A tale of bitcoins and $500 suits: Will a rising-value currency not be used?

A common objection to bitcoin is that as its value rises, and especially if it is generally expected to keep rising due to its restricted and inelastic production characteristics, “people will never spend bitcoins; they will just hold onto them waiting for the value to go up, and therefore bitcoin cannot succeed as a currency.”

This fallacy commits a number of errors of economic reasoning. For example, it takes one factor, a presumed desire to save bitcoin in the expectation that its exchange value will rise still higher in the future, and treats it as the only factor, even though many others are also in play. It also assumes that all people are the same all the time and that their value scales never change. It treats a person’s entire holding of bitcoin as an indivisible block, or “hoard” (Smaug’s?), ignoring the possibility of marginal decisions about the use of smaller amounts relative to a total balance and specific decision contexts.

Playing directly opposite this supposedly monolithic motivation to hold for the indefinite future is the shift in valuations of a good relative to the value of a given bitcoin holding. As the exchange value per unit rises, the total exchange value of any given holding rises with it. To illustrate how this factor goes directly against the deflationary disuse story, here is a tale of bitcoins and $500 suits.

If Hayek has 100 bitcoins when the bitcoin price is $5, buying one $500 suit would leave him with one suit and no bitcoin. However, the same purchase with bitcoin at $50 would leave him with one suit plus a remaining balance of $4,500 worth of bitcoin. At $500 per bitcoin, he could get the suit and still keep a bitcoin balance worth $49,500. And so the story goes. Finally, at $5,000 per bitcoin, he could buy that same suit and still retain $499,500 worth of bitcoin.

The trade-off Hayek faces between the suit and the proportion of a given bitcoin holding that must be traded to obtain it varies with exchange value. As bitcoin’s exchange value rises (supposedly its fatal flaw as a currency), the cost of the same one suit as a percentage of Hayek’s total bitcoin holding declines, in the foregoing example, from 100% to 10% to 1% to 0.1%, as a direct implication. The choice between buying a suit with 100% of one’s bitcoin balance or with 0.1% of that same bitcoin balance is most dissimilar and it should be clear which of these two conditions is more likely to “stimulate” a retail purchase.

As the value of bitcoin rises, the position of one suit relative to a given unit of bitcoin on a given person’s value scale will tend to change in such a way that the same holder of 100 bitcoins might be increasingly likely, not less, to purchase a suit. This does not mean that other countervailing factors, such as a desire to delay spending in anticipation of a higher future exchange value are not also present. It means that the most oft-cited factor is not the only one and moreover that other important factors point in exactly the opposite direction of the deflationary disuse thesis.

Cross-posted at actiontheory.liberty.me.

“Bitcoin 2014 Panel: Economic Theory of Bitcoin” with time-based outline

It was an honor to be among the participants in this panel on 17 May 2014 at the Bitcoin Foundation Conference in Amsterdam. We addressed several issues that tend to recur in discussions of economic theory and bitcoin. The main topics were the regression theorem and bitcoin; bitcoin and the role of units of account and pricing; multiple value standards and the economics of altcoins relative to bitcoin; fractional-reserve banking, lending, and direct versus other-party control; and deflation and fixed versus elastic money supplies. I have added a time-based outline after the embedded video below to facilitate noting and locating particular topics.

Moderator: Jon Matonis (Executive Director, Bitcoin Foundation)

Speakers: Konrad Graf (Author & Investment Research Translator), Robert Sams (Founder, Cryptonomics), Peter Surda (Economist, Economicsofbitcoin.com, Robin Teigland (Associate Professor, Stockholm School of Economics)

1) Introductions, opening comments, and overview

00:00–03:05 Matonis: Introduction of panelists

03:05–07:57 Brief openings by each panelist

07:57–09:06 Economics profession and bitcoin

09:06–11:41 Matonis: Overview of topics

2) Regression theorem and bitcoin

11:41–12:12 Matonis: Introduction of topic

12:12–18:32 Surda: Liquidity, organized markets

18:32–23:16 Graf: Technical versus economic; theory versus history layers

23:16–23:50 Sams: Doubts this is relevant to bitcoin

3) Unit of account, price display, and price intuition

23:50–25:02 Matonis: Introduction of topic

25:02–27:00 Teigland: Depends on who; networks, sub-communities, generation change

27:00–27:23 Matonis: Can bitcoin overcome the existing network effect?

