This was supposed to go out to one and all last week, but for some reason it didn’t. So today we try again - and the article can also be the Sunday morning thought piece.
What problem does bitcoin solve? How does it make the world better?
Merryn posted those questions on Twitter yesterday.
It being Twitter, as you might expect, as well some measured, sensible stuff, it met with a barrage of outrage too, with responses ranging in scope from “it’s a Ponzi scheme” to “it’s destroying the planet” to “it’s going to give us world peace”.
I thought I’d answer Merryn’s questions today, sheltered from the mania of Twitter, in the calm surroundings of this blog.
I have been trying, on and off, to orange-pill Merryn since about 2014 and I think it’s fair to say, Merryn gets it. She gets fiat money, inflation, money printing, the harm it does, all that stuff. Not only does she get it, she was several years ahead of most of us on that one. She gets the need for apolitical money, lower taxes, less state, less central banking, fewer capital controls - all that stuff too. Cripes, she’s been writing about it all long enough.
She just isn’t crazy about bitcoin.
I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I think her objections come, broadly speaking, under three main headers.
First, she doesn’t like all the Wild West scams, blunders and ensuing losses that have accompanied this new financial technology. The FTXs, the Mt Goxs, the hacking, the extortions - and all the rest of it.
Yes, these are not bitcoin, but bad actors operating in and around bitcoin, but bitcoin has still been the enabler.
Two, she doesn’t like the volatility. The price needs to be more stable, if it’s to be a legitimate form of currency or cash.
Three, even though bitcoin is, in theory, open to all, in practice it is only open to those technologically savvy or organised enough to be able to store keys, passwords, wallets, seed phrases and so on safely. Those - and there is no shortage of them - who are not comfortable with all of that tend to use third-party providers, which, in the unregulated world of crypto, leaves them vulnerable to those factors listed under “First” - and we are in a loop.
I think/hope I’ve summarised Merryn’s core objections - there’s probably something I’ve missed. They are all though, I think, legitimate.
So … here, in no particular order, are 17 ways bitcoin makes the world better.
1. It separates money and state.
If one body in a society has the power to create money at no cost to itself, while the rest of us must expend energy to earn it, it is inevitable that body will have disproportionate power and influence within that society. If you want to know why Western states have grown so large, bloated and invasive, look no further than fiat money systems and the power they give to the state. That money goes on welfare, waste, wars, wokery, whatever. You might agree with some ways that money is spent, or you might not; depends on your politics. Doesn’t matter: fiat centralises power in state.
Bitcoin removes the ability of the state, and those who operate in it, to print or debase money for their own political agenda.
Money, therefore, remains money. It cannot be a political tool.
2. It provides a lifeline
You tend to see high bitcoin use under regimes that have seen the greatest destruction to their national currencies - Turkey, Venezuela, Argentina. Bitcoin has provided citizens with an escape.
3. You can send any amount anywhere
Sending money across borders is hard, even today, whether for large amounts or small. If I want to return the five dollars that somebody in New Orleans gave me last month when I forgot my wallet, or a pound to my friend in India to buy him a cup of coffee, or a thousand pounds to my friend in Iran, I am not entirely sure how I would do all those things. There are forex and other charges. There are processing fees. There can be capital controls. There might be a lot of admin and forms to fill in. Bitcoin is international, borderless, instantaneous and cheap.
4. No more capital controls.
Governments cannot control the flow of bitcoin capital in or out of the economy.
5. It obviates central banking.
The bitcoin inflation rate is transparent and set in code. The central bank can’t start using dodgy inflation measures. It can’t set the price of money too high or too low for too long. There is no scope for human or policy error.
6. It increases financial inclusion
Around a quarter of the adult population remains unbanked. Around 1.5 billion people around the world (more women than men) still do not have access to basic financial services, such as a bank account. This, more than anything, roots them in poverty.
Yet almost everyone (over 90%) now has a smartphone. All you need to participate in crypto, to start sending and receiving money, is an internet connection. Bitcoin banks the unbanked.
7. It provides privacy.
As the world goes cashless, your every transaction now relies on third parties, who know what you are spending your money on. This will get worse with CBDCs. It means there is no privacy. Unless you use crypto.
8. The unsolvable problem of digital cash
For decades computer programmers had wrestled with the problem of how to send cash directly from one person to another online without third parties, just as Person A might hand cash to Person B in the real world. No one could solve the problem, so much so that it was deemed insolvable. Then along came Satoshi Nakamoto with his blockchain. It is a major technological breakthrough.
9. Digital scarcity
One key reason the digital economy has eclipsed the physical over the last 30 years is scalability. I can upload an app to the App Store and it can be downloaded a billion times, but if I had to manufacture and distribute a billion widgets it would take a great deal more time and effort.
Google can make one change to its algorithm, upload and within moments millions of people are benefitting. I can copy and paste some text, a picture, an MP3, any form of code, and send it out to millions. But if you can copy and paste money then it quickly loses its value. How then to create digital scarcity? Satoshi Nakamoto and his blockchain had the answer.
10. It educates
Bitcoin has got millions, if not billions, thinking about money and money systems, questioning them and their impact, in a way that has never happened in history. “In our time,” said the poet Ezra Pound, “the curse is monetary illiteracy, just as inability to read plain print was the curse of earlier centuries.” But he said that before bitcoin.
11. Excess money supply
In a world awash with debt-based fiat money systems, the supply of which inevitably increases over time, here is a limited, censorship-resistant, deflationary (using the old definition) system of money, whose supply is finite.
12. It has created an entirely new economy and asset class
Crypto didn’t exist 15 years ago. Now it’s a multi-trillion dollar economy, albeit one in a horrible bear market. Is it money? Is it a digital commodity? Is it a tech stock? It’s a new asset class.
13. It has provided the young with an opportunity for revenge
You know how the economy is rigged against the young, whether it’s through house prices, the tax on the future that is debt, or income tax taken to pay for Boomer retirements. Incomprehensible (to the over 50s) crypto is their revenge.
14. It stops cancel culture
Remember how the Canadian truckers had their Go Fund Me support, which other Canadian citizens had donated, stopped? Or how Wikileaks had its funding turned off? Or PayPal blocked donations to the Free Speech Union? Or any number of other organisations with the wrong worldview have had their funding turned off? It’s much harder to do with bitcoin, where there is more freedom to transact. No more currency wars …
15. It stops energy waste and accelerates innovation
With bitcoin’s high energy use, it is accelerating energy efficiency, innovation in production and the adoption of renewables. Roughly 60% of bitcoin mining now derives from renewable energy. It costs three times as much to store a unit of electricity than it does to produce it and around the world so much potential energy goes unused or wasted, from gas flaring to hydroelectric in times of high water to nuclear. Bitcoin mining uses energy that would otherwise go wasted to create the most powerful computer network ever known to mankind.
16. Who said and agreed to what, where and when
This one was pointed out to me by Christopher marshall on Twitter. The unhackable and permanent database that is the blockchain roots information permanently. “A universal witness that can't be corrupted, or censored, of denial of service attacked ... The legal/financial system's ability to prove who knew/agreed to what when is limited by a set of crude adhoc verification procedures.” Bitcoin transforms that.
17. It eliminates spam
Was that not the original purpose of hashcash stamps, proof of and re-usable proof of work?
Narratives take hold over markets, but price often leads narrative. At present, with bitcoin in one of its periodic winters and the price down 75% from its highs, negative sentiment has completely taken over. Few are talking up bitcoin now.
In fact with the price down 75%, it’s easy to argue that many of the above no longer apply - what is the point of a money if it loses 75%?
Fair enough. But that is also manipulating statistics. Look at the numbers over a five year period and the picture is very different.
The volatility is a problem for bitcoin if it wants mainstream adoption. But then again the volatility is what attracts people to it in the first place. The narratives come next …
Come for the gains. Stay for the revolution.
And subscribe if you haven’t already. This is a superb publication.
This article first appeared at Moneyweek.