How Bitcoin Will Change Your World
8.29.17: OK, so this piece below is a little bit out of date. But reading it four years later, it's funny how relevant it still is. This is my report on Bitcoin, written fresh and wet with excitement, straight out of a Bitcoin conference, in Silicon Valley, California, May of 2013. I interviewed sources, and got some juicy quotes. The Bitcoin magazine that was going to publish this never quite got around to it. It's funny, because Bitcoin is now trading at $4553, Forbes just did a huge cover story, and it looks like it's here to stay. The dream is real. But what IS it's real future? Is it a real currency that people will someday trade? Because now, it's more of a investment, a security. And yet, it's still full of people who talk about "transvestment" a way to have investments benefit parties outside of the normal channel of capitalism. Anyway, it might be fun to look back on this piece I did, trying to feel what is real about Bitcoin - with a newbie's enthusiasm.....]
The 2013 Original Article
“I don’t want to sound communist, but Bitcoin is the people’s currency."
“I don’t want to sound communist, but Bitcoin is the people’s currency."
So says Charlie Shrem, a perky guy with a glint in his eye. He runs Bitinstant, an up and coming company in the hot world of virtual currency. At a recent Silicon Valley conference he told an eager crowd of hackers and creatives, “Bitcoin is the biggest socio-economic experiment the world has ever seen.”
Shrem describes how a friend on an operating table in China badly needed $30K for an emergency operation. Western Union, Moneygram, and MasterCard didn’t service the area. There was no way to get funds to the patient. Bitcoin, an open-source, personal, peer-to-peer digital currency, saved the guy’s life.
[UPDATE: Yes, this is the same Charlie Shrem who went to jail for two years, for Bitcoin and secrecy-related matters. I met him, he's a super nice guy. From wiki: In December 2014 [Shrem] was sentenced to two years in prison for aiding and abetting the operation of an unlicensed money-transmitting business related to the Silk Road marketplace. He was released from prison around June 2016.]
That currency-to-the-rescue story can be scaled up to apply to whole countries. In Cyprus last March, when government and finance both melted down, Cypriots found that most of their funds had been frozen in their banks. Many turned to Bitcoin, and started to use the currency that is not regulated by any government, or central bank.
Because Bitcoin has risen in value so rapidly, it has created a new set of wealthy Bitcoin evangelists, with money to invest in the next wave of Bitcoin-related ventures. On a smaller scale, Bitcoin has been used to buy technology like the latest Kindle by folks in the Ukraine, when Amazon was only selling it in the US.
Bitcoin is a liquid currency and an investment vehicle. It’s an open-source, peer-to-peer, encrypted currency. Bitcoin, or “BTC” doesn’t have any corporate entity behind it. Its price floats on the free market. People use $16 billion a year of Bitcoin right now. It’s a quick and cheap way to move money, thanks to services such as Charlie Shrem’s. Bitinstant fees start at 3.99%, while Western Union can cost between 7% and 22%, depending on the country of origin. (A study from the World Bank reports unsurprising high profit margins of the money moving business.)
This past May, venture capitalist Fred Wilson and others invested a record $5 million in CoinBase, a major Bitcoin service. Bitcoin, Wilson said, follows the same pattern that has made other forms of social web technology triumphant.
But Bitcoin is more than a great investment. To its diehard fans, it’s a banner under which unites a broad swath of dissent: progressives to libertarians, anarchists to goldbugs, Occupiers and anti-Federal Reserve activists and truthers. It has the potential to attract anyone who uses money.
According to an early Bitcoin investor, who is now independently wealthy, “Bitcoin will be the liberator for the world’s poor giving them access to the global marketplace on a scale never seen before. If bitcoin can give market access to that many people the entire planet will experience an upswing comparable to the industrial revolution, only stronger.”
When blogging software company Wordpress recently decided to accept Bitcoin, it was out of a love for freedom of expression. MasterCard and Visa don’t work in “underdeveloped” countries. But Bitcoin works everywhere. “We don’t think an individual blogger from Haiti, Ethiopia, or Kenya should have diminished access to the blogosphere because of payment issues they can’t control,” said Wordpress folk, “Our goal is to enable people, not block them.”
So, why then, does Bitcoin get such harsh resistance from mainstream economists like Paul Krugman? And why all the cynical swipes from the Washington Post? Why was the top exchange, Mt. Gox, raided by Homeland Security, early in May 2013?
Who stands to gain, and who stands to lose, at this new disruptive currency rises in stature?
