"Bitcoin 2014 Panel: History of Money & Lessons for Digital Currencies Today" with time-based outline

Following the Economic Theory of Bitcoin panel on 17 May 2014 at the Bitcoin Foundation Conference in Amsterdam, I also participated in this one-hour panel addressing the history of money and lessons for digital currencies today (my own contributions start at 41:40). The varied topics included lessons from the history of the Netherlands, problems with the deflationary spiral argument, parallels to the early history of the oil industry, competition and types of centralization, historical circulation of multiple monetary metals and relevance for altcoins, and the role and operation of central banks relative to market competition and centralization versus decentralization.

Moderator: Ludwig Siegele (Online Business and Finance Editor, The Economist)

Speakers: Tuur Demeester (Founder, Adamant Research), Konrad Graf (Author & Investment Research Translator), Simon Lelieveldt (Regulatory Consultant, SL Consultancy), Erik Voorhees (Co-Founder, Coinapult)

1) Introductions

00:00–05:50 Introductions by each panelist

2) History of money in Amsterdam (Lelieveldt)

06:10–10:58 Lelieveldt: Amsterdam monetary history; water and community power more outside usual royal vested interests. Amsterdam Exchange Bank cleaned up confusion of many coins in circulation. Guilder was a unit of account without existing as a physical coin anymore, making it a virtual unit of account at the time. Human mind can adapt to and use many different things as currency.

3) Putting the “deflationary spiral” to rest (Voorhees)

10:58–19:07 Hyperdeflationary bitcoin economy hasn’t fallen apart. Opposite: more bitcoins spent when value is rising (wealth effect). Academics cite deflationary spiral as truism, but bitcoin shifts the burden of proof back onto supporters of the idea. Calling the gold standard “rigid” was a justification for control. Increasing the number of monetary units about as useful as increasing the length of an inch.

4) Parallels from history of the oil industry (Demeester)

19:07–28:18 Invitation to academics to launch altcoins representing their favorite monetary policy. Nothing else as disruptive as bitcoin in the history of money, but parallels with history of oil. Not approved by intellectuals or establishment. New innovations raise customer expectations. Academics may avoid taking bitcoin seriously for fear of ostracism from old paradigm.

5) Centralization, impact of licensing on competition, wealth transfer (general)

28:18–41:40 Multiple panelists and audience: Don’t waste time thinking about what (you think) bankers and others think. Oil and the internet were both fragmented originally, but centralization followed. What about bitcoin? Distinction between market-based centralization and coercive, legally privileged centralization. Wealth transfer, innovation, and social opinion.

6) Was the “gold standard” really the free market money of the old days? (Graf)

41:40–49:52 “Money production” an industry that can be examined ethically. Mining a specific service performed with compensation, but literally creating money “out of thin air” an illicit wealth transfer. Gold arrived at leading position through multiple government interventions. Litecoin as silver a weak metaphor. Question simplistic summary images as representations of actual history. [Here is a more detailed write-up on this topic that I posted after the conference: Gold standards, optionality, and parallel metallic- and crypto-coin circulations (21 May 2014)].

7) Q & A and discussion (general)

49:52–62:00 Central banks and money creation. Money another good in the economy or separate? Bankruptcy helpfully eliminates damaging institutions. New money creation leads to visible effects, but unhelpful for society overall; transfers wealth from some people to others. Trigger events for financial collapse? Dominoes collapse starting with weaker economies, periphery. Watch for rising interest rates.

Gold standards, optionality, and parallel metallic- and crypto-coin circulations

Source: Biswarup Ganguly, Wikimedia Commons. Copper coin, 1782-1799 CE, Tipu Sultan ReignWhen one hears the words “gold standard,” it is usually either from people who think it was a horrible thing or people who think it was a wonderful thing. However, many in both groups seem to agree that “the” gold standard represents the free market money of the good old days, or the bad old days, or perhaps even the future.

However, the inclusion of the word “standard” could already serve as a warning that this may have been just another convoluted sequence of confused government programs. Looking into this more closely may suggest lessons for cryptocurrencies today.

