Monday, January 27, 2014

More on Bitcoin: Why It Cannot Replace Money

There has been much debate amongst economists over the nature and usage of bitcoins.  I recently wrote a post in which I briefly summarized the facts that give rise to the need for exchange and the necessary attributes of money, concluding that bitcoins will one day "go to zero" in terms of the gold price.  In the wake of many good comments, this post is a follow-up to that post and elaborates my views on the nature of bitcoins.  

First, it's important to define a few terms related to the meaning of exchange and money.  Following Reisman's Capitalism, a "media of exchange" are goods "sought neither as articles of personal consumption nor as means of further production, but as means of effecting further exchanges."  Media of exchange can be just about anything including cigarettes, cattle, furs, etc.  "The acceptability of the most preferred medium or media of exchange tends to go on increasing, until it or they are universally acceptable-i.e., have developed into money. Money is merely a medium of exchange whose use has grown to the point where it is directly and readily exchangeable against all other goods in a given geographical area." As discussed in the previous post, precious metals became accepted as money due to their unique physical properties.

Another important concept when understanding the nature of bitcoins is "standard money." Again quoting Reisman: "Standard money ...is money that is not itself a claim to anything further.  It possesses ultimate debt-paying power, in that when it is received no further claim to be paid is present.  Under a gold standard, standard money is gold.  Any paper money that exists is a claim to it."  

In a 2013 article, The Bitcoin Money Myth, Austrian economist Frank Shostak wrote: "Bitcoin is not a new form of money that replaces previous forms, but rather a new way of employing existent money in transactions. Because Bitcoin is not real money but merely a different way of employing existent fiat money, obviously it cannot replace it." In other words, a bitcoin is not itself money, because it always relies on an actual form of money (standard money) to underlie it. 

To see this point, consider the following example.  Most people are familiar with Western Union.  It is a way to transfer money to someone in a different place. You can go to a Western Union office, give them a certain amount of cash, and someone in a different city can go to a Western Union office and get the money.  Western Union provides a transferring function and you pay them a fee for their service. 

Let's say Western Union created tickets.  One buys a ticket for say $100.  He can then send the ticket to someone, rather than the $100 bill. The ticket is market "$100 payable on demand at any Western Union office."  When someone receives the ticket, he can take it to a Western Union office and get the $100 in cash. He may be able to trade the ticket to someone for a good or service because the recipient knows he can take the ticket to a Western Union office and get $100.  The tickets in this instance represent transferable claims to standard money payable upon demand to the holders of the tickets.      

The ticket is only valuable for three primary reasons.  First, the ticket is redeemable for $100 in standard money (in this context, the $100 fiat currency is standard money). In other words, the Western Union tickets would have no value in and of themselves.  Their value depends on the existence of, in this case, fiat currency or the $100. Second, the ticket is a legal obligation on behalf of the Western Union company to pay the ticket owner the $100 so that the bearer has a legal claim.  Third, the dollar amount, $100 in this case, is known and not subject to change.         

Bitcoin essentially provides a transfer function.  Like the Western Union tickets, one buys a bitcoin for a certain price and the transaction is recorded.  One can then send a bitcoin to another party to pay for a certain good or service if they are willing to accept it.  With respect to this transfer function, Bitcoin employs sophisticated network technology and appears to be very good at transferring the coins securely and anonymously.    
  
Like the Western Union example, when someone receives the bitcoin, the bitcoin is only valuable to the extent that someone can trade it for a good or can sell it to someone else for standard money.  Again, as Shostak notes, its value depends on the existence of another form of money.  However, unlike the Western Union example, no one is legally obligated to redeem a bitcoin for actual money, i.e., once you buy the bitcoin, no one has a legal obligation to accept it or redeem it, and consequently, the value of the bitcoin may change substantially in terms of actual money, potentially being worthless.  
   