The Truth Party
I’m writing this on a borrowed laptop in the “Peace Tank,” a beat-up, used Dodge Ram van travelling east. I’m gathering my field notes the day after the San José Bitcoin conference, as I head into the Arizona desert. I’m on a group tour called The Truth Party. It’s a spiritual/political/group empowerment interactive live event. We’ve got a spontaneous mystical hip-hop MC and a convener of innovative, tactile group yoga. And we’ve got me, a punk rock zen entrepreneur writer, semi-famous on the internet.
The Truth Party is the kind of experiment Gandhi recommended. Live fully, do comprehensive economic activism, don’t worry about the outcome. I’ve been saying this:
It’s time to quit working jobs you hate. Blend your spiritual and political consciousness, tap your wealth of inner talent, and script your own future. Yes, you can raise funds and start your dream project. It’s time for a new economics, a radical new valuation of your worth. Time to clean the lens, and see your ability to create new kinds of jobs. It’s time for us all to be abundant, venture-some, fully realized human beings.
This morning, Lo Nathamundi and Crazy Monk and I meditated together, loaded our sleeping bags into the Tank, and left the surf shacks of San Diego for the harsh heat of the immediate future.
When a couple of gigs fell through earlier in the tour, it became possible for us to attend the Bitcoin conference in San Jose (i.e. Bitcoin: The Future of Payments, May 17-19). I approached the topic with curiosity, but I had some hard questions. In my twenties, I saw the excesses of NYC’s “Silicon Alley” up close, the bubble of shallow hype where companies sold stock on public markets without having any real value.
After the conference, I’m feeling a gut sensation. There is something real here. Bitcoin is vibrantly dangerous to the status quo. It’s disruptive to Wall Street institutions, and the Federal Reserve. But it goes beyond dissent – it’s a part of creative, positive change. It’s emancipating to those of us aching to work jobs we love. Occupy Wall Street showed the injustices of the current system create vibrant new forms of resistance. But, Occupy’s rudderless dissolution happened as fast as its rise.
Could Bitcoin be a kind of Occupy 2.0? Is it a tool to create a new world?
The Power of Bitcoin
The more people want Bitcoin, the more the price goes up. The price of Bitcoin floats on an open market, subject to supply and demand, as regulated by Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox. And it’s gone up 900% in about two years. No one controls Bitcoin, unlike US Dollars, which are created by private banks, the private, mysterious Federal Reserve System, and the US Treasury.
“End the Fed?” says a jolly Bitcoiner in the trailer for a new Bitcoin documentary, “Rise and Rise of Bitcoin”. “Nah, you’re never going to end the Fed. But you can bypass the Fed!”
Bitcoin has the open-source, social nature of Web 2.0, mixed with the rebellious culture of hacker geniuses. Bitcoin is controlled only by the market in Bitcoin. A number of different exchanges, start-ups, and service providers can help you buy some newly “mined” coins, or you can buy from folks near you at a local over-the-counter exchange. Check out your options at How Do You Buy Bitcoins.
One Bitcoin (1 BTC) was worth $2 back in November 2011. By January 2013, that had gone to $20. At the time of the Bitcoin Conference this May, Bitcoin was at $132, a gain of over 900%. (It’s gone down a bit since.) These market prices are administered by lead exchange, Mt. Gox, which got its odd name from an earlier incarnation as the “eXchange” for “Magic The Gathering” cards.
Back at the Silicon Valley conference in May, Bitcoin evangelist Tuur Deemester noted that if 1% of US Hedge Funds invested in Bitcoin, the price would rise to over $1000 per. What would happen, he asked, if the world made Bitcoin the world reserve currency? (Hey, an electronic currency can dream, right?) Well, that would put the value of a single Bitcoin at a cool $600,000.
If you scoff at that, well sure, no one is making any hard promises. But remember, our planet is getting good at adapting new technologies. It only took five years for Facebook to reach one billion users. The internet allows for rapid global tech adaptations, not to mention cultural changes, and social paradigm shifts. Think of the “Thank You Facebook” graffiti at Tahir Square, think of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. These all show how technology enables and empowers popular resistance to antiquated systems.
A US Dollar is a lot like a Bitcoin. Both are backed largely by large-scale social agreements. The US Dollar used to be backed by gold, but FDR and then Nixon put an end to that era. Today our “Dollar” is not exactly a “dollar” in the old 1776 sense of the word. It’s technically a “Federal Reserve Note” (look at the top of any bill.)
Now, what exactly is a Federal Reserve? Well, as it turns out, it’s not quite “Federal” nor is there anything on “reserve.” Rather than a publicly owned institution, the “Federal” Reserve is owned by a consortium of private banks. Some of them are US banks. And some, are not. All this was set up in a nasty set of secretive legislation, rushed through Congress, on the day before Christmas Eve, 1913. That same year brought us the creation of the quasi-legal IRS, and the FBI. Lucky ‘13.
