It’s Not About the Technology, It’s About the Money
Bitcoin world is full of people who know nothing about economics or cryptography; they only know that they could have made millions if they had not sold at the bottom. These people tell themselves that they are redeemable, that Bitcoin is just the MySpace of cryptocurrencies, that they will have another opportunity to get in early on some other revolution. These people can be dangerous, but most of them are easily preyed upon.
I think this may explain the origin of “blockchain technology”. It lets people talk as if clones of Bitcoin are important without having to remind themselves of Bitcoin. If someone says “blockchain technology” to me I give him the benefit of the doubt and write him off as someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If I find out that he’s intelligent, then he’s most likely a con artist.1
When people say “blockchain technology” to you, you can often replace it with “mana”, or “chakras”, or “quantum” and it makes sense the same way. “Blockchain technology” has evolved into a sound Bitcoiners use to extract money from venture capitalists and one another, similar to the way that male birds use a song to attract females. It’s a phrase for people who know there is a lot of money around, but don’t exactly know where it’s coming from.
I don’t see that there is a lot of use for some kind of general “blockchain technology” outside of its application in Bitcoin. In Bitcoin, the blockchain is a way of solving the double-spending problem without privileging any party as to the creation of new units or of establishing a consistent history. This is an extremely costly and complicated way of maintaining an accounting ledger. How often do I really need to do my accountancy in this way? I would say that it is only a good idea when the game being played is so important that no one can safely be put in the position of referee. There are not a lot of things that I would really need that for, but I think there is a good argument to be made that a blockchain is a reasonable alternative to the monetary system under which the rest of the world is currently oppressed. Otherwise I’d really rather be able to keep my accounting records to myself rather than leaving them out in public.
There are no applications of blockchains which do not involve a double-spending problem. A blockchain that was used for an application with no double-spending problem is nothing more than a database, so you could just replace it with a distributed hash table. People have also used the blockchain for timestamping. This only works because Bitcoin has become well-known as a point of reference. If you had a need for timestamps, you certainly wouldn’t invent a blockchain to do it.
Yet people are running around everywhere in the Bitcoin world screaming “blockchain blockchain blockchain” for all kinds of non-intuitive purposes until they’re buried under piles of money. I can’t believe how long it’s taking for people to get wise to this ruse, but I hope it won’t last too much longer. A blockchain does not have a wide range of applications. However, there is one application2, namely that of being a currency, which is overwhelmingly important.
Money as a Hallucination
The foundational fallacy about money is to explain in physical terms what is really a sociological phenomenon. Money is about macroeconomics even if we’re talking about a small currency like Bitcoin. Gold is not valuable because it is durable, fungible, portable, and scarce; it is valuable because of a beneficial and self-sustaining tradition in which it has a special place. The physical properties of gold make such a tradition possible, but they do not determine that it will arise; other goods with similar properties may also become the traditionally established good. Bitcoin is the same way, of course. It could not run without the technology behind it, but its value is what makes it important. People who think “blockchain technology” is important are making the same kind of mistake as the people who think gold has intrinsic value.
What’s weird to me is that I know I have heard many people express correct ideas about what money is and then look at me like I’m crazy when I seriously consider the implications of what they said. I have heard people say to me things like, “money is just a shared hallucination” or “the value of money is whatever we all agree it is”. Yes! That is correct. That’s exactly what I’m saying. And if money is a shared hallucination, then you can’t replicate Bitcoin’s value by replicating the technology. You would have to also replicate the hallucination, which you can’t. You’ll have two blockchains, but only one of them has a shared hallucination. This makes one of them valuable, the other worthless.
If that seems like a strange claim, think about the alternative: it means that it should be possible to create value for essentially no work. Every new blockchain ever produced was built on the premise that you can create a valuable investment that offers no income for the fixed cost of copying Bitcoin with alterations.
There is nothing magic here. Human behaviors have real costs and benefits. Money may be little other than a bunch of people attributing value to something without much direct use. It doesn’t matter if this sounds ridiculous; if there is a behavior that corresponds to this belief which benefits people, then they will keep behaving that way. Other people had better understand what they’re doing or else they will become relatively poorer.