This is why, from an economics standpoint, bitcoins cannot replace actual money. Bitcoin is not money in and of itself. The bitcoin price is essentially the price of transferring already existent fiat currency or, in another sense, it is simply a non-binding "claim" to standard money.   Since the value of bitcoins are not in their usage as standard money but in their usage in transactions, bitcoins are only as good as the fiat currencies in which they can be sold.  In other words, since bitcoins are not redeemable in something physical, if fiat currency goes to zero, bitcoins will go to zero.  Bitcoins may in fact go to zero even if fiat currency does not go to zero, if people just decide to stop using them for some reason. However, if fiat currency goes to zero, in terms of gold, what good is a bitcoin in its present form?    

So why does anyone use bitcoin and what accounts for its popularity in some countries and industries?  Merchants or individuals who accept bitcoins in foreign countries are betting that they can either exchange the bitcoins for something or cash them in for a more stable currency in the future as opposed to accepting local currency.  This is a rational bet if you live in a country with a tyrannical government and/or an unstable currency.  I would rather possess an anonymous potential claim to a valuable currency (in the form of a bitcoin) than possess a currency which is itself of little future value or obtained under monitoring from a government authority (Iran, China, etc.).

While bitcoins may serve a purpose and be of value in this and many other contexts, its actual nature, purpose and value should be better understood by potential buyers and sellers.   

Friday, January 24, 2014

Why Bitcoins Will Go To Zero, but Gold Will Not

If you lived in a simple civil society, how would you survive?  First, you’d have to do something -  like make a tool, cut some wood, harvest some food, catch some fish, etc.  Otherwise, you would just lay there and die.

If you wanted something from someone else, you would not go up to them and say “give me your stuff!” without starting a fight – remember, this is civil society.  You would offer them something in exchange. From time to time, if you wanted to give something away or someone gave you something for nothing, fine, but that would be the exception, not the rule.  If you keep asking for free stuff, that usually doesn’t go over very well.  If you demand free stuff, it leads to fights and wars.          

This brings us to a cardinal rule of economics, and life: there is no such thing as a free lunch.  Someone has to do something in order to survive.

To go beyond mere survival, to flourish, people have to do even more work and succeed at living to such an extent that they can survive while spending time thinking, inventing, and producing.  For example, if one guy figures out how to produce the same amount of food that used to take 10 guys, then the other 9 guys can work on other things besides food like inventing engines, spaceships, medicine, or computers to name a few. This is how human beings actually advance – how they live longer, healthier, and happier.          

If you thoroughly understand and integrate this principle into your thinking, you will be able to detect about 90%-100% of the BS that flows from the modern economics profession.  When a PhD or Federal Reserve official tells you that there is a magic way to create economic growth and prosperity without work or production, you will know something is wrong, even if he has a lot of formulas and pie charts.

When people begin advancing, it becomes a hassle to offer a random chicken or piece of wood in exchange for a carrot or some tobacco or whatever.  What if you don’t have exactly what the other guy wants just then?  What if you don’t want to carry a chicken around with you?  It is much easier to offer a standard asset that is valuable to everyone all the time.  If an asset has certain properties, it can serve as this asset.  What are these properties?

First, the asset would have to be universally recognized as a value, i.e., just about everyone could find a use for it.  It would be nice if it was found to be so valuable that a small amount would generally be accepted for just about anything.  This way, you could carry it in your pocket instead of in a wagon.  It would have to be something that could last a long time so you don’t have to worry about it vanishing.  It would have to be divisible so you could cut it up into different sizes to correspond to other goods that have differing values.  It would have to be something that does not change in value constantly due to dramatic changes in its supply.  It would be best if the material was homogeneous, or the same throughout, so that people could agree easily on its value without having to evaluate it every time you want to trade.

