SMP: Separating the Technology of Bitcoin from the Medium of Exchange

At the Sound Money Project I have a comment on the importance of distinguishing between the bitcoin technological innovation and its use as a means of exchange. A solid technological innovation does meant that bitcoin is necessarily properly coded to be a successful monetary experiment.

Bitcoin is back in the spotlight as its price has soared in recent weeks. The most enthusiastic advocates see its potential to become a major private currency. But it is important to remember bitcoin is a dual phenomenon: a technological innovation and a potentially useful medium of exchange. One might recognize the technology as a genuine innovation without accepting its usefulness as a medium of exchange.

Continue reading at SMP.

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The Political is about to disrupt the crypto-currency scene -or at least they say so.

According to this Financial Times report, Bitcoin is at the verge of a critical decision.

The implications of the chosen terms (“existential crisis,” “decisive leadership,” “political flaw”) are not casual. It looks like the market that crypto-currency had carried from the beginning contain the germ of its own destruction. As in an Escher’s drawing, Bitcoin has unraveled its political strand and its whole existence is, now, dependent upon a moment of decision of the sovereign: the assembly of miners. The decisionist narrative would be fulfilled if the political decision had to be taken by acclamatio instead of voting.

Nevertheless, the decision by acclamation would be still possible: the ones who want “Bitcoin Core” might follow one direction and the other ones, who choose “Bitcoin Unlimited,” might follow their own way. After all, no existential crisis can be solved by voting.

So, which is inside of which? Is the market framed in a system depending upon a political decision of the sovereign? Or does every decision need to be taken inside a spontaneous framework of rules?

We are used to praising Bitcoin for its independence from any political factor: Bitcoin supply depends on a set of rules which allows the public to form expectations about its value with a high degree of probability of proving to be correct.

Taken in isolation, Bitcoin emulates the market. Nevertheless, being independent of political institutions is not enough for being “the market.” The attractiveness of Bitcoin is that it operates in an open system of competition of currencies. In this system, there are many other crypto-currencies, and there might be several variances of Bitcoins as well –in esse or in posse.

Imagine, for example, that Bitcoin effectively splits into Bitcoin Core and Bitcoin Unlimited. Which of the two will prevail over the other? It does not matter. What really matters is that there will be several variances of currencies in competition. The factors that determine the selection of the prevailing currency depends upon a higher level of abstraction that impose an absolute limit to our knowledge.

So, is Bitcoin in an existential crisis? Does a political decision need to be made? Maybe.

But that does not imply that “The Political” will take over the reins of the crypto-currency market. Moreover, opposite political decisions are the linkages which the spontaneous selection process -in this case, of currencies- is made of. In this sense, “Bitcoin Core” and “Bitcoin Unlimited” are attributes of a competitive system and the final prevalence of one variance among other alternatives will not be the result of a deliberate decision but of an abstract process of evolution.

From the Comments: Money, Currency, and Bitcoins

Dr Gibson chimes in on Chhay Lin‘s most recent post about bitcoins (I hope there will be more):

“Unspent dollars means reduced sales, and as sales decline, profits drop, layoffs increase, and the total social income decreases, making less money available for consumption. Hoarding induces more hoarding as the economy sinks into a downward spiral.” (Smith, 2009)

That’s a lot of nonsense in just two sentences. (Note this is Smith’s paraphrase of the anti-hoarding argument, which he ably disputes.)

First, there is no distinction between “spent” and “unspent” dollars. Money jumps instantly from one pocket to another whenever it is used in a transaction. All money is “idle” between jumps. This could refer to the demand to hold money which is the inverse of the velocity of money. We hold money for convenience, safety, and occasionally as a hedge against deflation.

Second, decreased velocity means price deflation, other things being equal, and if a fall in velocity happens suddenly and unexpectedly, it can be a temporary boon to buyers and a detriment to sellers. But the idea of a deflationary spiral feeding on itself is silly, if only because we all have to eat. Low prices are the cure for low prices, as bargain-hunters move in and prices stabilize.

Then there’s this “social income” phrase. Real social income is not enhanced by faster spending. It is enhanced by greater productivity which depends on private saving, which in turn depends largely on property-friendly institutions. We cannot spend our way to prosperity.

