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Everyone Is Talking about Bitcoin by Jeffrey A. Tucker

I’m getting a flurry of messages: how do I buy Bitcoin? What’s the best article explaining this stuff? How to answer the critics? (Might try here, here, here, and here.)

Markets can be unpredictable. But the way people talk about markets is all too predictable.

When financial assets go up in price, they become the topic of conversation. When they go way up in price, people feel an itch to buy. When they soar to the moon, people jump in the markets — and ride the price all the way back down.

Then while the assets are out of the news, they disappear from the business pages and only the savviest investors buy. Then they ride the wave up.

This is why smart money wins and dumb money loses.

Bitcoin Bubbles and Busts

It’s been this way for seven years with Bitcoin. When the dollar exchange rate is falling, people get bored or even disgusted. When it is rising, people get interested and excited. The challenge of Bitcoin is to see through the waves of hysteria and despair to take a longer view.

In the end, Bitcoin is not really about the dollar exchange rate. It is about its use as a technology. If Bitcoin were only worth a fraction of a penny, the concept would already be proven. It demonstrates that money can be a digital product, created not by government or central banks but rather through the same kind of ingenuity that has already transformed the world since the advent of the digital age.

When the Bitcoin white paper came out in October 2008, only a few were interested. Five years would pass before discussion of the idea even approached the mainstream. Now we see the world’s largest and most heavily capitalized banks, payment processing companies, and venture capitalists working to incorporate Bitcoin’s distributed ledger into their operations.

In between then and now, we’ve seen wild swings of opinion among the chattering classes. When Bitcoin hit $30 in February 2013, people were screaming that it was a Ponzi-like bubble destined to collapse. I’ve yet to see a single mea culpa post from any of these radical skeptics. It’s interesting how the incessantly wrong slink away, making as little noise as possible.

For the last year, the exchange rate hovered around $250, but because this was down from its high, people lost interest. What is considered low and what is considered high are based not on fundamentals but on the direction of change.

What Is the Right BTC Price?

The recent history of cryptocurrency should have taught this lesson: No one knows the right exchange rate for Bitcoin. That is something to be discovered in the course of market trading. There is no final answer. The progress of technology and the shaping of economic value knows no end.

On its seventh birthday, Bitcoin broke from its hiatus and has spiked to over $350, on its way to $400. And so, of course, it is back in the news. Everyone wants to know the source of the last price run up. There is speculation that it is being driven by demand from China, where bad economic news keeps rolling in. There has also been a new wave of funding for Bitcoin enterprises, plus an awesome cover story in the Economist magazine.

Whatever the reason, this much is increasingly clear: Bitcoin is perhaps the most promising innovation of our lifetimes, one that points to a future of commodified, immutable, and universal information exchange. It could not only revolutionize contracting and titling. It could become a global currency that operates outside the nation state and banking structures as we’ve known them for 500 years. It could break the model of money monopolization that has been in operation for thousands of years.

Technology in Fits and Starts

Those of us in the Bitcoin space, aware of the sheer awesomeness of the technology, can grow impatient, waiting for history to catch up to technical reality. We are daily reminded that technology does not descend on the world on a cloud in its perfected form, ready for use by the consuming public. It arrives in fits and starts, is subjected to trials and improvement, and its applications tested against real world conditions. It passes from hand to hand in succession, with unpredictable winners and losers.

Successful technology does not become socially useful in the laboratory. Market experience combined with entrepreneurial risk are the means by which ideas come to make a difference in the world at large.

Bitcoin was not created in the monetary labs of the Federal Reserve or banks or universities. It emerged from a world of cypherpunks posting on private email lists — people not even using their own names.

In that sense, Bitcoin had every disadvantage: No funding, no status, no official endorsements, no big-name boosters. It has faced an ongoing flogging by bigshots. It’s been regulated and suppressed by governments. It’s been hammered constantly by scammers, laughed at by experts, and denounced by moralists for seven straight years.

And yet, even given all of this, it has persisted solely on its own merits. It is the ultimate “antifragile” technology, growing stronger in the face of every challenge.