For thousands of years, humans have chosen precious metals like gold and silver since they meet all of these criteria (see this for examples of gold's practical uses).  Again, these are not arbitrary criteria set by me or some government agency.  They are criteria that follow from the nature of reality, i.e., the marketplace.  This does not mean people shouldn't barter good for good.  It just means that using a standard asset is much easier most of the time, and people freely choose to use them since it makes trade and life easier and more productive.  Quoting George Reisman (Capitalism, p. 142):                
Thus, an economic system operating under the constraints of barter exchange would obviously offer only very limited opportunities, for division of labor and would thus be extremely primitive.  In essence, to live in such an economic system, one would either have to be a farmer or produce the kinds of things that could be readily exchanged with farmers, such as blacksmithing services. 
What is required for the existence of a division-of-labor society is the existence of money and monetary exchange.  Money is a good readily acceptable in exchange by everyone in a given geographical area, and is sought for the purpose of being reexchanged.
So, the need for production and trade follows from man’s basic nature and the nature of the world in which we live.  The exchange of value for value is a requirement of human life.  The usage of barter or a standard asset such as precious metals in these exchanges is not arbitrary, it is an objective necessity of human survival.  Money, such as gold and silver, is preferable to barter if you want to live a more productive, happier life. Due to their unique properties, precious metals have been the objective money choice of the market for thousands of years.  Contrary to the claims of modern economists, gold and silver are not “barbarous relics” from a bygone age, but vital and necessary tools of exchange, which allow for an advanced division of labor economy and an increasing quality of life.

From the above, it can be seen that Bitcoin, a so-called digital currency, does not have these properties.  A Bitcoin is not itself valuable as you can not make a wire or a bowl or bullets or a house out of Bitcoins like you could with metals. The only thing that makes Bitcoins temporarily valuable is the belief that someone else will accept them in exchange.  In essence, Bitcoin is a like an even crappier fiat currency.  It's crappier, because at least fiat currency is legal tender, i.e., transactions are legally settled upon payment, and one must pay taxes in fiat currency.  Bitcoin does not even have this property!

At some point, Bitcoin's dollar value will go to zero as everyone who holds them tries to sell them to the next person and no one chooses to accept them.  In fact, since dollars are fiat currency, their value will one day go to zero in terms of actually valuable goods for the same reason.  Gold will never go to zero in terms of other commodities because of its special properties, like the fact that you can use it to do work and survive.

While many people express gold as a price in dollars, conceptually, it should be thought of in the reverse way.  An ounce of gold is an ounce of gold and can always be exchanged into other commodities. Gold is the money. Any commodity price can be expressed in terms of a price in ounces of gold. Even the value of dollars or other fiat currencies and Bitcoins can be expressed in terms of gold. For now, at least, those prices are not yet zero.          

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Milbank and the Flawed Philosophy of the Left: Why His "Weakest Generation" Is Actually the "Offended Generation"

There is certainly a profound political rift dividing the culture. However, the state of modern politics is so anti-intellectual and unprincipled that the essential philosophical premises giving rise to the differences (and similarities) are rarely discussed much less understood. In a seemingly innocuous op-ed characterizing the "weakest generation" and disparaging the Tea Party, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank unwittingly exposes some of the deeper philosophical premises underlying modern liberalism thus providing contrast for those who wish to truly fight for individual rights and freedom.

In the op-ed titled, "The Weakest Generation," Milbank wistfully recalls his parents devotion to the civil rights movement and various other 1960's causes and laments his generation's, Generation X's, lack of an "equivalent" cause. He writes:
There have been many noble causes in my time — the fight against apartheid, for gay rights and for environmentalism — but none captured my generation or required the sort of sacrifice the civil rights movement did.
According to Milbank, his generation "came of age without an existential threat to the nation and without massive social upheaval at home." Evidently, the Cold War "was just a theoretical threat" and "when we were prepared to sacrifice for the country after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush told us to go shopping." He concludes that "[w]e grew up soft: unthreatened, unchallenged and uninspired" because "we lacked a cause greater than self." [emphasis mine]   Exploring the political implications of his views he writes:
The effects on our politics has been profound. Without any concept of actual combat or crisis, a new crop of leaders — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin — treats governing as a fight to the death, with no possibility of a negotiated peace. Without a transcendent social struggle calling us to seek justice as Americans, they substitute factional causes — Repeal Obamacare! Taxed Enough Already! — or manufactured crises over debt limits and government shutdowns. 
According to Milbank, the fight over the role of the federal government is not a "transcendent social struggle." To him, Tea Party claims about spiraling debt, the loss of liberty, or the overthrow of the American constitution do not represent a "crisis" or even a matter of "justice." Rather, these are merely "factional cause(s)" manufactured by opportunistic politicians.