Several different international monetary orders from 1871–1971 were based on gold: the classical gold standard, the gold exchange standard, and the Bretton Woods system. Yet these came only after a long series of previous legal interventions in money of various types. When such legal measures were absent or weaker, things tended to differ. Professor Guido Hülsmann characterizes it broadly this way on p. 46 of The Ethics of Money Production:

In the Middle Ages, gold, silver, and copper coins, as well as alloys thereof, circulated in overlapping exchange networks. At most times and places in the history of Western Europe, silver coins were most widespread and dominant in daily payments, whereas gold coins were used for larger payments, and copper coins in very small transactions. In ancient times too, this was the normal state of affairs.

One dramatic way that monetary metals were driven out of circulation was the policy of bimetallism. People we might today call “regulators” legally fixed the exchange rate between silver coins and gold coins to make the market more “regular.” The actual result was the rapid loss of a major component of the money supply from circulation. Hülsmann on p. 130:

One famous case in which bimetallism entailed fiat inflation-deflation was the British currency reform of 1717, when Isaac Newton was Master of the Mint. Newton proposed a fiat exchange rate between the (gold) guinea and the (silver) shilling very much equal to the going market rate. Yet parliament, ostensibly to “round up” the exchange rate of gold, decreed a fiat exchange rate that was significantly higher than the market rate. And then some well-positioned men helped the British citizens to replace their silver currency with a gold currency.

Hülsmann then cites similar cases in the US in 1792 and 1834. Not only did price fixing not make the market more “regular” as intended, it caused severe disruptions, with many losers, some winners, and a certain period of monopoly metal circulation.

The parallel circulation of metals may in this way have represented relatively more of a “free market money” situation than government orchestrated gold standards that arrived only after long sequences of legal manipulations—and which just happened to also channel the majority of gold into the vaults of monetary-system orchestrators.

Lessons for parallel cryptocoin circulations?

Such parallel circulation has been used as an analogy to promote parallel cryptocurrencies in a complementary monetary role. How well does this analogy hold up?

Each metal filled a different market role from the others, with some overlap. Likewise, each altcoin advertises different features. How significant will users perceive such differences to be?

The main difference between copper, silver, and gold was a large distinction in a practical characteristic, one unmistakeably clear and important to the end user—exchange value per unit of weight. A single gold coin could do the work of a handful of silver ones or a hefty pile of copper ones, whereas buying a few potatoes with gold instead of copper would have been quite a technical challenge in the opposite way.

However, this particular factor—probably the most important one from the case of metals—does not apply to cryptocurrencies, which can be divided and combined freely and have no weight. Perhaps some other factors will prove significant enough to create a similar degree of differentiation, but the final say goes to the market test, not the engineering imagination. Another significant difference among cryptocurrencies is the amount of hashing power protecting each chain. This is a factor, in contast, for which minimal significant parallel exists in the case of monetary metals (the closest thing would probably be relative differences in forgeability).

In considering a given cryptocoin from a monetary viewpoint, it is important to investigate and consider its actual patterns of use. Having the word “coin” in the name does not make it a monetary unit. What does? One sign is the extent and scale to which users are holding a unit so as to buy goods and services with it. This might contrast, for example, with an income purpose (buying and selling the asset against another monetary unit in pursuit of monetary gains), or social-signaling purposes such as giving out microtips to online commenters. Each altcoin or appcoin might fill different roles and provide different kinds of value to users, perhaps within particular sub-cultures, or perhaps in the context of particular services. Coins can apparently fill some of these functions without having to gain much traction in a more general monetary role.

In contrast to this, a central function of holding cash and other liquid balances is to address the uncertainty of the future and this is a general function—the more general, the better fulfilled. For example, we may know that we will want to buy some things in the future, but not necessarily know exactly which things, when, where, and at precisely what prices. Cash balances, due to their flexibility, enable us to adjust to such constellations of uncertainties. In this sense, a unit that is more widely accepted is likely to come in handy in a wider range of such future situations than one that is less widely accepted (there are also other factors to consider besides generality of acceptance, such as whether the units are expected to tend to gain or lose value while being held in balances).

I suspect that only significant traction in such a general monetary use, such as bitcoin has begun to gain, could sustain a large increase in a given unit’s purchasing power over the longer term through the network-effect process I have termed hyper-monetization.

There is a strong tendency in a trading network toward the use of a single monetary unit. This theoretical insight has sometimes been extended to the historical claim that this is the natural role of gold, or the forward-looking claim that gold should fill this role in an ideal future. However, other factors also push back in the opposite direction toward parallel circulations and multiple options. Such factors could be natural, such as we saw with large practical differences among different monetary metals, or political, such as the legal favoring of some monies in combination with the geographic sectioning off of the total trading universe.

