- Functional Illiteracy Stephen Cox, Liberty Unbound
- Hydraulic Monetarism Nick Rowe, Worthwhile Canadian Initiative
- The “New” Monopsony Argument and the Suppression of Wages Mario Rizzo, Think Markets
- The Computer-Glitch Argument for Central Bank eCash George Selgin, Alt-M
- Does the recognition lag give the Fed an alibi for 2008? Scott Sumner, EconLog
- Dudley’s Defense of the Fed’s Floor System George Selgin, Alt-M
- Progress in economics Chris Dillow, Stumbling and Mumbling
- Moral grandstanding and character-based voting Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
One of the major issues in contemporary macroeconomics concerns monetary policy since the 2008 crisis. For many, if not most, of the major central banks, the conventional channels through which the money supply changes do not work anymore. For instance, by paying interest on reserves, the Federal Reserve has moved from adjusting the money supply to influencing the banks’ money demand. Some central banks have even maintained that money supply does not affect inflation anymore.
A few days ago, when it was announced that former Cato Institute president John Allison was under consideration for treasury secretary, Josh Barro of Business Insider dismissed the man as a “nutcase”. Why? Because Allison believes that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) generates a moral hazard that contributes to financial crises (a statement I agree with).
This slur irked one of the economists at Cato, George Selgin, who took to twitter to challenge Barro. In the exchange, at one point, Barro indicated that the desire of libertarians to return to the gold standard confirms the “nuttiness” of libertarians and the people at Cato.
And here, Barro allows me to make a comment on the gold standard. The sympathy towards the gold standard is not sympathy towards gold per se, but rather sympathy for reducing the capacity of governments to exercise discretion. Basically, each time you hear some academic economist mention the gold standard, what that economist means is rules-based monetary policy.
The gold standard era (1875-1914) was not an image of perfect monetary policy. It is not a lost paradise that we ought to strive to. However, the implicit rules imposed by the system did favor more stability that would have been the case with discretion during that era. In fact, the era of central banking with the Federal Reserve has not been that great relative to the gold standard era (and in the world of central banks, the Fed is pretty good). A lot of the scorn that the gold standard era has received had to do with regulatory policy towards banks (notably regarding restrictions on branch banking which forced more volatility) or with the role of changes in international demand for assets (see here). Thus, in spite of its many flaws, the gold standard was not that bad (but it was not* gold per se that was helpful – it was the shunning of discretion by governments).
To be sure, I do not favor a return to a gold standard era. What I do like, and what I think John Allison likes as well, is the return to rules-based monetary policy. Josh Barro should have been intellectually generous and understand this key distinction. By not making that distinction, of which he must be aware given his background, he debased the debate over monetary policy.
Last weekend, November 1st 2015, a Dutch television network broadcast a splendid documentary on Bitcoin entitled ‘The Bitcoin Gospel’ (Het Bitcoin Evangelie). It started off with Roger Ver, also known as Bitcoin Jesus in the Bitcoin community for his active promotions of the cryptocurrency, who is standing in his living room in Tokyo sending Bitcoins to the value of 100 Euros into the living rooms of the Dutch. The first person who scans the QR code of the ‘private key’ gets access to a Bitcoin wallet which holds 100 Euros worth of Bitcoins. At the moment of writing, that same amount of Bitcoin has more than doubled to 217.28 Euros. It is a powerful demonstration of how easy currency flows from one side of the planet to the other. If he would have made the transaction through the traditional way, it would have taken several days and it could have cost him up to 30 Euros. Using Bitcoins, he could send the money practically costless, and almost instantly without the need of any intermediaries.
You can watch the full documentary here:
If I could point out my two most favorite scenes, it would be the beginning scene (0:00 – 2:14) in which we can see Roger Ver’s impressive demonstration of Bitcoin transactions and the ending scene (43:43 – 48:24) where the myth making of its founder, Satoshi Nakamoto, is discussed and where an emotional and teary-eyed Roger Ver talks about the subversive nature of Bitcoins against political injustices.
The documentary however, also featured critics of the cryptocurrency – hence providing a balanced perspective of Bitcoins. Its main critic was Izabella Kaminska, a financial blogger at the Financial Times. She has offered several interesting critiques to which I would like to respond in this article.
1) The first critique that Kaminska offers is that Bitcoin prices are too volatile.