27:23–28:01 Surda: Uncharted area, dollar likely to remain unless deep negative event for it

4) Multiple value standards, room for 300 crytocurrencies

28:01–28:49 Matonis: Introduction of topic

28:49–31:01 Sams: Need distinct specializations; mining costs limit

31:01–32:48 Graf: Strong tendency toward one unit; only other very strong factors could counter

5) Fractional-reserve banking and bitcoin

32:48–33:41 Matonis: Introduction of topic

33:41–38:08 Surda: Money substitutes, transaction costs, price differentials, “reserve” standards

38:08–39:57 Teigland: Other non-traditional financing systems, crowdfunding, P2P lending

39:57–41:34 Sams: FRB based on an illusion, one that cannot be created with bitcoin

41:34–44:12 Graf: Bitcoin allows opt-out from all “trusted” 3rd, 4th, 5th parties. Vote with your mouse.

44:12–46:47 Sams: Who owns what? a pervasive issue; first bitcoin lending likely dollar denominated

6) Deflation, only 21 million units, number of decimal points

46:47–48:37 Matonis: Introduction of topic

48:37–49:46 Teigland: People adapt over time to situations

49:46–53:38 Sams: Deflation arguments misplaced; overheld, underused; other crypto money supplies possible

53:38–55:36 Surda: No need to change the quantity of money, but more to investigate

55:36–58:29 Graf: “Rising-value currency;” any quantity of money will do for society as a whole

58:29–59:26 Sams: Elastic supply could help stabilize exchange rate relative to fixed supply

59:26–59:46 Surda: Unit of account function depends on liquidity not volatility

7) Q&A

59:46–60:55 Q1: Banks allowed to create money; unfair playing field?

60:55–62:28 A1: Sams: 100% reserve banking; taking away private money creation privilege

62:28–62:56 A1b: Teigland: Local alternatives, experimentation

62:56–63:19 Q2: Isn’t buying and holding bitcoins already an investment in all of bitcoin?

63:19–64:06 A2: Sams: To some extent, but could be more with different money supply rule

64:06–65:00 Q3: Fixed rate of supply ignores recent lessons of monetary theory

65:00–65:27 A3: Matonis: Already addressed; Surda: May need to unlearn some of those lessons :-)

The helpful fable of the "bitcoin": Duality models revisited

Bitcoin is many things, all referenced under the same word. Confusion about its nature and valuation naturally arises from insufficient differentiation of these facets, combined with a general human tendency toward “either/or” thinking. Often, the situation is more “both/and,” which becomes clearer after looking through first impressions and simple or even misleading analogies.

A short section of Francis Pouliot’s 17 May 2014 post on the Bitcoin Foundation of Canada blog caught my attention: “The currency and the network, although conceptually different things, cannot be separated. Bitcoin the network is valuable in itself because of its characteristics and, because you need to obtain bitcoins in order to use it, so is Bitcoin the currency.”

This reflects the kind of unit/system duality approach that I have found helpful, and it started me considering some further implications (I discussed the application of unit/system duality and economic/technological duality concepts to Bitcoin in “On the origins of Bitcoin” (3 November 2013)).

Discrete tradable bitcoin units are one of the integral aspects of the Bitcoin network, which in turn is a live instantiation of the Bitcoin protocol (language/convention/consensus system). The value of the units is what enables the distributed financing of the entire network; the existence of this network enables the existence, security, and value of the units.

Along another conceptual axis, economic theory supports the interpretive understanding of what people do. What things are is addressed in this case as what I call the technological layer. These layers interact, but the methods appropriate to studying them differ. One is the domain of action theory, with concepts such as ends, means, and preference; the other, in this case, of computer science, networking, and cryptography.

