Jeffrey Robinson is the author of over 20 books This past week he published a new book that looks at the history and some characters of the Bitcoin ecosystem called “BitCon: The Naked Truth About Bitcoin.” Earlier this summer he contacted me and asked me several questions, the answers of which appear in several spots in the book.
If you are tired of the continuous pumping on reddit, Twitter and conferences you will likely enjoy his challenges to cliche arguments.
For instance he pointed out that all the wars in the 16th, 17th and 18th century were not funded by central banks therefore it is unlikely that in the event Bitcoin did somehow take over the world, it probably would not make war disappear. The term he uses to identify “true believers” that make such argument is Planet-Bitcoin — a place where this vocal group of people reside. Speaking of which, probably the best quip throughout the book was at the end when a “true believer” calls him a “currency denier.” Is that a thing now?
Two errors that stood out that I noticed: the Icelandic government actually ignored auroracoin entirely (it was just some random people that did the “airdrop”). The other part is he stated, “So much so that amateurs have been thrown overboard by mining pools who can afford the ever-increasingly gigantic […]” Technically these are farms not pools.
Two economic terms that are frequently glossed over by many digital currency advocates:
Recreating a circular flow of income when there are already dozens of competing currencies (e.g., USD, euro, yen) that currently fulfill this task will always be an ongoing hurdle for Bitcoin-like digital currencies.
Regarding my last quote in the book, I should point out that Ripple may not necessarily be a “better” protocol, it just solves different needs in different circumstances. Though for some of the purposes for which Bitcoin is being shoe horned for, Ripple may be a better solution of the two. However this is an empirical issue, we cannot know a priori and a TCO analysis should be undertaken by each enterprise. As far as the fate of Bitcoin — that it can survive because its big holders will subsidize it — perhaps this could be the case, but it is also hard to say how long “whales” or big holders will be willing to subsidize any chain. It is also unclear how many coins that purported whales actually control still (versus how much they have cashed out) — I have heard all sorts of ownership numbers and if you add them all up, they total more than 13.2 million coins that have been mined so someone at these conferences is embellishing.
A taste of quotes
While the user adoption, merchant adoption and transactional volume numbers will likely change in the coming weeks and months, it is a quick read and below are some choice quotes that stuck out to me.
On first-movers and fads:
The Dot-Com boom, and subsequent bust, of the 1990s rewrote that script. So did Betamax, mood rings, semi-automatic transmissions, floppy disks, 8-Track, Amphicars, Apple Lisa, WebTV, IBM PCjr, Zune, and the Segway.
On the externalizing the costs of mining:
Some miners even employ methods that are not exactly “cricket.” There was one in Holland who literally stole the electricity he needed to run 21 rigs. He eventually got caught. (source)
Regarding the continually misquoted numbers pulled from Coinometrics, Robinson asks co-founder Jonathan Levin for clarification:
“[…] It was right around the December price increase, so there was lots of stuff going on in the press about bitcoin, and all over social media, as well. Everyone was using social media to promote bitcoin Black Friday. It was a massive promotion and it paid off with big sales. But the numbers I’ve got for that period worked out at around 5%. So when you’re talking about comparing PayPal and Western Union with bitcoin the rest of the time, then only about 3% are for goods and services. That puts you at one-hundredth of any other network.” A good reason why, Levin says, might be because, “Bitcoin is terribly inefficient. It’s all about decentralized trust. But if you don’t need to have decentralized trust, updating a spreadsheet in a bank is far more efficient. The cost of updating the ledger is more expensive with bitcoin and takes much longer than any system in the world.” With bitcoin verifications taking up to 10 minutes, he asks, “What happens with Visa? How quickly do they reconcile their database? Instantaneously. Bitcoin introduces the ability to cut out the middleman. That’s fine. But the paradigm is that while the blockchain technology offers decentralization, it doesn’t give you a more efficient system.” That’s not bitcoin’s only “bragging rights” problem. According to Levin, “There is no correlation with the increase of merchants allowing customers to pay with bitcoin and the amount of bitcoins being used for transactions. It’s linear.”
On his use of imagery:
The New York Post’s Sunday business editor Jonathon Trugman wittily describes bitcoin as, “The Tinkertoy crypto-currency,” likening it to, “A modern-day game of three-card monte, with a little Sudoku thrown in, just to add a touch of mystique.”
On putting the theft at Mt. Gox into perspective:
If it turns out to be true that $ 400 million has been stolen, it’s more than the sum total of all the bank robberies in the US for the past seven years.
Regarding the hype of adoption and ATMs in Canada:
However, the Canadian Payments Association reported in April 2014 that while Canada is estimated to account for as much as 4% of bitcoin’s global transactions – ranking it number two in the world, behind the United States but ahead of China – the volume of bitcoin transactions represents a mere 0.01% of Canada’s total debit and credit-based transactions.