When we talk about the “Federal Reserve” most people think we’re talking about just another government bureaucracy in Washington. Doesn’t it have something to do with the economy? Just another bunch of government wonks, right? No. The “Federal” Reserve is as “Federal” as Federal Express. It’s a private banking cartel, and if you look at its behavior in the recent financial crisis, you can see that we’re not living in a world in which the US Government owns a big bank. The sad truth is that Big Banks own the US Government. That fact creates the need for Bitcoin, as we shall see below.
During the 2007-2008 US financial meltdown, the Federal Reserve moved with a ham-handed program of “emergency lending” that favored the big banks. Over $16 trillion in public money flowed into the likes of Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and foreign banks. This $16 trillion number has solid sourcing: a General Accounting Office report was leaked, the result of a rare and partial audit of Fed emergency loans. Mainstream media, meanwhile, tends to report that Fed emergency lending was no more than a cool one trillion.
All of this despite the fact that these banks didn’t open up any significant new lines of credit to average consumers. In fact, just the opposite. The Fed made it easier for banks to make money by not lending it to people for homes or new businesses. Section 128 of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 created a fund for private banks to park their “excess reserves” and have the Fed pay interest on money not being leant.
In the 2007-2010 US Economic Meltdown, the Fed saved Wall Street, not Main Street. Why? Because the Fed is owned by Wall Street. This is what adds up to a sharp decrease faith in the US Dollar. It helps to build a spike in interest in alternative currency, like Bitcoin.
Credit is a Tool
Back in the trenches of the daily economy, there’s a huge incentive for merchants to take Bitcoin: it eliminates the 2-6% fees in credit card processing. A MasterCard executive recently dismissed Bitcoin as a bunch of “geeks.” But his own industry is vulnerable, according to Bitcoin-friendly economists.
Don’t get me wrong: MasterCard and Visa offer a great tool for small business. Accepting credit cards, or PayPal, or newer forms of payment make it easy for customers to make purchases. A small business can see a 35% jump in revenue if they accept credit or debit cards. But these tools are not offered to all the world’s economy equally. MasterCard/Visa processors won’t service the poorer half of the global economy, because of risk.
Bitcoin is less vulnerable, since the transactions are irreversible. At the conference panel on economics, professor Garrick Hilleman pointed out that Bitcoin “attacks the financial system where it’s most vulnerable….expensive credit card processing. Merchants resent 3% credit card fees.” Beware the geeks!
To Drew Phillips, a lanky libertarian activist at conference exhibitor AntiWar.com, Bitcoin fulfills a different promise of the global economy. “With Bitcoin, I can send money to relief efforts in countries we are bombing, while people in those countries can donate to our antiwar efforts here.” At AntiWar.com, Bitcoin’s low processing fees make it possible for donors to give any amount. Even 35 cents won’t be chipped away at by the overhead of Big Processing. AntiWar.com brought in $800 in new in donations in the first 48 hours it started accepting Bitcoin.
Roger Ver, a charismatic Bitcoin investor known informally as “Bitcoin Jesus” recently told the LeWeb 2013 conference, “One of the things governments around the world do currently is they finance their wars and the things that they do through inflation. The just print money for whatever it is that they want to spend it on. If the world were using Bitcoin that would no longer be a possibility. If you’re opposed to governments inflating money to pay for wars around the world, Bitcoin should be something you’re interested in.”
Supply and Demand
With Bitcoin, the value of the currency is built to get stronger. There’s an automatic deflation built into system. The supply of Bitcoin is designed to taper off, and if demand continues to grow, then the price should continue to rise.
Compare that to the Federal Reserve, which has failed its chartered mission to prevent inflation of the US Dollar. In 100 years, the insouciant Fed presided over the Dollar losing 96% of its value. (Check my math on the US Inflation Calculator, here.)
The supply of new Bitcoins will gradually be curtailed sometime around the year 2140. But fractions of Bitcoins can also be traded. And since something can be sliced up into smaller and smaller parts, ad infinitum, naysayers’ arguments about an artificial scarcity of Bitcoin are defeated by the wonders of infinity.
At the conference, it was announced by lead “core developer” Gavin Andreesen, that Bitcoin is today being used for $45 million a month in transactions. A new app, “Gyft”, just added Bitcoin. Gyft brings the currency to millions of new users by allowing Bitcoiners to purchase digital versions of gift cards at thousands of retailers, such as Target, Starbucks, and The Gap. The gift cards can be used on smart phones, integrated through the many Bitcoin mobile apps.