Money as a Behavior
The overwhelmingly most popular thing to do with gold is to store it away and leave it for long periods of time. Therefore, an explanation for the price of gold should mostly depend on the reasons someone would want something that is good for being stored away, with some minor additions due to gold’s use as jewelry and in industry. We can study money as behavior by abstracting away all the uses of money other than that of storing it. No matter how silly that sounds, we know that it must be good for something because people actually do it and have been for some time.
When I talk about money as a behavior what that means is that everybody has a socially established number that is objectively associated with them. They can show other people how much they have, and everyone will agree as to what the number is. People can do something which subtracts from this number and adds to another person’s number. Also, people demand to have higher numbers. This means that they are willing to give up other things in order to increase their number. If we know the costs and benefits of increasing the number, then we can understand the price of these numbers on the market.
There could be many reasons that people are able to behave in this way. The numbers could correspond to amounts of a physical good, like gold or wampum, which people physically pass among one another. They could correspond to numbers which are managed and guaranteed by an institution, like dollars or World of Warcraft gold; or it could be numbers that are stored in a blockchain as in Bitcoin; or maybe we all just use the honor system and keep track of our own balances and don’t cheat.
Often, economists define money in a way that makes money a unique good in an economy. I do not define money this way. There could be more than one good which acts like money. Instead, I will show that in the long term I would expect a single money to dominate.
The Risk of Money
Money is often explained in terms of the inconvenience of trading in a barter system.3 While bartering might well be inconvenient, that alone is not enough to explain the existence of money. It would certainly be nice if we could all settle on a good to use as money. However, there is no guarantee that everyone will be nice enough to do that. It is possible to imagine a tribe of people who are all very good economists and who all understand and like the idea of money, without having enough confidence in one another as to get it working for real. The first person among them would be taking a risk because he would have to work or sell his property in exchange for something that’s good for not much other than being stored. His risk would only pay off if everyone else was willing to follow suit, and how could they possibly guarantee to him that they really would do so?
For almost a year, this was what it was like in Bitcoin. Although Bitcoiners suspected that Bitcoin could be money some day, its price was zero. Consequently, it was completely useless as a form of money. For a long time, Bitcoiners wanted the price to be higher than zero, but they could not make it so just by wanting it. Bitcoin did not fundamentally change as a piece of software when it first developed a price; the only thing that changed was people’s’ willingness to trade dollars for it.
In general, there is always an individual cost to accepting money, even when the use of money is very widespread. If I work in exchange for money, how do I know that money will still be valuable by the time work is out and I am ready to do my shopping? If I work for something I can directly consume then at least I can get some utility out of it no matter what. But if I accept something whose main use is as a medium of exchange, then I am depending on there being future people willing to accept that money later.
This is why people can’t just will money into existence and why the inconvenience of a barter system cannot explain the existence of money. There’s a risk. In order to explain why people would use money, we need an individual benefit to match with the individual cost; otherwise people would never prefer to use money no matter how socially beneficial it was.
The Utility of Money
There is an individual benefit to using money, and it’s very simple. The person who accepts money gets to defer his decisions about what to buy to a later time. Someone who does not want to use money must have a better idea about what he is going to do with the goods he receives in payment than the person who accepts money. When one has money, then one is not committed. If I am the first person to accept money in payment and my bet on it pays off, then I have the option to choose what I want later, and I do not have to choose based on the limited information I have now. This benefit explains why someone would want something that is good for keeping in storage. If he wants to keep his options open, then he can open his vault the moment that the right opportunity comes along.
I have now provided a trade-off which, I contend, explains the value of money. I have not proved that there are no other costs and benefits to using money, but I don’t know of any others. If someone can show me that there is another reason to hold money, please do. Now I’ll talk about what this tradeoff implies for the value of money.
The Value of Money
In this article, I mean value in the investment sense. So the value of money is the purpose it serves in your portfolio and how much you would want. For the investor, the value of money is determined by the tradeoff of commitment versus optionality. If he wants more deferred choices, then he needs more cash. If he wants more income, then he should get stocks or bonds.
The reason someone might want to defer his choices is because there are limited periods of time in which investments go on sale. A difficult thing about business is that it is easy to make mistakes whose consequences are not evident until long after they are unavoidable. When that happens a business needs cash in order to survive long enough correct itself. During these times, good businesses can be bought cheaply for limited periods of time. This is why an investor wants a cash balance ready to spend. You never know what is coming, but if you have cash you are prepared for whatever it is. Holding a stock is a commitment to a particular enterprise, whereas cash keeps your options open.