“[…] not just that his is the largest company to do that, but a fast check of Google reveals there are actually more piano tuners just in Canada than there are businesses anywhere in the world of any size, keeping bitcoins on their books.
On the continual problem surrounding the ‘circular flow of income‘:
Dr Yanis Varoufakis, a political economist at the University of Texas and the University of Athens, says speculative demand for bitcoin outstrips transactional demand, “By a long mile. Bitcoin transactions don’t go beyond the first transaction. The people who have accepted bitcoins don’t use them to buy something else. It gets back to the circular flow of income. When Starbucks not only accepts bitcoins but pays their workers in bitcoins and pays their suppliers in bitcoins, when you go back four of five stages of productions using bitcoin, then bitcoin will have made it. But that isn’t happening now and I don’t think that will happen.” Because it isn’t happening now, he continues, and because so many more people are speculating on bitcoin rather than transacting with it, “Volatility will remain huge and will deter those who might have wanted to enter the bitcoin economy as users, as opposed to speculators. Thus, just as bad money drives out good money, Gresham’s famous law, speculative demand for bitcoins drives out transactional demand for it.”
On the odds that Bitcoin will supplant the state:
Professor Stephen Mihm, who teaches economic, cultural and intellectual history of 18th and 19th century America at the University of Georgia, is convinced that bitcoin will not survive, because it cannot survive. He’s written, “Anyone who thinks that bitcoin will triumph, has to believe that it will succeed where earlier generations of private currencies failed, that bitcoin will, improbably, manage to overthrow more than centuries’ worth of accumulated state power, jealously guarded and ruthlessly enforced. That’s a preposterous fantasy, and a dangerous one if you’re an investor. Indeed, people who believe that governments of the world will let a stateless crypto-currency usurp their hard-won monetary prerogatives aren’t forecasting the future. They’re living in the past.”
More on whether or not it will supplant the state:
He says, another reason why bitcoin won’t be the one is because, “The misguided notion that you can free government from currency. Governments regulate money. They put certain constraints on it that you have to follow. So the technology that evolves must be ready to accommodate that. Most commerce will still be done in dollars. Currency is backed by the full faith and credit of a government. Bitcoin is backed by the full faith and credit of wasted computer time.” Seeing The Faithful, “Like a tribe,” he likes to think that their enthusiasm will, somehow, someday, “Help make progress towards a more rational digital currency. But, ultimately the providers of those currencies are probably going to be governments.” At this point, Borenstein argues, “No one should see blockchain technology as an end to a means. No one should look on it as a single achievement. Instead, it should be seen as a point on a spectrum. We may be long gone when bitcoin finally dies, but that doesn’t mean it’s been a success.”
David Yermack, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and director of the Pollack Center for Law and Business, believes that bitcoin resembles a speculative investment similar to the Internet stocks of the late 1990s. Writing in the MIT Technology Review, he summed up bitcoin’s problems this way: “During 2013 its volatility was three to four times higher than that of a typical stock, and its exchange rate with the dollar was about 10 times more volatile than those of the euro, yen, and other major currencies. Bitcoin’s dollar price exhibits no correlation with the dollar’s exchange rates against other currencies. Nor does it correlate with the value of gold. With a currency whose value is so untethered, it is nearly impossible to hedge against risk.”
Even if volatility subsided and bitcoin somehow found a place as a global payment system, because there can only ever be 21 million bitcoins, Yermack pointed out, it is inherently deflationary. “A fixed money supply is incompatible with a growing economy. Workers would have to accept pay cuts every year, and prices for goods would gradually fall. Such conditions might lead to public unrest reminiscent of the late 19th century’s free-silver and populist movements — an ironic consequence of a currency known for its futuristic cachet.
On the talk of losing purchasing power over the past century:
Levine shrugs that off. “Talk of 1913 dollars is completely meaningless. You need a small amount of consistent inflation because the effects of deflation are so awful. Why is everyone holding onto their bitcoins instead of spending them or lending them? Because they think it will be worth more. Back in the 1800s, people put cash in the mattress because nobody was managing the currency and there were no credible markets, except in Britain. These days, only a nitwit puts cash in the mattress.” He throws back at them the classic dilemma that the Founding Father’s faced in the 18th century – the bankers versus the farmers. “Historically, the bankers wanted hard money, which meant gold, so that their dollar denominated assets would become ever more valuable. The farmers, who were always in debt, wanted cheap money, which in the 1800s meant silver, because they wanted some inflation so they could pay off all their loans. This argument starts with Hamilton and basically doesn’t end until we get off the gold standard. Bitcoin is a world where everybody wants to be a banker and nobody admits he’s a farmer.”
Is it similar to how the internet evolved?