Loose Talk of a Bubble
2013 could be Bitcoin’s breakout year. Just look around at this conference: 1100 registered users, as compared to under 200 the year before. But with the growth has come volatility. Bitcoin’s price opened at $20 in January, 2013, and hit a high of $265 in April of 2013. Then it lost 60% of its value, (dropping to $150) which was either due to a “distributed denial of service attack” from mysterious hackers against Bitcoin exchanges, or just the logjam caused by that month’s spike in new users.
Ironically, most major media only started to pay attention to cover Bitcoin at that point, believing that Bitcoin was over. The story line that month was “here’s another bubble, and it just broke.” But then, Bitcoin quickly recovered, to a price of $180. Gatis Eglitis, from the European-based Bitcoin Fund, opined in his conference booth, “the early aggregators, the young” exited the currency and “the smart investors, the real investors, stepped in” at that point.
Your friends who have only read about Bitcoin through the smug denunciations in the Washington Post or CNN are misinformed about what Bitcoin is, why it’s growing, why it hiccupped, and why it recovered. If you don’t understand a few things about finance, the Fed, and this bizarre form of plastic postmodern global capitalism, you can’t see why Bitcoin is an important antidote. Let’s look at how one of Bitcoin’s most eloquent critics, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, shapes his attacks on Bitcoin.
Why So Antisocial?
Just last April, Krugman wrote a scathing and influential piece on Bitcoin, calling it, “The Antisocial Network.” He claimed that “bitcoin transactions are designed to be anonymous and untraceable” and that mostly, they are used to buy drugs and other illegal items.
This is a half-truth. Bitcoin transactions are all individually recorded, in an encrypted master record, Bitcoiners call the “blockchain.” Even Krugman’s own New York Times reported, “That public block chain makes it possible to trace transactions, even years after they have transpired. In one case, researchers were able to trace the spending of 25,000 stolen Bitcoins in 2011.”
Krugman claimed, “When you transfer bitcoins to someone else, it’s as if you handed over a paper bag filled with $100 bills in a dark alley. And sure enough, as best as anyone can tell the main use of bitcoin so far, other than as a target for speculation, has been for online versions of those dark-alley exchanges, with bitcoins traded for narcotics and other illegal items.”
Paul, actually the currency of choice for 99% of the world’s drug dealers is the US Dollar, untraceable in cash. And a recent story here in Bitcoin Magazine proves that more Bitcoin purchases are now being processed for above-board transactions, than for purchases on the famous Silk Road drug-sales site. “The legal Bitcoin economy is now almost certainly larger than the illegal one...and is growing at a much faster rate.”
Krugman whips himself into a rhetorical fervor, but his facts get murkier. When he claims, “paper currencies have value because they’re backed by the power of the state” he’s on shaky ground. Paper currency in the USA right now is a “fiat” currency, and you can’t take a dollar and get its equivalent in gold from any branch of the US Government anymore. When Krugman says a US Dollar is “backed by the power of the state” it’s unclear what kind of power he’s referring to. Violence? Torture? Extralegal assassinations? What is the US State known for these days?
What would the US Government and Federal Reserve do in case of runaway hyper-inflation? In dissing those who favor a return to the gold standard, Krugman speciously claims, “I know, government officials are not to be trusted and all that, but the truth is that Ben Bernanke’s promises that his actions wouldn’t be inflationary have been vindicated year after year, while goldbugs’ dire warnings of inflation keep not coming true.”
The dire warnings are true, in a long tail look at the performance of the Fed. In 100 years of its life, it has created a cycle of debt, and inflation. The US Dollar has lost 96% of its value since the birth of the monster Fed in 1913. I was shocked recently that a box of ginger snaps was $6 at my local grocer in Brooklyn. Let’s use that box of cookies as a symbol of the problem.
Despite Krugman’s claims, it’s not clear what the plan would be if the US State and Fed experienced severe hyperinflation. If you don’t like a $6 box of cookies, imagine a $60 box, or $600. There’s nothing really stopping the price from going to $6,000. There’s nothing backing the US Dollar. Just the US Economy itself, and the past five years has shown us how volatile it is. The system shows us that the Fed can stop the bleeding, but only for the banks.
Now, granted, in the US per capita income has also gone up quite a bit since 1913. Total income for everyone has just about tripled. Well, "everyone" is a poor choice of words. As this article points out, most of the income growth has been in the top 10% of the population.
Krugman smugly concludes, “I guess some people are just bothered by the notion that money is a human thing, and want the benefits of the monetary network without the social part.”