The reason that buying an investment is a commitment is that you cannot always sell an investment easily for cash. It might go on sale, just as in the previous paragraph, and then the investor cannot get the same amount of cash back that he put into it. If there is a crash, the investor might not be able to follow through on his commitment and must sell at a loss. On the other hand, an investor who can realistically make the commitment won’t care so much if there is a recession because he is prepared to weather safely through any bad times.
The interesting thing about the tradeoff of optionality versus commitment is that changes in the overall use of money in an economy can change the nature of that tradeoff for an individual person. The more demand for money there is, the less risky it is for an individual person to hold money. If you were the first person to sell goods or labor for money, then you would probably look insane or immensely stupid to bet that other people would want this stuff in the future. On the other hand, if many people are using money, then you are merely depending on there not being a hyperinflationary event in the immediate future. In that case, you might look insane or stupid for worrying about such a remote possibility at all.
In short, money becomes more useful the more people use it.
This may seem like a very obvious conclusion given how many words I took to arrive at it, but it has some funny implications that are hard for a lot of people in Bitcoin to accept because they have money riding on a presumption that the opposite is true. As more people begin to hold money, the rational response of everyone else is to try to hold more than they already have. Everyone, therefore, will try to increase his cash balance at the same time, and they will do this by bidding larger amounts of other goods in exchange for it. In other words, all prices tend to go down, and money becomes more valuable. Effectively, everyone ends up with more money, except that they end up with more valuable units of money rather than higher sums of it; and furthermore they end up with larger fractions of their portfolio in money as well.
The Network Effect
This is the opposite of how most investments work. If the price of a stock goes up, then the value decreases because its dividend yield is smaller in proportion to its price. If the price goes up too much, an investor would eventually want to sell for something cheaper. By contrast, $100 worth of bitcoins today has a better value than $100 worth several years ago, even though the price of bitcoin is much greater. The value is better because there are more opportunities to unload the bitcoins at the owner’s discretion.
A positive feedback between price and value implies that the growth or shrinkage of money can be self-sustaining. One might well find this conclusion hard to accept. Afterall, value in a business is built by hard work and careful strategy, whereas money can somehow drive its own value according to me. I would invite anyone to explain Bitcoin’s value any other way. And saying “bubble” doesn’t count because that’s virtually the same thing. Money is basically a self-sustaining bubble. We don’t yet know if Bitcoin will arrive at a self-sustaining state, and even if it doesn’t the “blockchain tech” people are still wrong because in that case there would be no good blockchains rather than one.
What would a self-sustaining bubble look like? Naturally, there must be a limit to the growth of money. As the value of money increases, eventually the individual benefits of holding more of it will go down. This happens as the market cap of currency becomes a larger and larger fraction of the whole economy. There are only so many errors that the economy produces for a cash-holder to take advantage of. The economy becomes saturated with money once there are enough investors sitting around with piles of money such that they are able to catch all the errors that are worthwhile. At that point it is no longer individually beneficial to hold more money even if the value of money has gone up. This prevents the value of money from going up further until more people or businesses are added to the economy.
This limit is independent of the underlying technology of the money. If people were sufficiently honest, it could run on nothing but the honor system. Thus, the value of money is a macroeconomic phenomenon, even for a tiny, quirky cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. This is the reason why Bitcoin can be worthless one year and valuable the next without a fundamental change to the software or protocol, and why it can range in price by enormous margins over short periods of time for reasons that seem inscrutable. It’s because the value of money is a shared hallucination, and the price is caused by the vividness of that hallucination.
How Bitcoin’s Value Was Created
For a year after Bitcoin was first released, it had no price and was quite worthless. Therefore, the value was not created when the software was originally developed. It was caused by step-by-step investments that came later. Since it first gained a price, Bitcoin has had periods of rapid price increases. There can be events which are set off for no apparent reason in which Bitcoin’s price drives itself rapidly up or down. A small price increase is interpreted as an increase in demand. An increase in demand would mean that bitcoin is becoming more useful and therefore more valuable. Hence, more people buy in and cause another price increase. These manias make people outside wonder if Bitcoin is for real. They make people who previously thought that Bitcoin was stupid to think that they should maybe buy a little bit just in case there could actually be something to it. In other words, they are starting to think that Bitcoin is good for the only thing that money is actually good for, which is to be kept just in case.