I then asked Borenstein what he thought about The Faithful’s often quoted comparison – that the birth and development of bitcoin mirrors the birth and development of the Internet. He wasn’t having any of it. “The Internet was designed by the most open process known to man, there’s not even an organization behind it. Thousands of people are responsible for making the Internet work through endless sessions of technical minutiae where everybody agrees to do something the same way. That does not sound like bitcoin. There may be all sorts of similarities that don’t matter. The same language, the same open source modules, but I don’t see it as being anything at all like the same.” While he remains hopeful that, one day, we will see widespread use of digital currencies, he confidently predicts, “Bitcoin won’t be it. The technology must be configured in such a way as to meet the national, political and social goals of the people who are going to run that currency. You could lay that universal framework at the software level, the systems that will inevitably be out there, to make them interchangeable. If that happens, I doubt that bitcoin’s code will be very useful.”
On hype and irrational exuberance:
Tech guru John Dvorak described it perfectly in one of his columns: “The amount of money squandered during the Dot-Com era because of ‘paradigm shifts’ and ‘new economies’ is staggering. People actually believed that all retailing would be online and that all groceries would be delivered to the home as they were in the 1920s, despite changes that make delivery impractical. Who cares about reality?”
On the wisdom of trying to short exuberance:
Referring to bubbles as “spontaneous optimism,” John Maynard Keynes pointed out, “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.”
On the difficulty of creating other derivative products:
His answer to the first question is no. His answer to the second is yes. Bitcoin mining is very expensive, he explains, and most miners barely break even. Then, because the technology is designed to produce fewer and fewer bitcoins, he is concerned with who’s going to pay for verifying each transaction? “Eventually, as the supply of bitcoin diminishes, those fees will increase to cover the cost of authenticating the transactions, and will become competitively close to the fees for international bank wires. The arithmetic is really simple. I don’t see any way around it.” Levine shares Krugman’s doubts about bitcoin as a currency – “For a while I thought it was like Pet Rocks without the rocks” – but now he wonders, “Would you be willing to take out a mortgage written in bitcoin? The volatility suggests no one would. And, what does it say about bitcoin as a currency when nobody is willing to do anything with it besides a spot transaction?”
On MintChip and building things before there is enough demand for it:
The idea of electronic payment systems has been around for a while, but it wasn’t until 1990 that it actually got off the ground. That’s when Dr. David Everett in the UK invented the first “electronic purse.” His system was called Mondex. Developed with National Westminster Bank, it was a revolutionary idea for its day. The cash was your smart card and you spent it at point of sale terminals. For a while it got a lot of attention, then eventually, fizzled out. Everett was severely disappointed.
“I’m afraid it was way before it’s time. Just too early. In hindsight, there was nothing really broken about payment systems at the time. The Internet didn’t really exist yet. Mobile phones didn’t really exist yet. The focus we had was paying at point of sale. It was very good for the merchant, but in the end it was not so for the consumer who argued, why would I bother?” A world expert on payment systems, coding theory and cryptography for the protection of data, Everett is CEO of the Smart Card Group, technical director of Smart Card News and a man who says that his mission in life is still electronic cash. “I am an enormous believer in electronic cash.” When the Canadians asked him to help them design MintChip, he jumped at the opportunity. “MintChip was almost ten years after Mondex and I was convinced about that one too.” The idea that a Mint would produce electronic cash, “Just seemed so logical,” he says. “That’s what mints do. They mint cash.” As technical architect for the project, Everett was looking to reproduce the ease would want to do, so now you’re into merchants. Maybe a big retail chain. Say Walmart. The cost of managing cash for them is quite high, and credit and debit cards carry with them transaction fees. For big merchants, electronic cash is ideal. Here’s a way of handling payments at a fractional cost of handling cash. Walmart Dollars would work very well and if they did it, everyone would follow.” Ideally, he says, whatever the next stage is, it would not be linked to a bank account or a debit card. “We need to be unconnected. In that sense it is like bitcoin because bitcoin is unconnected. But what I want to see is a real electronic object representing cash. That’s very different from bitcoin.” For him, bitcoin is, “A new form of gold. It is electronic gold. Whereas Mondex and MintChip is equivalent to real currency, a real pound or a real dollar. I think there are a lot of nice things in the bitcoin technology, but I don’t think it’s very good for cash. It doesn’t really lend itself to immediate payments. I’m surprised bitcoin has gone as far as it has.”
On the faux news that Mastercard would be adding support for bitcoin as well as a recent patent filing:
[…] assured me Mastercard wasn’t doing anything of the kind. He explained, the application was filed to protect Mastercard’s intellectual property and did not indicate any commitment to bitcoin. “There is no obligation to ever build anything that a patent application covers.” JP Morgan had done a similar thing with a payments’ patent, putting bitcoin in there, and The Faithful reacted in kind. A spokesperson for Morgan gave me much the same answer as Mastercard. Now I brought it up with Borenstein. A man who still spends a large part of every day working on patents, he says that neither company has any intention of ever accepting bitcoins. Instead, he suggests, they harbor more sinister intentions. “Every patent has to describe all the different storage technologies it might reside on. Which really means, they’re arming themselves for a possible war. Just in case bitcoin ever poses a real threat. They’ll do what they can to wipe them out.”