One option is not really an option

Finally, adaptive systems and species that survive for a very long time tend to have some redundancies in critical systems. There is no single more critical system for the functioning of civilization than indirect exchange using money and other monetary units. A repeated theme in the history of money, however, has been actions by rulers that have the effect, whether intended or not in any given case, of removing alternatives and opt-out paths for money users, leaving them highly vulnerable to whatever happens with the remaining monopoly unit.

If a society has a single dominant monetary unit for whatever reason, it would seem favorable from this larger vulnerability assessment or antifragility perspective for its members to have other viable options at least waiting in the wings in parallel operation. Use of a single money certainly has strong advantages, but while network effects and broadness of acceptance are very large factors, they should not be mistaken for being the only ones.

In particular, use of one unit with no alternatives available does not address the need for adaptation to unexpected events. The complete absence of freely chooseable and ready alternatives makes a society more vulnerable to the effects of large-scale shocks. Points often lost on central planners of all schools are that redundancies and parallel options tend to have unexpected very long-term survival value, that more options are often better than fewer, and that having only one “option” is similar to having no option at all.

Recommended related books:

Jörg Guido Hülsmann, The Ethics of Money Production (2008)

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (2012)

REVIEW | The Ethics of Money Production by Jörg Guido Hülsmann

Business ethics, or at least violating them, if the media is to be believed, is all the rage. The Ethics of Money Production is the first in-depth look (well, the second; the first, as Hülsmann points out, was written 700 years ago by a French Bishop) at the ethics of making money. Not the business of earning money, but the business of producing it.

Money production has been monopolized by the state for so long that it is difficult for us to even conceive of it is a business. The very idea sounds like science fiction. But might this not be in the good sense of science fiction, the sense in which it invites us to question fundamentals and consider what else is possible?

Money production is a business, one that happens to be a state monopoly, generating massive financial gain for the state in multiple layers. Like any business, even a state monopoly, money production ought to be viewable from the perspective of business ethics.

Is the monopolization of money production by the state really necessary, wise, or ethical, or is it simply a practice of long standing that needs to be called into serious question? The Ethics of Money Production takes on just this challenge from both ethical and economic perspectives.

For me, this book came at the end of a concentrated series of readings I did on money and banking issues. Years earlier, I had read several works in the free banking literature from Larry White, George Selgin, and Kevin Dowd, but this time my readings included The Case Against the Fed, The Mystery of Banking, Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles and a series of more recent back-and-forth academic articles on the fractional reserve vs. 100% reserve debate. Even after all this, Hülsmann's volume had a number of unique and important perspectives and insights to offer.

While it is simply stated, it covers a tremendous breadth, touching on all the key issues at just the right level of detail to make it accessible without oversimplifying. It squarely addresses the issues from both ethical and utilitarian angles while clearly distinguishing which is which. It gives priority to the ethical. If something is just plain wrong, there is no basis for excusing it on some set of utilitarian grounds. Nevertheless, the author is also in thorough command of all the utilitarian arguments made in favor of what he identifies as unethical money production, and he examines them all, finding each to also be flawed or self-contradictory on purely economic grounds.

He finds that there has been no real attempt to defend conventional statist monetary practices on ethical grounds at all, and indeed, he can uncover no non-utilitarian ethical grounds in support of such practices to even address. Moreover, he finds substantial grounds for condemning these practices as fraudulent and socially destructive on many levels, from both ethical and purely economic standpoints.

He summarizes the forms that this destruction takes. The continuous loss of value of everyone's money discourages saving, responsibility, and long-term planning and thereby even assists in the break-down of family bonds and other institutions of civil society. The sole beneficiary is the state itself and its closest friends, the banks that help finance its activities beyond what the citizens would be willing to pay in visible taxes.

Inflationary financing is essential to state power, to its wars, to its expansion, to the consolidation of its domination of its subjects. Control of money is a central, if not the central, strategic issue in the strength of the state, providing the state with a nearly limitless means of financing itself at the expense of its subjects in a way that is hidden from, and quite mysterious to, most of them.

What is new in The Ethics of Money Production?