Above I wrote about the hypothetical idea of a tribe of economists who all wanted to develop a money economy but could not because each felt the investment to be too risky. Here is how they could solve that problem. They could go around in a circle and take turns investing tiny amounts. Then none of them has to take a big risk. Their economy would not be monetized after one round, but they could see who among them was willing to take a small risk. If they had all shown themselves willing to invest a little bit, then many of them would be willing to risk a second round. If the game should proceed well, the economists would start to think about how wealthy each would be if they managed to get more than the rest. Soon the game would cease to be orderly as they all tried to sell as much as possible in order to buy the new money while it was cheap.
Bitcoin did not arise out of a barter system. The dollar and the other state-managed currencies had long since subsumed nearly all trade. However the calculation of the initial investors to Bitcoin was very similar to that which faced the economist tribesmen. It was clear to many that Bitcoin would be cool if you could actually buy things with it. However you can’t buy anything with it and its investment prospects depend on the presumption that it somehow one day will be demanded in exchange for goods. How could one even estimate the risk of such a possibility? The fact that other currencies already existed does not change the problem. From the perspective of a Bitcoin investor, Bitcoin might well have existed in a barter system in which Dollars, Yuan, Euro, Pound, and Yen were traded rather than tea, silk, salt, and flint. The only difference is that the national currencies are better competitors than tea or salt, so the risk is greater than if Bitcoin had arose in a real barter system.
I’m not against competing currencies in the sense of thinking people should be physically prevented from creating them. I am against competing currencies in the sense that I think currency competition is inherently monopolistic and that it is extremely dishonest or stupid to promote a new currency as an investment without taking this reality into account. So I am against competing currencies in the sense that someone who creates a new currency had better be able to present a case that his idea is capable of replacing the current system, and should be treated as a con artist otherwise.
The fact that money has a positive feedback between demand and value implies that there cannot normally be a stable equilibrium between two moneys. Any initial imbalance between them would tend to expand. If one currency was slightly more preferred than the other, people would react to this by demanding slightly more. This makes the preferred even more preferable than before. Any two moneys will interact in this way, thus leaving one to dominate the rest.
Many people get fooled upon first entering Bitcoin because they think diversification is important. The problem with diversification is that it is possible to create an infinite amount of bullshit at no cost, and if you diversify into that you lose everything. Diversification only makes sense among investments which are not bullshit. If we were looking at a bunch of stocks that all already paid dividends, then diversification would make sense. On the other hand, there are potentially an infinite number of scamcoins. During late 2013 and early 2014, new ones were being produced and hawked every day. They can be produced at this rate until everyone who thinks diversification is a good idea goes broke. Now that all the dumbest people have gone broke, the focus has shifted to using “blockchain tech” to exploit ignorant venture capitalists.
There is always some risk in accepting money in payment, even something very well-established like dollars. If everyone settles on the same money, then they have coordinated so as to reduce that risk as much as possible. If you expect people to use two currencies, you have to have some reason that both would offset risk in different ways. I have never seen an altcoiner or “blockchain tech” enthusiast come anywhere near to addressing this issue. Clearly, if two currencies are virtually identical, such as Bitcoin and Litecoin, then whichever currency is bigger has the advantage. Recently, Litecoin’s price has decoupled from Bitcoin’s somewhat, so maybe people have finally figured this out. Once Litecoin loses its shared hallucination, no amount of sloganeering will bring it back.
Litecoin prices, all-time (via CoinMarketCap)
But what about something more elaborate? Let’s pretend for a moment that Ethereum actually worked and was actually something that competed with Bitcoin on some level. Do its smart contracts give it a serious advantage over Bitcoin? I don’t see how Ethereum’s smart contract system would tend to bring in opportunities to unload ethers which are superior to the opportunities provided by Bitcoin. No matter how cool smart contracts sound, they make Ethereum just another appcoin, and as with other appcoins, people will reduce the risk of holding them by not holding them, or holding them for as short a time as possible. This willdrive the price down until they are useless in trade.