In this snide climax, Krugman can’t see that it amounts to an argument for Bitcoin. Money is social, and therefore, a public utility. It should be made for the people, to use, as easily and effectively as possible. The problem is that our society has a huge corporate banking government apparatus trying to take a cut, impose a tax, levy a fine, or surcharge, at every step of the way.
The whole system lives off debt, bankers make money off debt. The Federal Reserve system has taken us from a National Debt of $2.9 billion in 1913 to over $16 trillion today.
Bitcoin liberates us from a system based on corrupt US power arrangements, and a US war state controlled by big banks. It’s the true social network.
Punk Reporters, Austrian Economists, Romanian Exchanges
In the final hours of the conference, I met the writer Adrianne Jeffries, who was reporting for edgy technophiles The Verge. With her wry piercing gaze, blond mohawk, and huge camera in tow, Jeffries explained that she had covered Occupy Wall Street for the New York Observer. Jeffries was about to file a fine story called “Why Won’t Bitcoin Die?”
At lunch, Jeffries explained her title. She had recently expected Occupy Wall Street to resurrect, but then it didn’t. And after its March “mini-crash”, Jeffries thought that Bitcoin would die. But that didn’t happen either. Why?
Maybe the reason Bitcoin keeps going while Occupy gets sidetracked is that Bitcoin has certain advantages. Maybe these are advantages that future social movements around financial reform need to recognize.
Steven Wagner is a bitcoin enthusiast from Portland who leads a 100-strong local bitcoin group. He pointed out, “Bitcoin has all the right incentives to become the worlds first self-funding open source project.”
Ah, incentives! Is it a crime to use that word in the same paragraph as some of the arch-critical theorists of Occupy Wall Street? Well, unlike Occupy Wall Street, Bitcoin has this special cohesion, a palpable kind of magic, a unique kind of drive. It carries forward the twin interests of financial and social impact. Out of its mix of passion and incentives, it communicates with itself very well. It understands value. It creates value. It gives people the chance to enter in and grow value. It empowers its participants rather than trying to control them. It’s fun.
The Bitcoin thing allows for people to have a vibrant mix of motivations: self-interest, or class struggle, or a mix of both. You can invest in Bitcoin and watch the value of Bitcoin go up, maybe 900%. And while you do so, you are supporting a currency NOT owned by the same private banks that wrecked your life in 2008. In fact, you are subverting them.
I asked Jeffries, what if Occupy Wall Street had had a way to monetize its massive energy, a way to focus its passion into some sort of instrument that measured all its value, as an agent for necessary social change? The price of Bitcoin goes up because of the same kind of passion inside Occupy: desire for change translates into desire for Bitcoin, desire equals demand, demand drives up the value. Inside Bitcoin, new entities are being spawned all the time, new companies, services, and creations that harness this gusher of value, and give meaningful, valuable work to those who need it.
The world is changing. Going forward, the old forms of power, political categories, authority, centralization and dogma are just not going to work. What is the value of the infinite creativity in our hearts? You can’t put an exact number on it, of course, but the number doesn’t have to be exact for this to be a teachable lesson.
At San Francisco State University, on my tour, I taught a short class about “valuation.” What would happen if we appropriated the business world’s practices of corporate valuation, and applied them to our real lives? Facebook, for example, is worth $59 billion right now. But we all have that much value in each of us. We will change the world if we plug that value into creating the world we want, every day. Don’t work for the Man. Do what you love. Be your dream. The value inside you is powerful. Create a way to get it out. Write a business plan. Describe your venture. Create value. Lure investment capital out of its den.
And when you are ready, Bitcoin could help.
Yoni Assia, CEO of social investing site eToro.com, at the conference projected that, “the next stage of BitCoin is more social. Bitcoin is freeing up capital for social entrepreneurs. “
In a development sure to freak out the SEC and a slew of lawyers, there are markets where entrepreneurs can raise money in Bitcoin by issuing stock directly to investors. At the Canadian site, Havelock Investments, this is done through selling units in various funds. Or if you’re more of a swashbuckler, (and can afford the 30 Bitcoin registration fee) you can buy and sell at the controversial and colorful Romanian site, Mpex.
Austrian economist Peter Surda said, “Bitcoin represents a whole new world of finance--and new businesses can be built on those hypotheticals.” If organic Kiva-style peer-to-peer lending is more your style, try the more organic Btcjam.com. Here, borrowers can set the terms of the Bitcoin loans they would like. Investors chose which applicants to fund. Bitcoin even has its own KickStarter-style service starting up, called “BitStarter.”
With Bitcoin, there’s something in the air. Is this a part of the revolution? EToro’s Yoni Assia says, “The new paradigm is less about control, more about ‘let’s let the magic happen.’”