Hülsmann goes even further than his predecessors in imagining the conditions of free market money production. A key weakness in previous formulations was a working assumption that only one type of metal would form a circulating monetary unit. However, it is quite possible that more than one could function in parallel for different purposes. There is no need to have an arbitrary, state-imposed "bimetalist" exchange rate between metals, which has historically driven one or another metal out of circulation whenever the market rate for it exceeded the official rate. In a truly free market for money, gold could end up being used for higher-end transactions and savings, and silver and/or copper coins for everyday transactions. He mentions historical precedent for such arrangements where, for brief periods, the state has not banned them. The metal rates would obviously have to float, as all state-manufactured bimetalist disasters and Gresham's Law-generated deflations in history have clearly demonstrated.

Multiple, freely floating monetary metal currencies are also defensive for the monetary order as a whole. If one metal begins to become corrupted or weakened for any reason, it is easy for consumers to switch to another at the margin. This helps preserve monetary stability, tending to mitigate and rebalance speculative value shifts, and preserves for consumers the ability to quickly and dynamically shift away from any potential problem areas. This is exactly the same consumer power that the state has always sought to take away in order to protect its sad parade of monopolistic funny-money schemes. The essential point is to have total monetary freedom, which means that people are never forced to accept money they do not wish to, and are free to use any money they do wish to.

The book also pointed out a subtle error in previous monetary standard formulations. Saying that "an ounce" of a certain grade of a metal is the monetary unit is not clear enough. Rather, it may be better for the unit to be a specified type of coin that contains this amount of metal.

It is costly to mint coins. If the monetary unit is not specified as a coin, a debt of 100 ounces could be paid, for example, with 100-oz. bar instead of 100 coins. However, the bar is quite likely to be less valuable than the coins because of liquidity differences and minting costs. The market solution would likely be to make a specified type of coin itself function as the contractual monetary unit. If someone wanted to pay in bullion, it would have to be discounted so that the value of the 100-oz. bar, for example, would be lower than the value of 100 of the minted coin units, and a balance would be due in addition to the bar.

Understanding this means taking yet another step toward the consistent application of the subjective theory of value in monetary theory. In this scenario, the bar, even though of the same metal, is not the money; it is just another commodity. This is because "money" is an economic rather than a physical concept. The coin, in this example, would be the "money," but not the bar.

As Hülsmann shows, all such problems, such as confusion as to the actual monetary unit, ultimately arise from the state arrogating to itself the right to set arbitrary "standards," which inevitably have some flaw in them that leads to problems that people operating in free markets could easily have solved and would not have generated.

But the state does this for a reason: it profits. That it profits at the expense of its subject population, should be the first point taught in any exposition of monetary theory. In state-run educational institutions, however, how much prominence is this point likely to be given?

As expected, it is hidden as well as it can be. The author shines light on it for all to see and shows a way forward that is at the same time more ethical, economically sounder, and truer.

Prices should be falling

The long-term price level should be falling due to productivity growth. The fiat money monopolists' grand concern about how far inflation is above zero is silly. Keeping the price level flat is still a massive form of theft out of the pockets of every net positive holder of the state-mandated currency (other than some of the first recipients of new infusions). This is because the price level not only should not be rising, it should not be flat either. Indeed, it should be falling, as it did in terms of gold before the replacement of real money with paper monopoly tickets issued by state cronies.

The creation and near universal spread of the image that as long as inflation is not too far above zero, everything is fine, is a massive delusion, which masks a truly mind-boggling embezzlement racket. Even if central banks did manage zero inflation, the fact that prices were not falling with ongoing economic progress would indicate the ongoing degree of currency depreciation relative to the progress of the real economy.

What is "currency depreciation?" In the case of fiat money systems, it is embezzlement of the savings of every single person all the time everywhere. Rather than steal particular pieces of money, treasuries, central banks, and their cronies steal portions of the value of all the money that exists (leaving it all where it is in cash and deposits), and divert it into their very own newly printed notes and newly infused magical deposit credits for Wall Street. No mere private bandit could ever dream of running and maintaining such a crime syndicate.

What's the defense? A couple of possibilities. Own tangible assets (buildings, metals) and minimize holdings of fiat currency. Another—commonly adopted in the US, but not necessarily recommended—is to be in debt. Currency depreciation harms those with positive net cash and benefits those with negative net cash (the devaluation of a negative creates a double-negative and therefore a positive). No wonder there are so many in debt. Saving in fiat money is punished.