By the way, I would prefer to be called a “Bitcoin minimalist” rather than a “Bitcoin maximalist” because the other blockchains appear useless and are easliy eliminated.
Bitcoin Versus the Dollar
On the other hand, Bitcoin improves over the dollar (and other fiat currencies) where it actually counts. The dollar is not very good for storing “just in case”. Over long periods, it loses value due to inflation. You can’t carry cash around or the police will take it, and if you leave it in a bank, you can have your account frozen and the money drained if you use it for purposes deemed unacceptable. You cannot own dollars the way that you can own bitcoins. It is not that Bitcoin comes at no risk; it is rather that you can always expect to have the same fraction of the total later on, if you secure them properly.
The national currencies are affected by forces which are beyond your knowledge or control. They are managed by committees serving the governments issuing them. The people on these committees speak in a jargon that is not only incomprehensible to most people, but unbearably dull even to those who do understand it. Everyone is affected by them, but most people will not bother to learn to understand them. They manage the currency in the national interest, which is not always the same thing asyour interest. They can change the rules about how the currency can be spent you can use them or increase the government’s supply. 4 It is usually not possible to predict what they will do, at least over long time spans.
This is not possible under Bitcoin’s current rules, and it would be difficult to change them in ways that might eventually enable anything similar. Although many new bitcoins will be created in the future, the release schedule is publicly known, and is therefore already priced into current Bitcoins. Therefore Bitcoin will not lose value as a result of inflation. It might lose value as a result of losing popularity, and this risk is greater than that of the dollar’s (at the moment).
Thus there is a genuine qualitative difference between Bitcoin and the dollar, from an investment standpoint. It doesn’t mean that Bitcoin will necessarily defeat the dollar. It just means that Bitcoin has a relevant competitive edge. There are still significant disadvantages to Bitcoin; it is slow to confirm and difficult to maintain anonymity. However, Bitcoin has done well against the dollar so far and there is real-world commerce that has grown to rely on it. In addition, every time bitcoin grows, its risks decline relative to the dollar’s.
The reason, therefore, that the monetary aspects of Bitcoin are particularly interesting is the possibility that Bitcoin could become the preferred good for being stored away. If it did, then its value would grow until it was a significant part of the world economy. That would be a significant change for the world and for Bitcoin’s early adopters. Call me crazy, but I think that possibility has more portent than the possibility of applications of blockchains outside of Bitcoin, and is a lot more likely, too.
Bitcoin the protocol is like a great work of engineering. Its pieces are all adapted to its function. It is not the technology, but what the technology enables, that is most interesting. The blockchain as a concept had no reason to escape the esoteric circles of developers and engineers. Yet when people looked at Bitcoin, the only terms by which they knew how to understand it was as a new technology. But Bitcoin is more like a new tradition than a new technology. It is as if a small section of the crowd in a packed stadium has started to do the wave, and you can bet on whether the wave will eventually fill up the entire stadium.
If someone says “blockchain tech” to you, you might as well walk away right there.5 They’re just trying to sell you on their new decentralizedcrowdfunded blockchain tech internet of bitthings appscam. You knowthat they’re lying because everyone who acts like them is a liar and someone who was not a liar would actually do something to distinguish himself from them. Someone who knew what he was talking about would know that you can’t just string a bunch of buzzwords together in order to generate an idea that makes sense. Unfortunately, if a lack of basic critical thought is widespread, and if everyone becomes invested in everyone else’s stupidity, then nobody wants to know either, at least not before they’ve found a favorable time to exit their position. This will probably never happen because although they may think they’re preying on other people’s stupidity, they are more likely being preyed upon instead.
- On the other hand, just because someone is dumb does not mean that he is not a con artist. Based on my experience in Bitcoin, I think that many con artists have an instinct to remain as stupid as possible about how they get money so that they can keep believing that they are brilliant entrepreneurs. ↩
- “do one thing and do it well” ↩
- When Austrian economists say barter system all they mean is an economy in which no good is used as money, even though the term has much more specific connotations for many people. ↩
- In the US, it is really congress and the executive branch changing the rules, and the Federal Reserve changing the supply. This distinction doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this article, but some people think it’s important because the federal reserve is designated as a private institution, whereas congress is composed of elected representatives. ↩
- This includes Hillary Clinton. ↩