Still, the technological layer of Bitcoin (the system) can give hints toward economic theory interpretations of the value of bitcoin (the tradable units). Additional economic insights might at times be inspired by checking back to see what is “really” going on in the technological layer, and then clarifying the relationships between the layers.

The helpful fable of the “bitcoin”

In applying economic-theory concepts to interpreting actions, the interpreter references the more specific constructs that the people in question use in their own acts. In this case, among Bitcoin users, this construct is the operative image of “bitcoins” or other such units as interchangeable, tradable digital objects.

Yet when dialing the technology layer up into a higher presence in awareness and overlaying it on the action-interpretation layer, “bitcoins” begin to look like something of a made-up image, albeit one that enables people to interact with the technology layer in a meaningful way. The image makes it intuitive for people to use the system to accomplish their own objectives—to create, hold, and adjust balances and to buy and sell products, services, or monies out of such balances.

The tradable units on the network are not bitcoins, and are in a sense not even satoshis (100,000,000 to a bitcoin). Satoshis are an abstract unit of account within the network, whereas the elements held and traded are “unspent outputs” of all possible sizes denominated in this abstract unit (or more convenient multiples thereof). Satoshis are not now generally useful in the form of a single unspent output of one satoshi. Unspent outputs, each defined in part as some number of satoshis, are assigned to an address in a state from which they can be reassigned to other addresses (including to change addresses as needed), provided the specified signatures and other transaction data are relayed to the network.

All of this can work for a general population of end users because none of them needs to understand any of it to use the network for their own purposes. Even those who do understand such details do not have to think in such literal terms when interacting with the network in the role of end user themselves. The fable of the existence of “bitcoins” helps facilitate the human-network interaction at a practical level.

So long as the practical effect of such an image fills this role without causing errors or deceptions, it is a purely pragmatic and instrumental issue. For example, it does not matter at this level if a car’s steering wheel turns the wheels on the road mechanically or sends electronic control signals to electric motors that actually steer the vehicle—provided that the practical result in either case is that the vehicle actually turns as intended in response to the human-generated directional signals.

A dualistic valuation

In this way, combining the unit/system duality and economic/technological duality approaches can lead to additional insights about the way people value Bitcoin/bitcoin. The network is only in a loose metaphorical sense valued “as a whole.” The principle practical way for users to value it is via their own possession of and ability to transfer specific tradable units. Such units are an integral characteristic of the system. Viewed together as a social phenomenon, this could suggest the superficial appearance of a mass user valuation of the system in general. However, an idealistic “in general” valuation or mere widespread sentiments of technological appreciation could not support a functioning monetary system; only individual user valuations of discrete units can do that, and it is from there no surprise that this is precisely what Bitcoin “the system” enables.

Unspent outputs denominated in satoshis and multiples of them form a key part of the end-user interface of the protocol/network. Users value these and incorporate them into their respective structures of action. The units (or rather, the interface construction of the units) cannot function as they do in this role without the system; nor can the system exist as it does—or be entirely self-financed in a distributed way as it is—without the scarce and discretely valued tradable digital objects denominated in the system’s own abstract accounting unit.

New paper: "Revisiting conceptions of commodity and scarcity in light of Bitcoin"

I have written a paper on Bitcoin in relation to fundamental theoretical concepts from economic theory, particularly “commodity,” as in the category of “commodity money,” the multiple meanings of “scarcity,” and “goods.” “Revisiting conceptions of commodity and scarcity in light of Bitcoin” (17 March 2014) [PDF] [ePub] is 21 pages of text, plus references.

This is a completely revised, updated, and reformatted version of an extended post that appeared almost exactly one year ago on 19 March 2013, entitled, “The sound of one Bitcoin.” That post was more in the style of a detective story, cataloging my personal step-by-step process in my first weeks of initially trying to make sense out of Bitcoin in terms of the economic theory that I had long studied.

A friend who knew I have been working on this revision asked recently if it was was mainly a refinement or if there were drastic changes from the original. I replied that while the basic ideas were the same, there were…drastic refinements. There are also connections to work that I have done in the intervening year since the original version came out.

Download here: [PDF] [ePub].