I’ll also comment on Kaminska’s claim that bitcoins “do not benefit the economy” because they do not bear interest. Along with currency and (in their time) gold and silver coins, bitcoins are what economists call “outside money” meaning they are an asset that is no one’s liability. Checking account balances are a form of “inside money” because they are at once an asset of the account holder and a liability of the bank. When outside money is deposited in a fractional-reserve bank where it becomes inside money, some is kept in reserve and some is loaned out. This apparently what is meant by “benefit to the economy” but in fact it’s a benefit to the bank which can earn profits on the new loans and to the borrower, if all goes well. It’s a detriment to the rest of us because there is an increase in the money supply which causes price inflation.

There is nothing anti-social about holding outside money. Some of us see marginal benefits in holding outside money (security, convenience) that exceed the cost in foregone interest. So what?

My own two cents on this (get it?) is merely that Dr Gibson needs to spend more time at NOL fixing the mistakes of financial journalists and keeping his fellow economists honest. (Notereaders and Notewriters, holla at me and Warren in the ‘comments’ threads if you agree!)

How Can Crypto-currencies Democratize Society?

Yesterday, September 26th of 2015, I attended the Reinvent Money event in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, that was organized by Paul Buitink. The goal of the event was to bring people together for a grand discussion on the future of our monetary system. This discussion on monetary reforms is totally necessary if one considers the current problems with the euro and Greece, banking scandals, the rise of bitcoin and the blockchain technology, and peer-to-peer lending.

The speakers list consisted of many prominent thinkers and activists who could share with a crowd that was mostly in favor of crypto-currencies their thoughts about the current monetary system and whether money should be reinvented.

Willem Middelkoop was the first speaker and talked about the Big Reset of the monetary system that is currently orchestrated by high level officials. Jakob de Haan, head of the research department at the Dutch Central Bank, was the second speaker and stated that he does not believe in an upcoming Big Reset. While defending central banks, he argued that central banks are necessary in order to stabilize the currency and he sees five aspects that central banks should fulfill:

  1. central bank independence;
  2. central bank transparency;
  3. using monetary policy instruments to stabilize the economy;
  4. banking supervision of not only independent commercial banks, but of the whole economy. In his opinion, the central bank should supervise the entire economic system instead of primarily addressing individual institutions;
  5. macro-prudential policies to avoid crises.

Other speakers included Max Keiser, Stacy Herbert, Vit Jedlicka (president of Liberland), Stephan Antonopoulos, Simon Dixon, Joris Luyendijk, Prof. Antal Lekety and some others. Some wanted to go back to a gold-based monetary system, others truly wanted to reinvent money through crypto-currencies, and a few wanted the system to stay as it is structurally. As a voluntaryist, I was quite disappointed that the pro-crypto-currency speakers saw it as a means to democratize society. I don’t fully understand what they mean with the word ‘democratize’ and how crypto-currencies could do that, but I’ve noticed that those speakers saw it as a means to make our political system more democratic. Maybe, they mean ‘anti-authoritarian’ as crypto-currencies would indeed limit the monetary powers of the government and the central bank. However, I’ve always understood it as a de-political money system that is disruptive enough to do away with the myth that government is needed at all to stabilize our currency, and hence that it would bring us closer toward a voluntaryist society – not toward a more democratic system. A democratic system, in my opinion, means a system in which the majority rules. Crypto-currencies give every individual the full ownership of their money. Thus taking personal financial affairs entirely outside the scope of government meddling, also if that government is democratically chosen.

Choques reais e choques monetários…juntos – observações aleatória sobre bitcoin, Lucas, Marschak e, claro, política monetária

One source of difficulty in formal empirical studies of monetary policy effects on real variables has been the common practice of focusing attention on real responses to policy innovations—i.e., unexpected components —in vector autoregression (VAR) studies. [McCallum, B.T., here]

O que dizer da distinção entre choques reais e monetários quando o governo norte-americano, de forma inteligente, aceita a inovação do bitcoin?

Pois é. A criação do bitcoin e similares é um choque tecnológico, mas é também um choque monetário. Digo, você injetou mais moeda de forma descentralizada e temporalmente aleatória na economia. A princípio, isto tornaria a oferta de moeda mais instável do que a demanda, penso.

Bem, como seria de se esperar, políticos, que são tão racionais quanto nós, facilitaram o fluxo de bitcoins…para eles.Seria legal agora que pudéssemos investigar uma galera da Papuda. Será que eles têm bitcoins também?