What accounts for Milbank's definition of a "noble" cause and what underlies his passionate admiration for the civil rights movement and his utter disdain for the Tea Party?

First, note that Milbank is not simply claiming that certain types of threats challenge and inspire activists. Rather, he is implying that without such a condition, a so-called "existential threat" or "cause greater than self," it is seemingly impossible to be "challenged" and "inspired."  

But, if it were really true that recent generations faced no existential crisis, wouldn't that be a cause for great celebration?  Isn't the reason we seek to defeat a threat to render it no longer a threat?  Consider Thomas Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walt Disney, John Roebling, Sir Isaac Newton, Steve Jobs or Linus Pauling. Did these great thinkers, inventors, and businessmen need existential crises, threats, or even physical combat to challenge and inspire them to achieve their values? Are the creations or values of these individuals "noble"? Is the pursuit of a society where individuals freely pursue their own happiness through productive work and voluntary trade a "transcendent cause"?  Is the struggle to create, build, and profit by eradicating a disease, colonizing space, or creating spectacular abundance challenging and inspiring?  

Milbank's argument exposes a major philosophical principle underlying much of modern political thought. The view that purpose and inspiration come from causes "greater than self" compared to the view that the purpose of life is to pursue happiness through the achievement of values directly relates to the moral philosophy of altruism versus the moral philosophy of egoism.    

What underlies Milbank's angst and confusion is what Ayn Rand identified to be the dominant ethical theory of our time: altruism.  Altruism, she wrote, is the idea "that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value."  Altruism, she warned, is not "kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others." Rather, "[t]he irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good."

The antidote to altruism's code of self-destruction is Rand's ethics of egoism or rational selfishness, which holds that "your life belongs to you and the good is to live it" and that "the moral purpose of life is the achievement of your own happiness" and that one should not sacrifice for others nor sacrifice others to oneself.   Rand distinguished individualism from collectivism.  She wrote:
Individualism regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights—and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members. 
An individualist is inspired by the challenge of purposeful living and a lack of existential crisis is a primary precondition of such a pursuit. Consider the pride of a scientist who discovers a cure for a disease or a new source of energy, or of a businessman that brings a thrilling new product to market. Consider the joy of a parent watching their children grow and learn, or the exhilaration of romantic love, natural discovery, fine art, good food, or the company of close friends. These are all values achieved by an individual and require the condition of freedom from coercion and are, in essence, the opposite of existential crisis.

To the altruist, these are selfish, banal, or bourgeois aspirations that are at best a necessary evil, and not examples of moral living.  To the altruist, virtue consists of sacrifice to some arbitrarily defined "common good."  This fact is what gives rise to the air of moral righteousness about liberal causes. Whether it be some horrifying government program like Obamacare or calls to throttle the global economy to counteract global cooling - I mean warming - I mean climate change - its adherents maintain a disposition of snarky pretentiousness towards dissenters while displaying a cultish reverence for the various causes and gurus of the 1960's.  Tragically, Milbank's acceptance of the altruistic ethics renders his own life and that of his generation existentially meaningless since he cannot find a recipient of extraordinary sacrifice.

Milbank may be right that recent generations are indeed uninspired.  But the fault is not the lack of a cause, it is the philosophy of people like Milbank.  It is the fault of a philosophy that holds sacrifice as a virtue and deprecates the individual pursuit of happiness. Contrary to Milbank's claim of a "weak generation," the morality of altruism has robbed an entire generation of the profound joy and happiness that results from purposeful living and instead substituted guilt and a sneering hatred of success.  Rather than cultivating a benevolent environment of discovery, productivity, creativity, and entrepreneurship, altruism has created an environment of guilt, victimization, sacrifice, and dependency.  As a result, a more apt characterization of recent generations might be the "Offended Generation."         

