In this video clip, Paul Krugman demonstrates once again that prizes don’t make you an expert on everything. Indeed, his poor prognostications happen so frequently that one wonders if Krugman is an expert on anything. I don’t say that to be unpleasant. If you’re going on TV and enjoying a lavish lifestyle by pretending to know what you’re talking about, shouldn’t you be held to a higher standard?
Let’s pass over for a moment how woefully wrong Krugman was about the Internet. What about the internet of money?
Krugman first says: “At this point bitcoin is not looking too good.”
It is true that investment often follows the Gartner hype cycle. So bitcoin has indeed fallen from great heights and is probably just now making its ascent out of the “trough of disillusionment.”
But so what? There is nothing inherently wrong with bitcoin. In fact, some very savvy, patient people are building an unbelievable set of technologies within and around the blockchain. And if you believe Gartner, most really interesting tech goes through this cycle.
Let’s look back at the Internet. When the dotcom bubble and subsequent burst looked like this:
Do we conclude that because in 2002 the Internet wasn’t “looking so good” that TCP/IP was not viable? That would have been a very short-sighted thing to say, particularly about a system that is a robust “dumb network“ like the internet.
Bitcoin is also a dumb network. But don’t let the “dumb” part fool you, says bitcoin expert Andreas Antonopoulos. “So the dumb network becomes a platform for independent innovation, without permission, at the edge. The result is an incredible range of innovations, carried out at an even more incredible pace. People interested in even the tiniest of niche applications can create them on the edge.”
Then Krugman goes on to ask, “Why does a piece of paper with a dead president on it have value?” Answering his own question he says “Because other people think it has value.”
And this is not untrue. But the problem with this line of thinking is — subjective value notwithstanding — the value of money is also contingent. You might say the value of fiat money is too contingent — especially upon political whims, upon the limited knowledge of the folks at the Federal Reserve, and upon the fact that its unit of account is no longer anything scarce, such as gold.
By contrast, bitcoin has standard of scarcity programmed into it. So, bitcoin is in limited supply, thanks to a sophisticated algorithm.
In a fully decentralized monetary system, there is no central authority that regulates the monetary base. Instead, currency is created by the nodes of a peer-to-peer network. The bitcoin generation algorithm defines, in advance, how currency can be created and at what rate. Any currency that is generated by a malicious user that does not follow the rules will be rejected by the network and thus is worthless. (To learn more about this algorithm, visit “Currency with a Finite Supply.”)
Perhaps you don’t trust this algorithm. Certainly Paul Krugman does not. That’s okay, because digital currencies compete, so you can find one you do trust. One crypto currency is backed by gold and funnily enough, it’s called “the Hayek” after the Nobel laureate who wrote about competing private currencies.
Now, what shall we make of the magic of the dollar? Krugman says it is “the fact that you can use it to pay taxes.” That’s sort of like saying that the Internet works because of eFile. Let’s just assume Krugman was kidding.
But Krugman thinks, without irony, that bitcoin “levitates.” That is to say, he’s okay with the idea that the dollar has value because other people value it, but he’s not okay with the idea that bitcoin has value because other people value it, which is a rather curious thing to say in the same two-minute stretch. He goes on to argue that bitcoin is built on libertarian ideology, and that it doesn’t do anything that digitizing the dollar hasn’t done.
And that’s when we realize that Krugman doesn’t have any earthly clue about bitcoin.
But Freeman columnist Andreas Antonopoulos does:
Open-source currencies have another layer that multiplies these underlying effects: the currency itself. Not only is the investment in infrastructure and innovation shared by all, but the shared benefit may also manifest in increased value for the common currency.
Currency is the quintessential shared good, because its value correlates strongly to the economic activity that it enables. In simple terms, a currency is valuable because many people use it, and the more who use it, the more valuable it becomes.
Unlike national currencies, which are generally restricted to use within a country’s borders, digital currencies like bitcoin are global and can therefore be readily adopted and used by almost any user who is part of the networked global society.
What Krugman also fails to appreciate is that bitcoin and the bitcoin network is disintermediated. That’s a fancy way of saying it’s direct and peer-to-peer. This elimination of the mediating institutions — banks, governments, and credit card companies — means bitcoin transactions are far, far cheaper. But that also means these institutions could be far less powerful over time. And that’s precisely why it’s being adopted most quickly by the world’s poorest people and countries with hyperinflation.
Hey, look, I understand. In many ways, Krugman is a twentieth-century mind. Keynesian. Unhealthy obsession with aggregates and dirigisme. He believes in big central solutions to problems that robust, decentralized systems are far better equipped to tackle. And he’s not terribly plugged into tech innovation. In fact, here’s that well-played Internet quote in case you forgot:
The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in “Metcalfe’s law” — which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants — becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other!
By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.
To grok the power decentralization, you have to have a twenty-first century mind.
Images courtesy of The Huffington Post and fee.org