Surely, if advance word leaked out about any economics book, no one would ever notice, let alone profit.

Boy was I wrong! A few years before, our company published the first edition of an introductory accounting text. No one from our company was there keeping a wary eye on the printer. The initial print run was for 20,000 copies.

There had been scores of orders for the book from college bookstores across the country. But while the books were still being shipped to our warehouse, our company began receiving dozens of order cancelations.

Order cancelations were not very common, but when they did occur, it was because the bookstores had bought up many used copies of the text from students using it the previous term. And even then, reductions in the size orders were much more common than cancelations of entire orders.

But in the case of our textbook, there were no used copies, since this was the initial printing of the first edition. So our sales reps, who stood to lose their commissions, called the managers of every college bookstore that had cancelled its order, and a few reps even drove to the bookstores to see these books firsthand.

What do you think has happened? Stories like these always need a villain. So who dun it?

Well, it didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to identify the culprit. Our printer had printed thousands of extra books and sold them directly to the college bookstores.

You might have thought that some of the bookstore managers might have caught on and alerted my publisher. Of course, they had no incentive to do so. The printer had evidently charged them considerably less than my publisher did.

So, what have we learned from this sordid tale? Clearly, that printers are no more honest than other people – even lawyers and college professors.

There are two large posters displayed in the reception room of the headquarters of my publisher:

In God we trust.

All others pay cash.

If you can’t trust your printer,

then whom can you trust?



Why have I told you these two seemingly unrelated stories? Well, I know that many of my students do refer to me as “the absent-minded professor,” so clearly, I have a reputation to uphold.

As luck would have it, my involvement with printing malfeasance was not yet over. Only this time, it would be much more serious: It actually involved the printing of money. n fact, this was such a major economic event, that I actually devoted an entire page to it in my economics textbook.

I’ll bet you can’t guess which nation had the world’s worst bout of inflation. Go ahead and make a guess.

Did you guess Germany, during the 1920s?

Close, but no cigar! OK, I’ll put you out of your misery. It was Zimbabwe, a very poor nation in Southern Africa. Instead of financing its government spending with tax receipts and borrowing money, the government just printed it. This set off a rapidly growing inflation.

Prices eventually were doubling every day, and the government kept printing currency with increasingly large denominations. Eventually, they printed 100,000,000,000,000-dollar bills. That is, one-hundred-trillion-dollars!

How much could even these bills buy? You could have gotten a pretty good idea by reading the sign posted in public outhouses throughout the Zimbabwe:







This inflation took place during the first decade of the new millennium. Finally, the government agreed to stop printing money and to no longer recognize it as legal currency. To this day, the official currency of Zimbabwe is the U.S. dollar.

So, what happened to all that Zimbabwe currency? Some was turned in to the government and destroyed. Much of it was sold abroad to foreign currency collectors. Because I had featured the Zimbabwe inflation in my textbook, I bought up about 8,000 Zimbabwe ten-trillion-dollar bills on eBay.

I paid about 50 cents for each of these bills, and sent a few to each of my publisher’s sales reps to offer to professors who were using my book. And better yet, I offered to supply them with enough bills for each of their students.

Amazingly, no one took me up on this very generous offer. So now I was stuck with nearly 8,000 Zimbabwe ten-trillion-dollar bills. That should have been the end of my story.

But then, very gradually something amazing began to happen. If you look on eBay, you’ll see that these bills are selling for five or ten U.S. dollars. And I’m still holding almost 8,000 of them.

But as profitable as my investment has been, I could have done much better had I bought up the Zimbabwe hundred-trillion-dollar bills, which are now fetching between forty and one hundred U.S. dollars.

As things turned out, I was evidently not the only person who had that regret. But someone else came up with an even better idea! I don’t know this person’s name, but I do know that she or he must be a printer.

That’s right! This printer has been turning out virtually perfect copies of the Zimbabwe $100,000,000,000,000 bills and selling them on eBay and Amazon.

Is that legal? Good question! It’s certainly illegal to print your own counterfeit U.S. currency in the United States. And it may well be illegal to print the currencies of other nations such as British pounds or Euros.

But Zimbabwe currency? Because that’s no longer legal currency, you’re not breaking any laws by printing even one-trillion-dollar bills. It’s like printing Monopoly money.

At least that’s what I think. But I really want to be sure it’s legal. So, if he’s still talking to me, I’ll have to ask my nephew, the lawyer.


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