Another irony of Milbank's argument is that he cites the civil rights movement as the ultimate example of a "transcendent cause" yet denigrates the Tea Party's goals as merely "factional causes" without any true meaning.  How can this be?

After all, the civil rights movement rightfully sought freedom for blacks from government oppression and equal treatment under the law in accordance with the principles underlying the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.  In the same way, today's Tea Party seeks freedom from government oppression threatening to subjugate all individuals and seeks a return to the very same American principles that gave birth to the civil rights movement. Wouldn't the original civil rights movement be a natural ally of today's Tea Party movement? After all, was the American Revolution - a war fought for individual liberty against centralized coercive power - not a transcendent cause?

Of course, in reality, any groups which truly fight for individual rights, i.e., the freedom from coercion, are natural allies. However, Milbank and his ilk do not regard the civil rights movement as a movement toward equality of opportunity under the law, i.e, the right for all individuals, regardless of ethnicity, to freely think and act in pursuit of happiness. To Milbank the altruist, the civil rights movement is a movement toward the egalitarian goal of "social justice" or the redistribution of wealth according to the Marxist-altruist credo: "from each according to ability, to each according to need."    The cause of the egoist is individual rights and equal treatment under the law in the pursuit of voluntary cooperation and trade, while the cause of the altruist is the use of government force to extract equal outcomes regardless of effort or ability as the whole panoply of liberal policies since the 1960's demonstrates.  

But isn't altruism and sacrifice required to fight for a noble cause?  Isn't it true that the participants in the American Revolution or World War II or the civil rights struggle were indeed challenged and inspired?  Yes, but Milbank has the logic backward.  To an egoist, fighting for freedom is a selfish value.  The egoist seeks the preconditions for the pursuit of his own values.  Fighting for freedom from the British monarchy, fighting against slavery, fighting against fascism and communism or Islamic totalitarianism are all moral struggles in this context that take great courage. Ironically, it is the selfish pursuit of liberty and happiness that gave the original civil rights struggle a moral underpinning.  African Americans sought the same rights and treatment under the law that white Americans treasured.  The freedom resulting from the securing of these rights is what led to America's prosperity and why the world's immigrants sought refuge here.

The altruist premises of the modern left not only explain why they regard the Tea Party as morally insignificant, it further explains why they so casually and frequently charge the Tea Party with racism.  To the left, civil rights is redistribution of wealth or "social justice," therefore, opponents of government force, taxation, and redistribution (Objectivists, libertarians, Tea Partiers) are not seen as defenders of liberty and individual freedom for all, but simply as opponents of what they regard as "civil rights" and therefore are regarded as "racists."  Of course, this is a preposterously inverted view of racism.  Racism is the attribution of personal characteristics based on race or genetic lineage. The pursuit of equal treatment under the law for all is a moral and noble cause, while the preferred treatment of some individuals based on race is the very definition of racism, yet, the latter is precisely what the left advocates in the form of affirmative action.        

In reality, altruism is incompatible with actual freedom and incompatible with justice. On this point, Rand made the following observation:
If it is true that what I mean by “selfishness” is not what is meant conventionally, then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: it means that altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man—a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others. It means that altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites—that it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men—that it permits no concept of justice.
Note that moral philosophy is not what distinguishes the modern political parties.  In fact, altruist ethics unites the religious right to the secular left - the only difference between them being the object of the sacrifice. For example, the religionist wants you to sacrifice to God, the socialist wants you to sacrifice to the state, the environmentalist wants you to sacrifice to the earth, etc.  The reason why Republicans and Democrats are so similar is their acceptance of the same fundamental moral philosophy. They only disagree on who should sacrifice to whom and how much and is the reason America has been drifting toward socialism for over a hundred years.

The fissures in American politics are based on fundamental philosophy. Defining the debate properly around philosophy helps to simplify and perhaps finally import the highest form of moral righteousness to the case for freedom and individual rights.