Kaminska reminds the viewers of the turbulent swings in Bitcoin prices. Indeed, if one would take a look at the price chart one would see that Bitcoin did rise 800 percent from $129.46 to $1,165.89 in the three month period from September to November 30 in 2013. Within the next four months, the price would plumb to $344.24. The value of Bitcoin is still extremely volatile – it has ranged between $184.32 and $481.51 in the year 2015.
In my opinion however, Bitcoin’s volatility is not necessarily deplorable. Its volatility is due to its small market and the experimental phase it is still in. The total market capital of Bitcoins currently stands at $5,676,100,709. It effectively means that only a small amount of money flows into or out of the market can already have huge implications for its price movements. It is therefore only natural that its price is still volatile. Volatility also offers prospects of possible gains, hence attracting more capital from investors. Total investments into Bitcoin related projects in 2015 is already more than double that for 2014. (Coindesk, 2015) The more investments are made into Bitcoin related projects, the greater the chance that Bitcoin will be widely accepted so that eventually in the long run products and services can be denominated in Bitcoins. Hopefully, this will make Bitcoins gain the same relatively low-volatility attribute of many fiat currencies.
2) Kaminska’s second critique is that buying Bitcoins does not benefit the economy as it is not loaned out to provide entrepreneurs with investment capital.
Kaminska contends that Bitcoins are simply sitting idly in people’s wallets – it has no interest, it has no yield, and she even claims that the persons who hold them believe that they have “a right to future income flows as if they are investing.” The statement that those who hold Bitcoins think that they have a right to future income flows is quite bold. Bitcoins are like any other investments in that they are always subjected to uncertainties. No serious investor believes that he has a right to profits. The Bitcoin investor is like an entrepreneur – he knows that he can only make a profit if he anticipates future conditions correctly. The notion that one should not hoard Bitcoins or cash or gold corresponds with the false notion that
“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)
What this notion does not take into account is that hoarding is an expression of people’s freedom to achieve personal goals or to deal with economic uncertainties. As George Ford Smith (2009) writes in ‘The Case for Hoarding’, the increased demand for money also makes prices fall. Those who are not hoarding are therefore actually benefitting from the decline in prices.
3) Kaminska’s third critique is that Bitcoin has transferred power from the existing elite to the new 1% of the Bitcoin economy, thereby going against the ‘democratization’ effects of Bitcoins that has been preached by its prononents.
In my view, it is only justified that those who have done the research into Bitcoins and who have taken the high risk to invest in new inventions also have a higher rate of return. Similarly, those who were pioneers by investing in Facebook or Microsoft during their inception period also deserve potentially higher rates of return as these companies were running higher risk of failures. If the first adopters of Bitcoins would not have had the opportunity to make enormous amounts of money, they would not have had investment incentives, it would not have got this successful and this critique of Kaminska would not even have been possible.
4) Kaminska had also argued that the Bitcoin community is extremely absolutist and driven by political ideology which is thrusted on everyone else.
She maintains that when she is paying for coffee she just wants the benefits of a working payment network and smooth transactions, not support for a certain political ideology. The idea that payment systems can be apolitical is an illusion. Governments have always had vested interests in the moneys of its citizens as its existence is entirely dependent on taxation and money creation. Any decision to meddle with the government’s schemes of taxation and manipulation of the money supply is hence always politically charged. It seems to me that she is holding an idealized view of our society if she believes that using USD does not support any political-economic system. Her statement that the Bitcoin community is thrusting their political ideology on everyone else is highly arguable as well. The government is an institution that holds the unjust power to determine which currency can serve as legal tender and which goods – including currencies – can be traded or should be outlawed. Unlike governments, the Bitcoin community does not hold the power to initiate force upon the people. It cannot thrust the adoption of the payment network on all citizens. Indeed, Bitcoin is a free market invention that allows, but not forces, anyone to join the payment network voluntarily.
Kaminska is right, when one uses Bitcoins one is supporting the libertarian political ideology. If one pays with Bitcoins, one is supporting a decentralized payment network through which transaction costs have virtually fallen to zero and through which it is much more difficult for governments and banks to track one’s financial transactions. The really relevant question however is not whether you are supporting a political ideology. The question that should be asked is: should we prefer to give our governments, and central banks the power to manipulate the value of our currency or should we prefer the separation of state and money?
Coindesk, (2015). State Of Bitcoin. Retrieved from http://www.coindesk.com/research/state-of-bitcoin-q3-2015/
Smith, G.F., (2009). The Case For Hoarding. The Free Market. Retrieved from https://mises.org/library/case-hoarding