What will be the main source of Bitcoin’s breakout into the mainstream? Commentary trends suggest it will be international remittances. It is incredible that moving money across national borders is as difficult and expensive as it is. With Bitcoin, you remove almost all time delays and transaction costs. So it is not surprising that this is a huge potential growth area for Bitcoin.

The Economist takes a different direction. It speculates that Bitcoin technology will be mostly useful as a record-keeping device. It is “a machine for creating trust.”

One idea, for example, is to make cheap, tamper-proof public databases — land registries, say, (Honduras and Greece are interested); or registers of the ownership of luxury goods or works of art. Documents can be notarised by embedding information about them into a public blockchain — and you will no longer need a notary to vouch for them.

Financial-services firms are contemplating using blockchains as a record of who owns what instead of having a series of internal ledgers. A trusted private ledger removes the need for reconciling each transaction with a counterparty, it is fast and it minimises errors.

We Need Bitcoin 

No one knows for sure. What we do know is that we desperately need this as a tool to disintermediate the world, liberating us from the governments that have come to stand between individuals and the realization of their dreams.

In 1974, F.A. Hayek dreamed of a global currency that operated outside governments and central banks. If governments aren’t going to reform money, markets would need to step up and do it themselves. Bitcoin is the most successful experiment in this direction we’ve yet seen.

And that is true whether or not your friends and neighbors are talking about it.

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World.  Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

Bitcoin Truly “Disrupts” Argentina

Bitcoin is supposed to be the latest disruptive technology. But whenever you hear someone use the buzzword “disruptive,” turn on your B.S. detector. Sure, technologies can be vaguely transformative, and that’s fine as far as it goes.

But the original concept of disruptive innovation is narrower. This term of art came from Harvard Business School guru Clayton Christensen, who meant something very specific.

“Disruptive innovation,” according to Christensen, “describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up-market, eventually displacing established competitors.”

Remember, that’s the “bottom” of a market, and by that, Christensen means not wealthy. (This distinguishes a disruptive tech from other transformative innovations, like computers and cell phones, which started at the top.) And the not-wealthy can sometimes be desperate to escape to a better system.

When it comes to Bitcoin, even the New York Times Magazine has figured this out:

Bitcoin proponents like to say that the currency first became popular in the places that needed it least, like Europe and the United States, given how smoothly the currencies and financial services work there.

It makes sense that a place like Argentina would be fertile ground for a virtual currency. Inflation is constant: At the end of 2014, for example, the peso was worth 25 percent less than it was at the beginning of the year. And that adversity pales in comparison with past bouts of hyperinflation, defaults on national debts and currency revaluations.

Less than half of the population use Argentine banks and credit cards. Even wealthy Argentines fear keeping their money in the country’s banks.

And the disruption is already happening: “Argentina has been quietly gaining renown in technology circles as the first, and almost only, place where Bitcoins are being regularly used by ordinary people for real commercial transactions.”

That satisfies the bottom of the market criterion. Whether it’s Argentines struggling with hyperinflation, or sub-Saharan Africans living under dictators and warlords, the developing world is likely to embrace bitcoin simply because it’s so much better than the failed banking and currency systems they’ve been locked in for so long.

“There are an estimated 2 billion ‘unbanked’ in the world,” says Bitnation CEO Susanne Tarkowski Templehof, “who don’t have access to global financial markets. To set up a bank account is difficult and expensive. Just like the developing world have leapfrogged in many other technologies, like mobile, etc., they’re likely to leapfrog in when it comes to financial technologies, as well — why shouldn’t they?”

Why shouldn’t they, indeed?

The beauty of the market process is that its gales of creative destruction almost always leave the world better off. And nowhere is it more important than for the people of the world who are longing for a chance at the freedom to build a better life for themselves.

Max Borders

Max Borders is the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also co-founder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

What Gave Bitcoin Its Value? by Jeffrey A. Tucker

Those who use the work of Mises to challenge bitcoin should think again.

Many people who have never used bitcoin look at it with confusion. Why does this magic Internet money have any value at all? It’s just some computer thing that someone made up.

Consider the criticism of goldbugs, who have, for decades, pushed the idea that sound money must be backed by something real, hard, and independently valuable.