Old bottles…

Suspeitas à parte, a questão sobre como medir o choque monetário do bitcoin é algo a ser pensado, não? McCallum já chamava a atenção para a dificuldade, em termos do debate acerca da demanda de moeda (a equação (4) do texto, reproduzida a seguir) e dos choques tecnológicos já em 2002.

mt −pt = γ0 +γ1γt +γ2Rt +εt

Agora que você se lembrou da famosa equação, eis o trecho interessante:

Indeed, it would seem almost to suggest the opposite—for the theoretical rationale for (4) is built upon the transaction-facilitating function of money, but the technology for effecting transactions is constantly evolving. And since technical progress cannot be directly measured by available variables, the effects of technical change (not captured by a deterministic trend) show up in the disturbance term, εt. But the nature of technological progress is such that changes (shocks) are typically not reversed. Thus one would expect a priori there to be an important permanent component to the εt process, making it one of the integrated type— and thereby making mt −pt not cointegrated with yt and Rt.

Podemos ver que McCallum, ao discutir a questão do progresso tecnológico, deu-nos uma pista para como poderíamos começar a entender o problema. Temos que estudar mais séries de tempo, cointegração e pensar melhor no sistema de equações que usamos. Ok, não é um conselho fácil, mas nem inventar o bitcoin foi fácil, não é?

Fica esta dica para o debate sobre o choque que é (ou os choques que são) a introdução do bitcoin no modelo.

Mas vamos aproveitar que o autor é bom e citar outro trecho!

“Eu já sabia. Pelo menos o Lucas deve ter lido meu artigo…”

Ah sim, em um outro excelente momento do texto, ele mostra seu conhecimento da evolução histórica do pensamento econômico. Vejam que trecho ótimo:

Now clearly the switch from the fixed-lag to the rational expectations hypothesis was the consequence primarily of theoretical, rather than empirical, analysis. At the time it seemed a rather drastic step, but after the fact it has come to be recognized as an entirely natural extension of the usual approach of neoclassical economic analysis to an area of economic activity (expectation formation) that had previously been treated in a non-standard manner. Today, many economists trained after 1980 appear, empirically, to have difficulty in even contemplating any other expectational hypothesis. Also, it should be remembered that Lucas’s critique itself was not new, but merely a (brilliantly persuasive) application of Marschak’s (1953) fundamental insight that policy analysis requires a structural (as opposed to reduced-form) model.

Marschak é um autor bem mais antigo, nascido em Kiev (Ucrânia, Putin, Ucrânia…) e, como você pode ver, não era um sujeito qualquer. Não digo para sair por aí correndo para ler artigos dele, mas pense na questão que sempre destaco aqui: a importância do capital humano na formulação e condução da política monetária. De certa forma, o genial Bryan Caplan já pensou em algo assim quando publicou aquele artigo que sempre cito aqui sobre a idea trap (versão para iniciantes aqui, para alunos que já fizeram pelo menos um ano de curso e não temem as letras do alfabeto em combinações algébricas aqui).

Só para você ter um gostinho do que Caplan intuiu:

The current paper presents a simple political– economic model of the interaction of growth, policy, and ideas to explain this puzzle. Growth, policy, and ideas are mutually reinforcing, given a key assumption about the impact of growth on ideas. Countries tend to have either all ‘‘good’’, all ‘‘mediocre’’, or all ‘‘bad’’ values. An important implication is that social forces do notinexorably drive economically unsuccessful countries to reform. In my model, policy ‘‘turn-arounds’’ instead arise due to large random disturbances that shock economies into better equilibria. While this conclusion is somewhat counterintuitive, it is much more consistent with the empirical failure of the convergence hypothesis than the optimistic ‘‘learning’’ model (Williamson, 1994a).

Pense nisto um pouco. Não é o que ocorre no Brasil? Sai uma equipe econômica que coloca a economia no lugar, entra outra que parece não ter lido nem um livro-texto básico. Não há porque a política econômica ser sempre melhor do que a anterior porque ela é feita por seres humanos. Logo, diria o leitor de Buchanan, precisamos de amarras constitucionais para não dependermos de anjos, né?

Eu adoraria falar mais disto, mas notei que isto está se transformando em outro post. (a ser publicado em De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum)