Posts tagged with: Payment systems

Blog author: jcarter
Wednesday, December 17, 2014

bitcoin-deadEarlier this year I declared that Bitcoin was (nearly) dead. But as The Princess Bride’s Miracle Max once explained, “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.”

Right now, Bitcoin is only mostly dead. As an investment, it was the worst of 2014. As a currency, it was destroyed by the IRS by a single sentence (“For federal tax purposes, virtual currency is treated as property.”). All that really remains is for it to become a financial network. But then it will be likely killed (i.e., all dead) with one word: regulation.

As Henry Farrell explains, Bitcoin has only survived this long because the U.S. government hasn’t really considered it to be a viable financial network:

bitcoin-wallBitcoin is dead, long live Bitcoin.

A few weeks ago the IRS killed off any chance that Bitcoin could become a mainstream currency. That’s probably for the best since it clears the way for it to become something much more important: the world’s first completely open financial network.

Timothy B. Lee has a superb article explaining why this could be transformative. Lee highlights one particularly helpful innovation:

One obvious application is international money transfers. Companies like Western Union and Moneygram can charge as much as 8 percent to transfer cash from one country to another, and transfers can take as long as 3 days to complete. In contrast, Bitcoin transactions only take about 30 minutes to clear, and Bitcoin transaction fees could be a lot less than 8 percent.

An “alternative to Western Union” doesn’t sound revolutionary, does it? Now look at this graphic produced by The Daily Mail which shows how much money is being sent by migrants to their families back home.

wallet-lockWhen bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he is (mis)quoted as having said, “Because that’s where the money is.” Turns out that is also why there is more street crime in poorer neighborhoods: because that’s where the cash is. Or at least it’s where the case was.

It has been long recognized that cash plays a critical role in fueling street crime due to its liquidity and transactional anonymity. In poor neighborhoods — where street offenses are concentrated — a significant source of circulating cash stemmed from public assistance or welfare payments. But starting in the 1990s that changed, as the Federal government gradually phased out paper welfare checks in favor of electronic debit cards (the Electronic Benefit Transfer [EBT] program).

A team of researchers studied the effects of this change in Missouri and found that it was directly responsible for a hefty 10 percent drop in the overall crime rate:

Blog author: jcarter
Wednesday, March 5, 2014

bitcoin-deadLast year I wrote a series of blog posts about what Christians should know about Bitcoin. In response, one astute reader pointed out an odd juxtaposition: my conclusion seemed to imply that Christians should avoid Bitcoin “at all cost” and yet the Acton Institute accepts donations in Bitcoin. “I really want to know the rationale behind this,” he said.

Well, the rationale is easy enough to explain: Not everyone at Acton agrees with me. Like other nerds who have an interest in the intersection of economics, liberty, and technology, many of us at Acton disagree about the merits of Bitcoin. (I’d offer to place a gentleman’s wager on the future of the crypto-currency, but they’d want to bet using Bitcoin. Either way – whether it increased in value or went defunct – I’d end up the loser.)

Opinions are still divided, but the evidence that Bitcoin is doomed to failure piles up almost every day. Over the 8 month span from October 2010 to June 2011, the market value of Bitcoins skyrocketed 9667-fold from a value of $0.06 to $29. Later, when I wrote my series last April, a single Bitcoin was worth less than $100. Today, it is worth $660, and that’s after falling from a high of $1,100 in November 2013. A currency that can fluctuate from $0.06 to $1,110 in a three-year period is not a currency – it’s a speculative bubble.

Of course, we Bitcoin doomsayers have been waiting for the bubble to pop for some time now. We also tend to think that every new drop is a sign of it’s impending doom. Fellow naysayer Jonathan Last is sure, this time, that the end of Bitcoin is near:

I ran across this video yesterday (courtesy of ESA), which I thought presented some interesting challenges and issues:

The video was presented on Upworthy as an example of something “all white people could do to make the world a better place,” that is, use their white privilege to address injustices.

A number of economists, including Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell, have written about the power of the market economy to overcome racism and discrimination, to put people into relationships on the basis of economic decision-making rather than skin color. As Friedman contended,

the preserves of discrimination in any society are the areas that are most monopolistic in character, whereas discrimination against groups of particular color or religion is least in those areas where there is the greatest freedom of competition.

But as a conversation I had with some others about the video also illustrates, there are times when (at least in the short run interests of the firm), something like profiling can seem to make some economic sense. The successful passing of one bad check can really hurt a store’s margins. Practically speaking the stores often take a complete loss.

[Note: This is the third entry in a three part series. You can read the introductory post here and part two here.]

The Disadvantages of Bitcoin

For people who are not obsessed with anonymity and are not waiting for the U.S. to return to the gold standard, the reasons for avoiding entering the Bitcoin market are numerous:

1. Convertibility – Whereas other currencies are convertible into other financial instruments (dollars to checks to certificates of deposit, etc.) and through numerous third-party services (e.g., Visa, PayPal, Citibank), commodity currencies like Bitcoin can only be exchanged for fiat currencies—and then only through an online exchange. Indeed, unless your computer is working overtime on Bitcoin mining, the only way to acquire the currency is to buy it from one of the 30 online exchanges.

These exchanges are completely unregulated and are subject to problems that do not affect other financial markets. For instance, in 2011 the largest Bitcoin exchange, MTGox, had a security breach that resulted in the theft of nearly $9 million worth of Bitcoins. The theft caused the value of Bitcoins to crash from $17.50 to one cent before the market was able to recover.

2. Instability – The MTGox breach—and the subsequent market crash—taught Bitcoin owners a harsh lesson about commodity currencies: they can be wildly unstable. Over the 8 month span from October 1 2010 to June 9 2011, the market value of Bitcoins skyrocketed 9667-fold from a value of $0.06 to $29.

The rate had dropped in 2012 and at the end of last year a Bitcoin was worth only $13.51. Last week, though, Bitcoins were trading as high as $266 before plummeting to less than $100. Anyone who had bought $1,000 worth of currency in October 2010 would theoretically have $4.4 million worth of Bitcoins. However, the convertibility problem would make it nearly impossible to extract that money without crashing the market and devaluing the entire currency. A gradual sell-off over an extended period of time would be necessary to take advantage of increase in valuation.

Still, being the seller of the overvalued currency is preferable to being the buyer. The Winklevoss twins, millionaires famous for their legal battle with Facebook, claim to own around one percent of all Bitcoins currently in existence (around 108,000). They began buying the currency in 2012, making some early Bitcoin holders very rich.

Every day we hear about contemporary, serious concepts (e.g., chained CPI) and new, silly fads (Vadering), but in the modern age it’s not always easy to tell which category a new idea falls into. Take, for instance, Bitcoin. As Jordan Ballor wrote yesterday,

bitcoinIt is certainly a phenomenon worth greater attention, and something of significant cultural, social and economic import. But I’m not buying Bitcoin, at least not yet.

My initial skepticism is in part due to my lack of familiarity with the details of the currency and its formation. I certainly need to learn more.

Many of us are in the same situation as Jordan. We recognize that Bitcoin is a significant phenomenon but need to become more familiar in order to develop an informed opinion and be able to “think Christianly” about it’s value and implications. While Bitcoin is not a topic every Christian should know something about (at least not yet), it does overlap with many subject areas of particular interest for Acton PowerBlog readers: business, technology, regulation, ethics, etc. For that reason, I thought it might be helpful to write a series on Bitcoin for Christians.

Over a series of three posts I’ll provide some background information on Bitcoin, explain how it works, and consider some of the reasons why Christians need to develop an informed opinion about the cryptocurrency. The purpose of these posts is not to tell you what to think about Bitcoin (though I have begun to form my own opinion) but merely to provide information that will help you to develop an informed opinion of your own.

We should start with the question “What is Bitcoin?” but before we can answer that we need to consider a more fundamental question, “What is money?” And that question brings us to the story of the rai of Yap.

What Yap Can Teach Us About Bitcoin

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bitcoin-coinsWe’ve had some intriguing discussion about Bitcoin at the Acton Institute offices today. It is certainly a phenomenon worth greater attention, and something of significant cultural, social and economic import. But I’m not buying Bitcoin, at least not yet.

My initial skepticism is in part due to my lack of familiarity with the details of the currency and its formation. I certainly need to learn more.

But also in large part my skepticism is due to my doubt about the productiveness of the effort that generates the currency. Is it merely fiat money without the pretensions? Is it the logic of subjective value-theory brought to the final conclusion? I worry that the computing power expended to mine BitCoins is vacuous and parasitic at its core. It does not represent a good or service that has been provided for or contributed to anyone.

A Bitcoin has value simply because people have decided it has value. People “mine” Bitcoins because, as Whately would note, “they fetch a high price.”

But what does a Bitcoin block represent in terms of actual human utility? I worry too that this is a system that relies parasitically on real-world resources, e.g. coal which provides a large part of the electricity, which is used to run computers so that they can then in turn “mine” something entirely virtual.

What is Bitcoin teaching us, really?

If you’ve had experience with Bitcoin or thoughts about the phenomenon, please share them in the comments below.