Bitcoin doesn’t qualify, right?

Maybe it does. Let’s take a closer look.

Bitcoin first emerged as a possible competitor to national, government-managed money nearly six years ago. Satoshi Nakamoto’s white paper was released October 31, 2008. The structure and language of this paper sent the message: this currency is for computer technicians, not economists nor political pundits. The paper’s circulation was limited; novices who read it were mystified.

But the lack of interest didn’t stop history from moving forward. Two months later, those who were paying attention saw the emergence of the “Genesis Block,” the first group of bitcoins generated through Nakamoto’s concept of a distributed ledger that lived on any computer node in the world that wanted to host it.

Here we are six years later and a single bitcoin trades at $500 and has been as high as $1,200 per coin.The currency is accepted by many thousands of institutions, both online and offline. Its payment system is very popular in poor countries without vast banking infrastructures but also in developed countries. And major institutions—including the Federal Reserve, the OECD, the World Bank, and major investment houses—are paying respectful attention.

Enthusiasts, who are found in every country, say that its exchange value will soar in the future because its supply is strictly limited and it provides a vastly superior system to government money. Bitcoin is transferred between individuals without a third party. It is nearly costless to exchange. It has a predictable supply. It is durable, fungible, and divisible: all crucial features of money. It creates a monetary system that doesn’t depend on trust and identity, much less on central banks and government. It is a new system for the digital age.

Hard lessons for hard money

To those educated in the “hard money” tradition, the whole idea has been a serious challenge. Speaking for myself, I had been reading about bitcoin for two years before I came anywhere close to understanding it. There was just something about the whole idea that bugged me. You can’t make money out of nothing, much less out of computer code. Why does it have value then? There must be something amiss. This is not how we expected money to be reformed.

There’s the problem: our expectations. We should have been paying closer attention to Ludwig von Mises’s theory of money’s origins—not to what we think he wrote, but to what he actually did write.

In 1912, Mises released The Theory of Money and Credit. It was a huge hit in Europe when it came out in German, and it was translated into English. While covering every aspect of money, his core contribution was in tracing the value and price of money—and not just money itself—to its origins. That is, he explained how money gets its price in terms of the goods and services it obtains. He later called this process the “regression theorem,” and as it turns out, bitcoin satisfies every condition of the theorem.

Mises’s teacher, Carl Menger, demonstrated that money itself originates from the market—not from the State and not from social contract. It emerges gradually as monetary entrepreneurs seek out an ideal form of commodity for indirect exchange. Instead of merely bartering with each other, people acquire a good not to consume, but to trade. That good becomes money, the most marketable commodity.

But Mises added that the value of money traces backward in time to its value as a bartered commodity. Mises said that this is the only way money can have value.

The theory of the value of money as such can trace back the objective exchange value of money only to that point where it ceases to be the value of money and becomes merely the value of a commodity…. If in this way we continually go farther and farther back we must eventually arrive at a point where we no longer find any component in the objective exchange value of money that arises from valuations based on the function of money as a common medium of exchange; where the value of money is nothing other than the value of an object that is useful in some other way than as money…. Before it was usual to acquire goods in the market, not for personal consumption, but simply in order to exchange them again for the goods that were really wanted, each individual commodity was only accredited with that value given by the subjective valuations based on its direct utility.

Mises’s explanation solved a major problem that had long mystified economists. It is a narrative of conjectural history, and yet it makes perfect sense. Would salt have become money had it otherwise been completely useless? Would beaver pelts have obtained monetary value had they not been useful for clothing? Would silver or gold have had money value if they had no value as commodities first? The answer in all cases of monetary history is clearly no. The initial value of money, before it becomes widely traded as money, originates in its direct utility. It’s an explanation that is demonstrated through historical reconstruction. That’s Mises’s regression theorem.

Bitcoin’s use value

At first glance, bitcoin would seem to be an exception. You can’t use a bitcoin for anything other than money. It can’t be worn as jewelry. You can’t make a machine out of it. You can’t wear it, eat it, or even decorate with it. Its value is only realized as a unit that facilitates indirect exchange. And yet, bitcoin already is money. It’s used every day. You can see the exchanges in real time. It’s not a myth. It’s the real deal.

It might seem like we have to choose. Is Mises wrong? Maybe we have to toss out his whole theory. Or maybe his point was purely historical and doesn’t apply in the future of a digital age. Or maybe his regression theorem is proof that bitcoin is just an empty mania with no staying power, because it can’t be reduced to its value as a useful commodity.

And yet, you don’t have to resort to complicated monetary theory in order to understand the sense of alarm surrounding bitcoin. Many people, as I did, just have a feeling of uneasiness about a money that has no basis in anything physical. Sure, you can print out a bitcoin on a piece of paper, but having a paper with a QR code or a public key is not enough to relieve that sense of unease.

How can we resolve this problem? In my own mind, I toyed with the issue for more than a year. It puzzled me. I wondered if Mises’s insight applied only in a predigital age. I followed the speculations online that the value of bitcoin would be zero but for the national currencies into which is converted. Perhaps the demand for bitcoin overcame the demands of Mises’s scenario because of a desperate need for something other than the dollar.

As time has passed—and I read the work of Konrad GrafPeter Surda, and Daniel Krawisz—finally the resolution came. I will cut to the chase and reveal it: Bitcoin is both a payment system and a money. The payment system is the source of value, while the accounting unit merely expresses that value in terms of price. The unity of money and payment is its most unusual feature, and the one that most commentators have had trouble wrapping their heads around.

We are all used to thinking of currency as separate from payment systems. This thinking is a reflection of the technological limitations of history. There is the dollar and there are credit cards. There is the euro and there is PayPal. There is the yen and there are wire services. In each case, money transfer relies on third-party service providers. In order to use them, you need to establish what is called a “trust relationship” with them, which is to say that the institution arranging the deal has to believe that you are going to pay.

This wedge between money and payment has always been with us, except for the case of physical proximity. If I give you a dollar for your pizza slice, there is no third party. But payment systems, third parties, and trust relationships become necessary once you leave geographic proximity. That’s when companies like Visa and institutions like banks become indispensable. They are the application that makes the monetary software do what you want it to do.

The hitch is that payment systems we have today are not available to just anyone. In fact, a vast majority of humanity does not have access to such tools, which is a major reason for poverty in the world. The financially disenfranchised are confined to only local trade and cannot extend their trading relationships with the world.

A major, if not a primary, purpose of developing Bitcoin was to solve this problem. The protocol set out to weave together the currency feature with a payment system. The two are utterly interlinked in the structure of the code itself. This connection is what makes bitcoin different from any existing national currency, and, really, any currency in history.

Let Nakomoto speak from the introductory abstract to his white paper. Observe how central the payment system is to the monetary system he created:

A purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution. Digital signatures provide part of the solution, but the main benefits are lost if a trusted third party is still required to prevent double-spending. We propose a solution to the double-spending problem using a peer-to-peer network. The network timestamps transactions by hashing them into an ongoing chain of hash-based proof-of-work, forming a record that cannot be changed without redoing the proof-of-work. The longest chain not only serves as proof of the sequence of events witnessed, but proof that it came from the largest pool of CPU power. As long as a majority of CPU power is controlled by nodes that are not cooperating to attack the network, they’ll generate the longest chain and outpace attackers. The network itself requires minimal structure. Messages are broadcast on a best effort basis, and nodes can leave and rejoin the network at will, accepting the longest proof-of-work chain as proof of what happened while they were gone.

What’s very striking about this paragraph is that there is not even one mention of the currency unit itself. There is only the mention of the problem of double-spending (which is to say, the problem of inflationary money creation). The innovation here, even according to the words of its inventor, is the payment network, not the coin. The coin or digital unit only expresses the value of the network. It is an accounting tool that absorbs and carries the value of the network through time and space.

This network is called the blockchain. It’s a ledger that lives in the digital cloud, a distributed network, and it can be observed in operation by anyone at any time. It is carefully monitored by all users. It allows the transference of secure and non-repeatable bits of information from one person to any other person anywhere in the world, and these information bits are secured by a digital form of property title. This is what Satoshi called “digital signatures.” His invention of the cloud-based ledger allows property rights to be verified without having to depend on some third-party trust agency.

The blockchain solved what has come to be known as the Byzantine generals’ problem. This is the problem of coordinating action over a large geographic range in the presence of potentially malicious actors. Because generals separated by space have to rely on messengers and this reliance takes time and trust, no general can be absolutely sure that the other general has received and confirmed the message, much less its accuracy.

Putting a ledger, to which everyone has access, on the Internet overcomes this problem. The ledger records the amounts, the times, and the public addresses of every transaction. The information is shared across the globe and always gets updated. The ledger guarantees the integrity of the system and allows the currency unit to become a digital form of property with a title.

Once you understand this, you can see that the value proposition of bitcoin is bound up with its attached payment network. Here is where you find the use value to which Mises refers. It is not embedded in the currency unit but rather in the brilliant and innovative payment system on which bitcoin lives. If it were possible for the blockchain to be somehow separated from bitcoin (and, really, this is not possible), the value of the currency would instantly fall to zero.

Proof of concept

Now, to further understand how Mises’s theory fits with bitcoin, you have to understand one other point concerning the history of the cryptocurrency. On the day of its release (January 9, 2009), the value of bitcoin was exactly zero. And so it remained for 10 months after its release. All the while, transactions were taking place, but it had no posted value above zero for this entire time.

The first posted price of bitcoin appeared on October 5, 2009. On this exchange, $1 equaled 1,309.03 Bitcoin (which many considered overpriced at the time). In other words, the first valuation of bitcoin was little more than one-tenth of a penny. Yes, if you had bought $100 worth of bitcoin in those days, and not sold them in some panic, you would be a half-billionaire today.

So here is the question: What happened between January 9 and October 5, 2009, to cause bitcoin to obtain a market value? The answer is that traders, enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and others were trying out the blockchain. They wanted to know if it worked. Did it transfer the units without double-spending? Did a system that depended on voluntary CPU power actually suffice to verify and confirm transactions? Do the rewarded bitcoins land in the right spot as payment for verification services? Most of all, did this new system actually work to do the seemingly impossible—that is, to move secure bits of title-based information through geographic space, not by using on some third party but rather peer-to-peer?

It took 10 months to build confidence. It took another 18 months before bitcoin reached parity with the U.S. dollar. This history is essential to understand, especially if you are relying on a theory of money’s origins that speculates about the pre-history of money, as Mises’s regression theorem does. Bitcoin was not always a money with value. It was once a pure accounting unit attached to a ledger. This ledger is what obtained what Mises called “use value.” All conditions of the theorem are thereby satisfied.

Final accounting

To review, if anyone says that bitcoin is based on nothing but thin air, that it cannot be a money because it has no real history as a genuine commodity, and whether the person saying this is a novice or a highly trained economist, you need to bring up two central points. One, bitcoin is not a stand-alone currency but a unit of accounting attached to an innovative payment network. Two, this network and therefore bitcoin only obtained its market value through real-time testing in a market environment.

In other words, once you account for the razzle-dazzle technical features, bitcoin emerged exactly like every other currency, from salt to gold, did. People found the payment system useful, and the attached accounting was portable, divisible, fungible, durable, and scarce.

Money was born. This money has all the best features of money from history but adds a weightless and spaceless payment network that enables the entire world to trade without having to rely on third parties.

But notice something extremely important here. The blockchain is not only about money. It is about any information transfers that require security, confirmations, and total assurance of authenticity. This pertains to contracts and transactions of all sorts, all performed peer-to-peer. Think of a world without third parties, including the most dangerous third party ever conceived of by man: the State itself. Imagine that future and you begin to grasp the fullness of the implications of our future.

Mises would be amazed and surprised at bitcoin. But he might also feel a sense of pride that his monetary theory of more than 100 years ago has been confirmed and given new life in the 21st century.

20121129_JeffreyTuckeravatarABOUT JEFFREY A. TUCKER

Jeffrey Tucker is a distinguished fellow at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. He speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events.